GAZA STRIP: Israel pounded Gaza with air strikes and artillery fire as its aggression continued on Wednesday after the US Congress approved $13 billion in military aid.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the Senate’s approval of the aid package already passed by the House of Representatives sent a “strong message to all our enemies” in a post on social media platform X.

US-Israeli relations been strained by Israel’s aggression in Gaza and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s determination to send troops into the southern Gazan city of Rafah, where 1.5 million people are sheltering, many in makeshift encampments.

Fears are rising that Israel will soon launch an assault on Rafah, which it claims is the “last” major Hamas stronghold, but aid groups warn any invasion would create an “apocalyptic situation”.

Early Wednesday, hospital and security sources in Gaza reported Israeli air strikes in Rafah, as well as the central Nuseirat refugee camp.

An AFP correspondent and witnesses also reported heavy bombardment of several areas of northern Gaza during the night, while the Israeli military said its aircraft “struck over 50 targets” over the previous 24 hours.

New tent blocks

Netanyahu, however, has insisted the assault on Rafah will go ahead.

Citing Egyptian officials briefed on the Israeli plans, the Wall Street Journal said Israel was planning to move civilians from Rafah to nearby Khan Yunis over a period of two to three weeks.

Satellite images shared by Maxar Technologies showed new blocks of tents that had been set up in recent weeks in southern Gaza.

Israel thanks US Senate for approving military aid

The Journal reported that Israel would then send troops into Rafah gradually, targeting areas where Hamas leaders are claimed to be hiding in an operation expected to last six weeks.

Ismail al-Thawabta, head of the Hamas government media office, said an invasion would be a “crime” and that central Gaza and Khan Yunis “cannot accommodate the numbers of displaced people in Rafah”.

The war began with the Hamas attack on October 7.

Israel then pursued a military offensive and its aggression has so far killed at least 34,262 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.

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The Israeli army announced the death of a soldier in Gaza, raising its losses to 261 in comparison since the ground aggression began.

Israel claims that 129 of the roughly 250 people abducted during the Hamas attack remain in Gaza, including 34 it says are presumed dead.

Hospital bodies

The UN human rights office said on Tuesday it was “horrified” by reports of mass graves found at the Gaza Strip’s two biggest hospitals after Israeli sieges and raids.

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Israel has repeatedly targeted hospitals during the war, accusing Hamas of using them as command centres and to hold hostages abducted on October 7. Hamas denies the accusations.

Gaza’s Civil Defence agency said nearly 340 bodies were uncovered of people killed and buried by Israeli forces at the Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Yunis.

The Israeli army said claims it had buried Palestinian bodies were “baseless”, without directly addressing allegations that Israeli troops were behind the killings.

It said that “corpses buried by Palestinians” had been examined by Israeli troops searching for hostages and then “returned to their place”.

The European Union backed a call from UN human rights chief Volker Turk for an “independent” probe into the deaths at the two hospitals.

“This is something that forces us to call for an independent investigation of all the suspicions and all the circumstances, because indeed it creates the impression that there might have been violations of international human rights committed,” EU spokesman Peter Stano said Wednesday.

UN human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said some of the bodies found at Nasser Hospital were allegedly “found with their hands tied and stripped of their clothes”, adding that efforts were underway to corroborate the reports.

Call to renew UN agency funding

The war has left much of Gaza’s medical system in ruins, with medics struggling to treat both casualties of the war and people with pre-existing conditions.

Amjad Aleway, an emergency doctor in Gaza City speaking in the ruins of Al-Shifa hospital, told AFP “the number of casualties is overwhelming, and we lack sufficient operating theatres to address them, nor do we have specialised facilities for patients with kidney and heart conditions”.

The European Union’s humanitarian chief Janez Lenarcic called on donor governments to fund the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, which has been central to aid operations in Gaza.

His comment came after an independent report found “Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence” for its claim that UNRWA employs “terrorists”.

The report did find “neutrality-related issues”, such as agency staff sharing biased posts on social media.

After the report was released, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini called for an investigation into the “blatant disregard” for UN operations in Gaza, adding that 180 of the agency’s staff had been killed since the war began.

While some governments have renewed funding for the agency – including Germany, which announced it would resume cooperation on Wednesday – the United States and Britain are among the holdouts.

The White House would “have to see real progress” before it restores funding, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Since the start of the Israeli aggression in Gaza, there has been a surge in deadly violence in the occupied West Bank.

On Wednesday the Israeli military said it had killed a woman during an “attempted stabbing” near Hebron. The Palestinian health ministry identified her as Maimunah Abdel Hamid Harahsheh, 20.

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