DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops fought with Hamas militants and encircled Gaza City on Thursday, the military said, as the Palestinian death toll rose above 9,000. U.S. and Arab leaders raised pressure on Israel to ease its siege of Gaza and at least briefly halt its attacks in order to aid civilians.

Nearly four weeks after Hamas’ deadly rampage in Israel sparked the war, U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken was heading to the region for talks Friday in Israel and Jordan following President Joe Biden’s suggestion for a humanitarian “pause” in the fighting. The aim would be to let in aid for Palestinians and let out more foreign nationals and wounded. Around 800 people left over the past two days.

Israel did not immediately respond to Biden’s suggestion. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has previously ruled out a cease-fire, said Thursday: “We are advancing … Nothing will stop us.” He vowed to destroy Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.

An airstrike Thursday smashed a residential building to rubble in the Bureij refugee camp several miles south of Gaza City.

One boy, his face covered in blood, cried as workers dug him out of the dirt and wreckage. Others rushed wounded men and women, covered in dust, away on stretchers or wrapped in blankets. At a nearby hospital, doctors tried to stanch the flow of blood from the head of a child laid out on the floor.

At least 15 people were killed, Gaza’s Civil Defense spokesperson said, and residents said dozens more were believed buried. The strike took place in the southern zone where Israel has told residents of the north to flee.

Arab countries, including those allied with the U.S. and at peace with Israel, have expressed mounting unease with the war. Jordan recalled its ambassador from Israel and told Israel’s envoy to remain out of the country until there’s a halt to the war and the “humanitarian catastrophe” it is causing.

A flurry of heavy explosions raised clouds of smoke over Gaza City on Thursday. Al Jazeera television, which continues to broadcast from the city, said Israeli airstrikes were hitting an area of apartment towers in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood.

The barrage hit around 100 meters (yards) from Al-Quds Hospital, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said in post on X. It said there were deaths and injuries but gave no more details.

There was no immediate comment by the Israeli military on the strikes. Israel says it targets Hamas fighters and infrastructure and that the group endangers civilians by operating among them and in tunnels under civilian areas.

BLINKEN’S NEW FORAY

The U.S. has pledged unwavering support for Israel after Hamas militants killed hundreds of men, women and children on Oct. 7 and took some 240 people captive.

But the Biden administration has pushed for Israel to let more aid into Gaza amid growing alarm in the region over the destruction and humanitarian crisis in the tiny Mediterranean enclave.

More than 3,700 Palestinian children have been killed in 25 days of fighting — more than six times the 560 children that the U.N. has reported killed in 19 months of war in Ukraine as of Oct. 8. Bombardment has driven more than half the territory’s 2.3 million people from their homes. Food, water and fuel are running low under Israel’s siege, and overwhelmed hospitals warn they are on the verge of collapse.

Israel has allowed more than 260 trucks carrying food and medicine through the crossing, but aid workers say it’s not nearly enough. It has refused to allow fuel in, saying Hamas is hoarding fuel for military use and would steal new supplies.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was not advocating for a general cease-fire but a “temporary, localized” pause.

Israel and the U.S. seem to have no clear plan for what would come next if Hamas rule in Gaza is brought down — a key question on Blinken’s agenda on his upcoming visit, according to the State Department.

Earlier in the week, Blinken suggested that the Palestinian Authority govern Gaza. Hamas drove the authority’s forces out of Gaza in its 2007 takeover of the territory. The authority now holds limited powers in some parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

MOVING ON GAZA CITY

The Israeli military’s chief of staff, Herzi Halevy, said his forces were encircling Gaza City from several directions and “fighting in a built-up, dense, complex area.”

Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Daniel Hagari said Israeli forces were in “face to face” battles with militants, calling in airstrikes and shelling when needed. He said they were inflicting heavy losses on Hamas fighters and destroying their infrastructure with engineering equipment.

Casualties on both sides are expected to rise as Israeli troops advance toward the dense residential neighborhoods of Gaza City. Israeli officials say Hamas’ military infrastructure, including tunnels, is concentrated in the city in and under civilian areas.

On Thursday, Israeli planes dropped leaflets warning residents to immediately evacuate Shati refugee camp, a densely built-up district on the Mediterranean coast bordering Gaza City’s center.

“Time is up,” the leaflets read, warning that strikes “with crushing force” against Hamas fighters were coming.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remain in the path of the fighting in northern Gaza, despite Israel’s repeated calls for them to evacuate to the south, which is also being bombarded. Many have crowded into U.N. facilities, hoping for safety.

Four U.N. schools-turned-shelter in northern Gaza and Bureij were hit in the past day, killing 24 people, according to Philippe Lazzarini, general-secretary of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA.

At least 9,061 Palestinians have been killed in the war, mostly women and minors, and more than 32,000 people have been wounded, the Gaza Health Ministry said Thursday, without providing a breakdown between civilians and fighters. The death toll is without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Over 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ initial attack, also an unprecedented figure.

Nineteen Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the start of the ground operation. A suspected militant shot to death an Israeli reserve soldier driving near a West Bank settlement Thursday, the military and medics said.

Rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and daily skirmishes between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants, have disrupted life for millions of Israelis and forced an estimated 250,000 to evacuate border towns.

Rockets fired from Lebanon injured two people when they hit the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, medical services said. Videos showed a street ablaze, a wrecked car and a damaged building. Hamas said earlier on Thursday it fired 12 rockets from Lebanon.

Hezbollah attacked Israeli positions in the north with drones, mortar fire and suicide drones. The Israeli military said it retaliated with warplanes and helicopter gunships on Hezbollah command centers, arms depots and sites from where the rockets were fired inside Lebanon. Four Lebanese civilians were killed, state media there said.

Four Palestinians, including three teenagers, were shot dead in different parts of the occupied West Bank early Thursday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the start of the war, mainly in violent protests and gunbattles during Israeli arrest raids.

MORE DEPARTURES FROM GAZA

On Thursday, 342 Palestinians with foreign passports, 21 injured in the fighting, and an additional 21 companions, left Gaza through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, according to Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority.

At least 335 people with foreign passports, and 76 injured and their companions, were evacuated on Wednesday, he said.

U.S. officials said 79 Americans were among those who have gotten out so far. The U.S. has said it is trying to evacuate 400 Americans with their families.

Egypt has said it will not accept an influx of Palestinian refugees, fearing Israel will not allow them to return to Gaza after the war

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Jeffery and Keath reported from Cairo. Najib Jobain in Rafah, Gaza Strip; Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut; and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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Full AP coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.