Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip
Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, on Friday, October 20, 2023. Image Credit: AP

As the Israel-Gaza conflict is about to cross the two weeks mark, the war is threatening to extend to new areas. Israeli army bombarded the Gaza Strip on Friday, hitting areas where Palestinians had been told to seek safety, and it began evacuating a sizable Israeli town near the border with Lebanon, the latest sign of a potential ground invasion of Gaza that could trigger regional turmoil.

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Biden 'overjoyed' after 2 US hostages freed

US President Joe Biden said he was "overjoyed" after Hamas released two American hostages abducted during the militant group's October 7 attack from Gaza on Israel.

"Our fellow citizens have endured a terrible ordeal these past 14 days, and I am overjoyed that they will soon be reunited with their family, who has been wracked with fear," Biden said in a statement.

Hamas releases two US hostages

Hamas' armed wing the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades has released two US hostages - a mother and her daughter - "for humanitarian reasons" in response to Qatari mediation efforts, its spokesman Abu Ubaida said in a statement.

Abu Ubaida said they released the citizens "for humanitarian reasons, and to prove to the American people and the world that the claims made by Biden and his fascist administration are false and baseless."

Hamas says it has 200 hostages and that 50 more are held by other armed groups in the enclave. It said more than 20 hostages have been killed by Israeli air strikes, but has not given any further details.

Aid trucks will get through to Gaza within 2 days: Biden

US President Joe Biden said he believed that trucks carrying aid will get through to Gaza in the next 24-48 hours, as he met with leaders from the European Union at the White House to discuss the war in the Middle East.

Asked about aid trucks getting through to Gaza, Biden said he had a commitment from the Israelis and the president of Egypt.

The "highway had to be repaved," Biden said. He said he believed that over the next 24-48 hours the first 20 trucks with aid would get through.

Evacuate Al Quds hospital immediately, Red Crescent warned

The Palestinian Red Crescent said that they received a warning from Israeli forces to 'immediately evacuate' Gaza's Al Quds hospital, which currently houses over 400 patients and 12,000 displaced civilians.

The Palestinian Red Crescent issued an urgent appeal to the international community, saying: "We call on the world to take immediate and urgent action to prevent a new massacre like the one that occurred on the Al Ahli Baptist Hospital."

Israel doesn't plan to control 'life in Gaza': Minister

Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip Friday, hitting areas where Palestinians had been told to seek safety, and it began evacuating a sizable Israeli town near the border with Lebanon, the latest sign of a potential ground invasion of Gaza that could trigger regional turmoil.

Amid the fighting, Israel’s defense minister said the country did not have plans to maintain control over civilians in Gaza after its war against the Hamas militant group.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s comments to lawmakers were the first time a top Israeli official discussed its long-term plans for Gaza. Gallant said Israel expected a three-phase war, starting with airstrikes and ground maneuvers. It anticipates then defeating pockets of resistance, and finally, ceasing Israel's “responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip.”

Israel pounds Gaza, evacuates town near Lebanon

Israel bombarded Gaza early Friday, hitting areas in the south where Palestinians had been told to seek safety, and it began evacuating a sizable Israeli town in the north near the Lebanese border, the latest sign of a potential ground invasion of Gaza that could trigger regional turmoil. Palestinians in Gaza reported heavy airstrikes in Khan Younis in the south, and ambulances carrying men, women and children streamed into the town's Nasser Hospital, Gaza's second largest, which is already overflowing with patients and people seeking shelter. The Israeli military said it had struck more than 100 targets across Gaza linked to the territory's Hamas rulers, including a tunnel and arms depots.

'Majority' of hostages in Gaza are alive

The majority of some 200 people kidnapped in Israel by Hamas militants and taken to the Gaza Strip are still alive, the Israeli military said.

"The majority of the hostages are alive. There were also dead bodies that were taken... to the Gaza Strip," an army statement said.

Aid trucks need to move quickly: Guterres

Aid trucks need to move to Gaza as quickly as possible, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

He called for a meaningful number of trucks to enter Gaza every day and for verifications of aid to be done in a way that is practical and expedited.

"We are actively engaging with all parties to make sure conditions for delivering aid are lifted," he said.

US military shoots down missiles and drones

With tensions spiking in the Middle East, US forces in the region are facing increasing threats as a Navy warship shot down missiles appearing to head toward Israel and American bases in Iraq and Syria were repeatedly targeted by drone attacks. Later, a US official said there had been a rocket attack early Friday morning on US and coalition forces at a diplomatic support center near the Baghdad International Airport. Initial assessments indicated two rockets were fired, the official said, noting that one was intercepted by a counter-rocket system and the other struck an empty storage facility.

Besieged Palestinians await aid as Israel pounds Gaza

Palestinians desperately awaited a first delivery of international emergency aid to Gaza Friday, as Israeli forces pounded the enclave from the air and warned a ground invasion was coming "soon".

For 13 days Israel has launched relentless air strikes on the Palestinian territory in retaliation for cross-border Hamas raids that killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians who were shot, mutilated or burnt to death.

On Thursday, the Israeli army said it had destroyed a missile launch site and tunnels, claiming "more than 10 terrorists were eliminated".

Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry says that since the bombing began more than 3,785 Palestinians have been killed and one-third of homes have been made uninhabitable.

Citing a deepening humanitarian crisis, the international community has urged Israel to minimise civilian casualties and allow desperately-needed aid to enter Gaza.

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But inside Israel, the drumbeat of war has only grown louder.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied frontline troops near Gaza Thursday.

Decked in body armour, he vowed troops would "fight like lions" and "win with full force".

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant also toured the frontline, telling some of the tens of thousands of troops awaiting the ground invasion that new orders would come soon.

"Right now you see Gaza from afar, soon you will see it from the inside. The order will come soon," he said, predicting "difficult" battles ahead.

After returning from a solidarity visit to Israel, US President Joe Biden on Thursday called on Congress to provide more funding for the bereaved country's war effort.

But he also urged implementation of a deal he brokered with Israel and Egypt to allow a limited amount of aid into Gaza from Friday.

"The people of Gaza urgently need food, water and medicine," Biden said in a televised address from the Oval Office on his return from Tel Aviv.

But near Egypt's border with Gaza, food, medicines, water purifiers and blankets have been piling up, with doubts growing that the Rafah crossing will open as planned.

"We hope there will be a crossing tomorrow," World Health Organization (WHO) boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday.

"But for sure, based on the experience we had the last few days, we are also at the same time worried whether this will happen."

UNDP-provided tens set up for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are seen in Khan Younis, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.
UNDP-provided tens set up for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are seen in Khan Younis, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. Image Credit: AP

'Drop in the ocean'

In Geneva, the WHO's emergencies director called the deal struck by Biden to allow in 20 trucks "a drop in the ocean of need".

"It should be 2,000 trucks," Michael Ryan said.

The UN World Food Programme said it has 951 tonnes of food at or on the way to Rafah - enough to feed 488,000 people for one week.

But for now, it is not getting in, and the humanitarian situation in Gaza is worsening by the day.

Grim situation

In a grim sign of the depths of the crisis, the United Nations said that efforts to identify about 100 of the dead in Gaza had been abandoned.

With refrigeration impossible, their corpses were buried in unmarked graves to prevent the risk of disease.

Entire city blocks have been levelled in Gaza, displacing more than one million of its 2.4 million people, the UN has said.

Several dead in Israel strike at Gaza church

The Hamas-controlled interior ministry said several displaced people sheltering at a church compound in Gaza were killed and injured after an Israeli strike late Thursday.

The strike left a "large number of martyrs and injured" at the compound of the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza City, the ministry said.

Witnesses told AFP the strike appeared to have been aimed at a target close to the place of worship where many Gaza residents had taken refuge as the war raged in the Palestinian enclave.

Contacted by AFP, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said its fighter jets had hit a command and control centre involved in launching rockets and mortars toward Israel.

"As a result of the IDF strike, a wall of a church in the area was damaged," it said, adding "we are aware of reports on casualties. The incident is under review".

Saint Porphyrius is the oldest church still in use in Gaza and is located in the city's historic neighbourhood.

'A war crime'

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem expressed its "strongest condemnation" of the strike at its church compound.

"Targeting churches and their institutions, along with the shelters they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who have lost their homes due to Israeli airstrikes on residential areas over the past 13 days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored," the Patriarchate said in a statement.

The church is not far from the Al Ahli Arab hospital, which was hit by a deadly airstrike on Tuesday.

Travel warnings

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah II on Thursday condemned what they said was the "collective punishment" of Gazans.

They also warned about the conflict spreading, with anger across the Middle East at Israel and its Western allies.

Sisi and Abdullah, whose countries were the first Arab states to make peace with Israel in 1979 and 1994, are seen as key mediators between Israel and the Palestinians.

Situation in Lebanon

Intensifying cross-border fire between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon has stoked fears of a potential second front.

The United States, Britain and Germany on Thursday advised their citizens to leave Lebanon while flights were still available.

Trading blame

Both sides in the war have traded blame for the bloody carnage, but neither the provenance of the strike nor the death toll could immediately be independently verified.

Hamas accused Israel of hitting the hospital during its massive bombing campaign, and the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has put the death toll at 471, though that number is contested.

Israel has blamed a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket - a version of events backed by the United States - and has pointed to the lack of a large impact crater typical of its air strikes, saying fuel from the errant rocket exploded.

Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad is proscribed as a terrorist group by the United States and other Western governments.

The US intelligence community has estimated there were likely 100 to 300 people killed in the strike.