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Israeli strikes on southern Gaza city of Rafah kill 22, mostly children, as U.S. advances aid package

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RAFAH, Gaza Strip -

Warning: Contains graphic content

Israeli strikes on the southern Gaza city of Rafah overnight killed 22 people, including 18 children, health officials said Sunday, as the United States was on track to approve billions of dollars of additional military aid to Israel, its close ally.

Israel has carried out near-daily air raids on Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's population of 2.3 million has sought refuge from fighting elsewhere. It has also vowed to expand its ground offensive against the Hamas militant group to the city on the border with Egypt despite international calls for restraint, including from the U.S.

“In the coming days, we will increase the political and military pressure on Hamas because this is the only way to bring back our hostages and achieve victory. We will land more and painful blows on Hamas – soon," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. He didn't give details.

The first Israeli strike in Rafah killed a man, his wife and their three-year-old child, according to the nearby Kuwaiti Hospital, which received the bodies. The woman was pregnant and the doctors saved the baby, the hospital said. The second strike killed 17 children and two women from an extended family.

“These children were sleeping. What did they do? What was their fault?” asked one relative, Umm Kareem. Another relative, Umm Mohammad, said the oldest killed, an 80-year-old aunt, was taken out “in pieces.” Small children were zipped into body bags.

Mohammed al-Beheiri said his daughter, Rasha, and her six children, the youngest 18 months old, were among those killed. A woman and three children were still under the rubble.

The Israel-Hamas war has killed over 34,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, at least two-thirds of them children and women. It has devastated Gaza's two largest cities and left a swath of destruction. Around 80 per cent of the territory's population have fled to other parts of the besieged coastal enclave.

The US$26 billion aid package approved by the House of Representatives on Saturday includes around $9 billion in humanitarian assistance for Gaza, which experts say is on the brink of famine. The Senate could pass the package as soon as Tuesday, and President Joe Biden has promised to sign it immediately.

The conflict, now in its seventh month, has sparked regional unrest pitting Israel and the U.S. against Iran and allied militant groups across the Middle East. Israel and Iran traded fire directly this month, raising fears of all-out war between the longtime foes.

Tensions have also spiked in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israeli troops killed two Palestinians who the military says attacked a checkpoint with a knife and a gun near the southern West Bank town of Hebron early Sunday. The Palestinian Health Ministry said the two killed were 18 and 19, from the same family. No Israeli forces were wounded, the army said.

Palestinians inspect the rubble of destroyed buildings of the Abo al Hanood family after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Palestinian medics said several residents, including children, were killed in the airstrike. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

Later, the military said its forces shot dead a 43-year-old Palestinian woman after she tried to stab a soldier in the northern West Bank near Beka’ot settlement.

The Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service said it had recovered 14 bodies from an Israeli raid in the Nur Shams urban refugee camp in the West Bank that began late Thursday. Those killed include three militants from the Islamic Jihad group and a 15-year-old boy. The military said it killed 14 militants in the camp and arrested eight suspects. Ten Israeli soldiers and one border police officer were wounded.

In a separate incident in the West Bank, an Israeli man was wounded in an explosion Sunday, the Magen David Adom rescue service said. A video circulating online shows a man approaching a Palestinian flag planted in a field. When he kicks it, it appears to trigger an explosive device.

At least 469 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank since the start of the war in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Most have been killed during Israeli military raids, which often trigger gunbattles, or in violent protests.

The war in Gaza was sparked by an unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel in which Hamas and other militants killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 hostages. Israel says militants are still holding around 100 hostages and the remains of more than 30 others.

Thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to call for new elections to replace Netanyahu and a deal with Hamas to release the hostages. Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until Hamas is destroyed and all the hostages are returned.

The war has killed at least 34,097 Palestinians and wounded another 76,980, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The ministry does not differentiate between combatants and civilians in its count. It says the real toll is likely higher as many bodies are stuck beneath the rubble or in areas that medics cannot reach.

Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the militants fight in dense, residential neighbourhoods. The military rarely comments on individual strikes, which often kill women and children. The military says it has killed over 13,000 Hamas fighters, without providing evidence.

Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Jack Jeffery in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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