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Sunak follows Biden to Israel to show support ‘in darkest hour’

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© Pro-Palestinian demonstrators light flares during a protest near the Israeli Consulate as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, in Istanbul, Turkey October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM () – Israel pounded Gaza with more air strikes on Thursday, as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak followed U.S. President Joe Biden on visits to demonstrate support for the war against Hamas while urging Israel to ease the plight of besieged Gazans.

Biden flew home on Wednesday night after an eight-hour trip having pledged to assist Israel’s defence and consoled survivors of the Oct. 7 raid by Hamas gunmen who rampaged through southern Israel, killing 1,400 people.

But he appeared to have only limited success in his other mission, to persuade Israel to ease the plight of 2.3 million Gazans under a total siege.

Biden said he had secured an offer from Egypt to allow 20 aid trucks to reach Gaza in coming days, though a fraction of the 100 per day that U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths told the Security Council were needed.

Two Egyptian security sources said equipment was sent on Thursday through the crossing to repair roads on the Gaza side for aid to cross. More than 100 trucks were waiting on the Egyptian side although they were not expected to cross until Friday.

Before he left, Biden told Israelis in a speech: “While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

Later he told reporters aboard Air Force One: “Israel has been badly victimized but the truth is they have an opportunity to relieve suffering of people who have nowhere to go… it’s what they should do.”

Israel said it would allow limited aid to reach Gaza from Egypt provided none of it benefited Hamas. But it repeated its position that it will open its own checkpoints to let in aid only when all of the more than 200 hostages captured by the gunmen were set free.

And it made clear there would be no let-up in its bombing campaign: “In the Gaza Strip, every place where Hamas has touched or is touching will be struck and destroyed,” a colonel identified as the commander of Israel’s Ramat David air base told public broadcastrer Kan.

“We really are a war machine that knows how to do two or three times what is being done now.”

Sunak landed in Tel Aviv hours after Biden left, carrying similar messages of support and condolence for Israelis.

“Above all, I’m here to express my solidarity with the Israeli people. You have suffered an unspeakable, horrific act of terrorism and I want you to know that the United Kingdom and I stand with you,” Sunak told Israeli reporters after landing.

‘IT HAS NEVER BEEN THIS BRUTAL’

Inside Gaza health officials say bombing has so far killed nearly 3,500 people and wounded more than 12,000.

In Khan Younis, in the south of the Gaza Strip, an area of shops was reduced to rubble as far as the eye could see, with a toddler’s pink cot overturned on the ground, windows blown off a clothing store and damaged vehicles.

Rafat Al-Nakhala, who had sought shelter in there after obeying Israel’s order for civilians to flee Gaza City in the north, said nowhere was safe.

“I’m over 70 years old, I’ve lived through several wars, it’s never been like this, it has never been this brutal, no religion and no conscience. Thank God. We only have hope in God, not in any Arab or Muslim country or anyone in the world, except for God.”

Footage obtained by from the Jabaliya refugee camp in the north showed residents digging with their bare hands inside a damaged building to free a small boy and girl trapped under masonry. The body of a man was hauled out of the ruins on a stretcher as residents tried to light up the site with torches on their mobile phones.

The United Nations says around half of Gazans have been made homeless, still trapped inside the enclave, one of the most densely populated places on earth.

RAGE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

The plight of Gaza civilians has enraged the Middle East, making it more difficult for Biden and other Western leaders to rally Arab allies to prevent the war from spreading.

An explosion at a hospital in Gaza on the eve of Biden’s visit scuppered his plans to meet Arab leaders, who called off a summit with him. Palestinians blamed the explosion on an Israeli air strike and said it killed nearly 500 people. Israel said it was caused by a failed rocket launch by Palestinian fighters.

Angry demonstrations erupted in cities throughout the region. Biden said U.S. evidence supported the Israeli account of the hospital explosion.

Instead of meeting in person, Biden spoke to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi by phone from Air Force One on his flight back to Washington.

Egypt has long said its crossing to Gaza is open on its side but aid cannot get through due to Israeli bombardment of the Gaza side. Cairo has also firmly rejected any suggestion that it open the border to allow a mass exodus of Gazans to flee to safety.

Mark Regev, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said on CNN that Israel had agreed to allow aid to Gaza via Egypt “in principle” but “we don’t want to see Hamas stealing aid that’s directed towards the civilian population. It’s a real problem”.

Washington has pushed, so far with no luck, to open the crossing to let the small number of Gazans with foreign passports leave, including a few hundred Palestinian Americans.

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