A missile attack on an ambulance convoy has drawn severe criticism, including from the U.N., but Israel says it was transporting Hamas fighters.
Anxious Arab leaders appealed publicly and privately on Saturday to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to rein in Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip, increasing pressure on the Biden administration as it struggles to persuade Israel to reduce civilian casualties and allow in more humanitarian aid.
Civilian deaths have fueled a crescendo of anger in the region and beyond, and an Israeli bombing of a convoy of ambulances drew condemnation from the United Nations, which said “nowhere is safe” in the territory.
The depth of feeling among the Arab nations was evident in a news conference in Amman, Jordan, on Saturday evening where the country’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, bluntly told Mr. Blinken, “Stop this madness.” The Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, called for an “immediate cease-fire” in Gaza without conditions.
U.S. officials said Arab leaders had delivered similarly stark messages to Mr. Blinken in private, reflecting concerns that growing public outrage over Israel’s actions could create instability in their own countries. They told Mr. Blinken that they could no longer bear domestic pressure over the high Palestinian death toll, and needed the Americans to act.
Those messages from Arab leaders on Saturday stood in contrast to what some of them privately told their American counterparts earlier in the conflict: that they were open to an aggressive Israeli campaign against Hamas, U.S. officials said.
Mr. Blinken responded to calls for an immediate cease-fire from Arab leaders by reiterating the United States’ position — that Israel had a right to defend itself but needed to minimize civilian casualties.
“It’s our view that a cease-fire now would simply leave Hamas in place and able to regroup and repeat what it did on Oct. 7.” Mr. Blinken said. “No nation — none of us — can accept that.”
It was not immediately clear how the alarm expressed by Arab leaders would affect the Biden administration’s calculations.
Mr. Blinken, who is on a tour of the Middle East, has led diplomatic efforts to persuade Israel to allow the entry of assistance for Gaza civilians trapped and desperate after nearly a month of war. He has also been the leading voice of the Biden administration in urging Israel to agree to a series of pauses in the fighting to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza and the exit of foreign nationals from the enclave.
Mr. Netanyahu has rebuffed the idea, saying any pauses should be contingent on the release of all of the more than 240 Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, though U.S. officials said discussions were still underway and expressed hope that the Israelis would reverse their decision.
President Biden, asked by a reporter after emerging from Mass on Saturday in Rehoboth Beach, Del., if there was any progress on getting a humanitarian pause in Gaza, responded, “Yes,” and offered a thumbs up but no further details.
In a statement on Saturday night, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing asserted that the bodies of 23 hostages were missing under the rubble in Gaza after Israeli airstrikes, a claim that could not be independently verified. Israeli officials have dismissed such statements as “psychological warfare,” a Hamas attempt to sway Israeli public opinion by stoking fear for the fate of the hostages held in Gaza even as the battle in the enclave continues.
Underscoring the growing global outrage over the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, the government of Turkey announced on the eve of Mr. Blinken’s arrival in the country that it was recalling its ambassador to Israel for consultations. In a statement, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said that the ambassador, Sakir Ozkan Torunlar, had been summoned “in view of the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Gaza caused by the continuing attacks by Israel against civilians” as well as because of Israel’s refusal to accept a cease-fire.
As protests against Israel’s military campaign drew tens of thousands of people across the United States and Europe on Saturday, Mr. Blinken’s trip highlighted the bind that the United States finds itself in, squeezed between the international fury over the high Palestinian civilian death toll and its strong support of Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas in Gaza.
More than 9,200 Palestinian civilians have been killed since war began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, spurred by the Hamas-led attacks of Oct. 7.
“The real question, looking at the president’s preternatural support for Israel and the Hamas atrocities of Oct. 7,” said Aaron David Miller, a former American diplomat dealing with the Middle East, “is whether in the face of rising Palestinian deaths and destruction in Gaza, and outrage from Democrats within his own party, the president would ever pick up the phone and say to Netanyahu: Enough.”
The Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers, who appeared at the news conference in Amman alongside Mr. Blinken, represented the two countries worried most about domestic instability over Israel’s campaign in Gaza.
Israel has staunchly defended its bombing campaign, saying that Hamas uses civilians as human shields, locating its command centers and other military assets under schools, hospitals and mosques. But at the same time, Israel’s blockade of the territory has created dire shortages of essentials. Fewer than 400 trucks of aid have been allowed into the territory since the war began, a small fraction of what aid agencies say is needed.
In addition to the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, Mr. Blinken also met on Saturday with leaders from Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Israeli airstrikes continued to pound Gaza City hospitals and shelters on Saturday, while Israel reiterated its order to civilians to leave northern Gaza as it intensifies ground operations there. One strike landed near the entrance to Al-Nasr Children’s Hospital in the center of the city, killing two people and wounding many others, according to the Gazan Health Ministry, which is part of the Hamas-run government.
Another strike, on Al Fakhura school in the Jabaliya neighborhood, about three miles away, killed 15 and wounded 70, the ministry said. The school was being used as a shelter.
After a week where huge Israeli munitions decimated densely populated neighborhoods in Gaza, an Israeli attack on an ambulance convoy on Friday drew an unusually sharp rebuke from the United Nations.
“I am horrified by the reported attack in Gaza on an ambulance convoy outside Al-Shifa hospital,” António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said in a statement late Friday night. “The images of bodies strewn on the street outside the hospital are harrowing.”
Israel said the convoy was “being used by a Hamas terrorist cell,” adding in a statement that “a number of Hamas terrorist operatives were killed in the strike,” a claim that could not be verified.
The head of Al-Shifa hospital, Dr. Mohammad Abu Salmiya, said a dozen bystanders had been killed, but that none of the paramedics or patients in the evacuation convoy were killed.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society said the convoy consisted of five ambulances, including one of its own, and it called the strike a war crime.
The claims and counterclaims surrounding the targeting of the ambulances have underscored the perils of pursuing a war in a tightly packed strip of land where civilians are intermingled with, and sometimes literally right on top of, Hamas militants.
The war continues to take a heavy toll on those gathering the news. The Committee to Protect Journalists said that more news media workers have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war than in any other conflict in the area since it started tracking the data in 1992. As of Friday, 36 news workers — 31 Palestinians, four Israelis and one Lebanese — have been killed since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, the group said.
Mohammed Abu Hatab, a correspondent for a Palestinian television channel, and 11 members of his family were killed in the city of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, on Thursday.
In his statement, Mr. Guterres said he had not forgotten “the terror attacks committed in Israel by Hamas and the killing, maiming and abductions, including of women and children.”
At the same time, he described a civilian population in Gaza as “besieged, denied aid, killed and bombed out of their homes.”
The United Nations has a clear view of the conditions in Gaza because of its role in running schools and providing aid.
Mr. Guterres painted a picture of desperation in the territory, with shortages of food, water, medicine and fuel. “Morgues are overflowing. Shops are empty. The sanitation situation is abysmal,” he wrote. “We are seeing an increase in diseases and respiratory illnesses, especially among children. An entire population is traumatized.”
A week after its ground offensive began, the Israeli military says its troops have encircled and are fighting inside Gaza City, the seat of the Hamas government.
The Israeli military said on Saturday that its troops were being attacked by Hamas militants emerging from tunnel shafts, part of the vast underground labyrinth of sleeping quarters, supply depots, meeting rooms and prison cells that Hamas has constructed.
The family home of Hamas’s exiled leader, Ismail Haniyeh, in the Shati refugee camp on the northern edge of Gaza City, was hit Saturday by an airstrike, according to the Hamas-run media office in Gaza.
Adam Entous reported from Amman, Jordan, and Thomas Fuller from San Francisco. Reporting was contributed by Aaron Boxerman, Karen Zraick, Ameera Harouda, Iyad Abuheweila, Gaya Gupta, Safak Timur and Michael D. Shear.