RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) - Israel's war to destroy Hamas has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians, health officials in Gaza said Friday, as Israel expanded its offensive and ordered tens of thousands more people to leave their homes.
The deaths in Gaza amount to nearly 1% of the territory’s prewar population — the latest indication of the 11-week-old conflict's staggering human toll.
Israel’s aerial and ground offensive has been one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history, displacing nearly 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and leveling wide swaths of the tiny coastal enclave. More than half a million people in Gaza — a quarter of the population — are starving, according to a report Thursday from the United Nations and other agencies.
Israel declared war after Hamas militants stormed across the border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking some 240 hostages. Israel has vowed to keep up the fight until Hamas is destroyed and removed from power in Gaza and all the hostages are freed.
After many delays, the U.N. Security Council adopted a watered-down resolution Friday calling for immediately speeding up aid deliveries to desperate civilians in Gaza.
The United States won the removal of a tougher call for an "urgent suspension of hostilities" between Israel and Hamas. It abstained in the vote, as did Russia, which wanted the stronger language. The resolution was the first on the war to make it through the council after the U.S. vetoed two earlier ones calling for humanitarian pauses and a full cease-fire.
ISRAEL VOWS TO KEEP UP PRESSURE ON HAMAS
The U.S. also negotiated the removal of language that would have given the U.N. authority to inspect aid going into Gaza, something Israel says it must do to ensure material does not reach Hamas.
Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, thanked the U.S. for its support and sharply criticized the U.N. for its failure to condemn Hamas' Oct. 7 attacks. The U.S. vetoed a resolution in October that would have included a condemnation because it didn’t also underline Israel’s right to self-defense.
Hamas said in a statement that the U.N. resolution should have demanded an immediate halt to Israel’s offensive, and it blamed the United States for pushing "to empty the resolution of its essence" before Friday’s Security Council vote.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, meanwhile, reiterated his longstanding call for a humanitarian cease-fire.
Guterres said nothing can justify Hamas' Oct. 7 attacks, its taking of hostages, its rocket launches against Israel and what he called its use of civilians as human shields.
"But at the same time, these violations of international humanitarian law can never justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people, and they do not free Israel from its own legal obligations under international law," the secretary-general said.
Israel, shielded by the United States, has resisted international pressure to scale back its offensive. The military has said that months of fighting lie ahead in southern Gaza, an area packed with the vast majority of the enclave’s 2.3 million people, many of whom were ordered to flee combat in the north earlier in the war.
Evacuation orders have pushed displaced civilians into ever-smaller areas of the south as troops focus on Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city.
The military said late Thursday that it is sending more ground forces, including combat engineers, to Khan Younis to target Hamas militants above ground and in tunnels.
On Friday, it ordered tens of thousands of residents to leave their homes in Burej, an urban refugee camp, and surrounding communities in central Gaza, suggesting a ground assault there could be next.
In the city of Rafah, on the border with Egypt, an airstrike on a house killed six people, according to Associated Press journalists who saw the bodies at a hospital. Among the dead were a blind man, his wife and their 4-month-old child, said the infant’s grandfather, Anwar Dhair.
Rafah is one of the few places in Gaza not under evacuation orders, but it has been targeted in Israeli strikes almost every day.
The air and ground campaign continued in the north, where Israel says it is in the final stages of clearing out Hamas militants.
Mustafa Abu Taha, a Palestinian farm worker, said many areas of his hard-hit Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah have become inaccessible because of massive destruction from airstrikes.
"They are hitting anything moving," he said of Israeli forces.
RISING DEATH TOLL AND HUNGER
Gaza’s Health Ministry said Friday that it has documented 20,057 deaths in the fighting and more than 50,000 wounded. It does not differentiate between combatant and civilian deaths. It has previously said that roughly two-thirds of the dead were women or minors.
Israel blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll, citing the group’s use of crowded residential areas for military purposes and its tunnels under urban areas.
Israel’s military says 139 of its soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive. It says it has killed thousands of Hamas militants, including about 2,000 in the past three weeks, but it has not presented any evidence to back up the claim.
For most of the war, Israel also stopped entry of food, water, fuel and other supplies except for truck convoys of aid from Egypt, which cover only a fraction of the needs in Gaza.
Because of insufficient aid entering Gaza, the extent of starvation has eclipsed the near-famines of recent years in Afghanistan and Yemen, and the risk of famine is "increasing each day," Thursday’s U.N. report said.
An Israeli military liaison officer said there is no food shortage in Gaza, saying sufficient aid is getting through.
"The reserves in Gaza Strip are sufficient for the near term," Col. Moshe Tetro said from the Kerem Shalom cargo crossing, without elaborating.
Israel opened the Kerem Shalom crossing several days ago amid international demands to increase the flow of aid. But the military on Thursday struck the Palestinian side of the crossing, killing four staffers, and the U.N. said it was unable to pick up aid there for delivery. It was not immediately known if the U.N. resumed work there Friday. The Israeli military said it was targeting militants.
The war has also pushed Gaza’s health sector into collapse.
Only nine of its 36 health facilities are still partially functioning, all located in the south, according to the World Health Organization.
The agency reported soaring rates of diseases in Gaza, including a five-fold rise in diarrhea and increases in cases of meningitis, skin rashes and scabies.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.