© Reuters. Satellite view of the U.S. military outpost known as Tower 22, in Rukban, Rwaished District, Jordan October 12, 2023 in this handout image. Planet Labs PBC/Handout via REUTERS
By Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Phil Stewart
GAZA/DOHA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Israel launched an assault overnight on Gaza’s main northern city weeks after pulling back from there, residents said, while Washington promised to respond to the first deadly strike on its forces in the Middle East since the Gaza war began.
Three U.S. servicemen were killed and at least 34 wounded in a drone attack by Iran-backed militants in northeastern Jordan near the Syrian border, U.S. Central Command said on Sunday, an escalation in the violence that has erupted beyond Gaza.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the attacks were carried out by radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq. Iran denied any role, but the first fatalities in what have been scores of attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war broke out prompted calls from U.S. politicians for a direct response.
Biden has ordered retaliatory attacks on Iranian-backed groups but has stopped short of attacking Iran directly for fear of igniting a broader war amid violence that has already hampered world trade through attacks on ships in the Red Sea.
“Have no doubt – we will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing,” he said on Sunday.
Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis, behind regular attackson shipping in the region, said on Monday they had fired a rocket at U.S. warship Lewis B. Puller in the Gulf of Aden on Sunday. There was no immediate response from Washington.
Inside Gaza, residents said air strikes on neighbourhoods across Gaza City killed and wounded many people. While tanks shelled the eastern areas of the city, naval boats fired shells and gun rounds at the beachfront areas in the west, they said.
Israel said late last year that it had largely completed operations in northern Gaza. The push back into Gaza City, where residents reported fierce gun battles near the main Al-Shifa hospital, indicated that the war was not going to plan.
Among those killed were two Palestinian journalists, Essam El-lulu and Hussein Attalah, along with several members of their families, health officials and the journalist union said.
GAZANS SAY ISRAEL IS IGNORING WORLD COURT
Gazans said the renewed violence made a mockery of a ruling by the World Court calling on Israel to do more to help civilians. Health officials say 26,422 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict with thousands more bodies likely under the rubble of destroyed buildings across the coastal territory.
“The war continues in a dirtier manner,” said Gaza City resident Mustafa Ibrahim, a Palestinian human rights activist now displaced with his family in Rafah near the southern border with Egypt, along with more than a million other Gazans.
Israel, which blames Hamas for the deaths of civilians, ordered new evacuations of the most populated areas of Gaza City, but people said communications blackouts meant many would miss them.
Those that did flee, had to run the gauntlet of Israeli tanks placed on the main north-south road, residents said.
People in the north have been grinding animal feed to make flour after flour, rice and sugar ran out, part of an aid crisis now exacerbated by a withdrawal of support for the United Nations’ aid agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
The United States, Australia, Canada, Britain, Italy and Finland are among countries who have suspended aid to the agency since Friday after Israel said that 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff in Gaza were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel in which about 1,200 people were killed.
UNRWA said it would have to end operations within a month if funding was not restored.
“What is the world waiting for? Animal feed has begun to run out of northern Gaza markets,” local journalist Anas Al-Sharif wrote on X. “What will people eat when animal feed runs out?” he said.
Air strikes also hit the southern city of Khan Younis. Israel said that four among dozens of Palestinian gunmen it had killed in the past 24 hours had been preparing to ambush troops near Al-Amal hospital.
In the middle of Gaza, health officials said 13 Palestinians were killed in the Al-Rimal neighborhood after Israeli forces stormed a shelter for displaced people there.
SIGNIFICANT GAPS REMAIN IN ‘CONSTRUCTIVE’ CEASEFIRE TALKS
Aware of the growing risks of a wider conflagration, Biden and other leaders have been pushing for a new temporary ceasefire to allow for the release of hostages held by Hamas and get more aid into Gaza as a prelude to a permanent truce.
Talks on Sunday initiated by Qatar and involving U.S., Israeli and Eygptian intelligence chiefs were “constructive”, Israel said, while adding that “significant gaps” remain.
Hamas said any release of hostages would require a guaranteed end to Israel’s offensive in Gaza and full withdrawal. Israel rejects such a plan although a Palestinian official close to mediation talks said implementation would not have to be immediate.
More than 100 people remain captive in Gaza, out of 253 seized when Hamas militants attacked Israeli bases and towns on Oct. 7.
The Gaza war has also inflamed violence in the occupied West Bank. Five Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in four different incidents there in the past 24 hours, the Palestinian health ministry said.
The Israeli military said two of the incidents came in response to attempted gun and knife attacks on them.
Within Israel, the military said a soldier in Haifa in the north was rammed by a motorist who then tried to attack with an axe. It said the assailant, who it did not identify, was shot.
Also on Monday, several explosions were heard near a shrine complex on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, according to news outlet Sham FM and one witness.
A source in Iran’s regional alliance said the strike had hit a location used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. An Israeli military spokesperson declined to comment.