The Latest | Airstrike in the West Bank kills at least 3 Palestinian militants, officials say

Activists block a highway as they demand the release of the hostages from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Activists block a highway as they demand the release of the hostages from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

An Israeli airstrike has killed at least three Palestinian militants traveling in a car in the northern West Bank near the town of Jenin, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials. The Islamic Jihad militant group claimed the three dead men as members. The airstrike occurred as raids of the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip raged on for a third day.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is determined to carry out a Rafah ground offensive, even as tensions between Israel and the United States intensify.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Israel this week as part of his sixth urgent mission to the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war began last October.

At least 31,819 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead. A United Nations food agency warned that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza.

Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people in the surprise Oct. 7 attack out of Gaza that triggered the war, and abducted another 250 people. Hamas is still believed to be holding some 100 people hostage, as well as the remains of 30 others.

Currently:

— Blinken adds Israel stop to latest Mideast tour as tensions rise over Gaza war

— During the Israel-Hamas war, Jews will soon celebrate Purim — one of their most joyous holidays

— Heavy fighting rages around Gaza’s biggest hospital as Israel raids it for a second day

— Gaza and Haiti are on the brink of famine, experts say

— Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

Here’s the latest:

PALESTINIAN POLL FINDS THAT SUPPORT FOR HAMAS HAS DROPPED

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A poll of Palestinian public opinion shows that support for Hamas has dropped since the last such survey in December, but the militant group remains the preferred political party among Palestinians.

The poll, released Wednesday by the West Bank-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, asked Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip which political party they favor and 34% said Hamas, 17% preferred Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah, 11% favored a third party and 37% said none or that they didn’t know.

In the last poll, 43% of Palestinians preferred Hamas compared to 17% for Fatah.

More than five months into the devastating war, more than 70% of Palestinians in Gaza say they support Hamas’ decision to attack Israel on Oct. 7, up from 57% in December’s poll. In the West Bank, support for the attack dropped from 82% in December to 71%. Nearly two-thirds of Palestinians say they expect Hamas to win the war.

The survey asked Palestinians in Gaza about their food insecurity, and 55% said they do not have enough food to last a day or two.

Those findings were similar to November’s results, but due to security concerns the poll did not send data collectors to question Palestinians in northern Gaza, where the humanitarian crisis is at its most acute.

The poll questioned 1,580 adults, 830 in the West Bank and 750 in the Gaza Strip between March 5-10 and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

ISRAELI AIRSTRIKE KILLS AT LEAST 3 PALESTINIAN MILITANTS IN THE WEST BANK

JERUSALEM — An Israeli airstrike has killed at least three Palestinian militants traveling in a car in the northern West Bank, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said three passengers in the car were killed in Wednesday’s strike near the town of Jenin, while another was wounded. The Islamic Jihad militant group claimed the three dead men as members.

The Israeli army said that all four occupants of the car were wanted militants.

Over the past few years Jenin has become a major flashpoint in the decades long Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Violence across the occupied West Bank has surged since the Israel-Hamas war broke out last Oct. 7, when Palestinian militants broke into southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and kidnapping 250 others.

The Palestinian Authority, which administers semi-autonomous parts of the West Bank, has a limited foothold in Jenin. At least 435 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli fire since the conflict broke out, according to Palestinian health officials.

REPORT SAYS UNRWA HAS ‘CRITICAL AREAS’ THE NEED ADDRESSING TO ENSURE NEUTRALITY

UNITED NATIONS — An interim report by an independent group investigating the beleaguered U.N. agency supporting Palestinian refugees in Gaza has identified “critical areas” that need to be addressed to ensure its neutrality.

The group chaired by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna presented its interim report to Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday, U.N. associate spokesperson Florencia Soto Niño-Martinez told reporters Wednesday.

Guterres ordered the independent review of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees known as UNRWA on Feb. 5 after Israel alleged that 12 members of its 13,000 staff in Gaza participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that sparked the Israel-Hamas war.

The group has found “that UNRWA has in place a significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance with the humanitarian principle of neutrality,” Soto Niño-Martinez said. “The group has also identified critical areas that still need to be addressed.”

She gave no other details but said the review group “will now develop concrete and realistic recommendations on how to address these critical areas to strengthen and improve UNRWA.”

Soto Niño-Martinez reaffirmed that the group’s final report is due on April 20 and will be made public.

Colonna has been conducting the review with three research organizations: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

A separate review of the Israeli allegations is being conducted by the U.N.’s internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services. More than a dozen countries suspended funding for UNRWA following the Israeli allegations.

ISRAELI MILITARY SAYS IT ARRESTED 350 PALESTINIANS IN RAID AT SHIFA

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military says it has arrested 350 Palestinians in its raid on Gaza’s main hospital, now in its third day.

The military said forces were still operating in the area of Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Wednesday. It says it found rifles, grenades and other weapons inside the hospital.

Israel said it raided the hospital because Hamas fighters had regrouped inside and were directing attacks from the compound.

The military says it has killed dozens of militants in the raid, a claim that could not be independently confirmed.

Gaza officials said thousands of Palestinian patients, medical staff and displaced people were trapped inside the sprawling complex during the raid, although the military said it was allowing passage for anyone who wanted to leave.

The Shifa medical complex had only partially resumed operations after a destructive Israeli raid in November.

The surge in fighting in Gaza City has raised questions about Israel’s pledge to destroy Hamas’ military capabilities. The group’s continued presence comes months after Israel claimed it had defeated Hamas’ forces there and taken control of the area.

22 PALESTINIANS RECEIVING MEDICAL CARE IN ISRAEL ORDERED TO LEAVE

JERUSALEM — Israeli authorities have ordered a group of Palestinian medical patients who received treatment for life-threatening illnesses in Israel to return to the war-torn Gaza Strip, saying they no longer are in need of care.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, a local advocacy group, says at least 22 Palestinians are affected by the order. It says they include cancer patients, babies, new mothers and older people.

Before the war erupted last October, Israel allowed Palestinians with serious conditions to enter the country for treatment not available in Gaza. Those services have all but halted since the Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Hamas.

Nearly six months of fighting have displaced over 80% of Gaza’s population, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and left the territory’s health care system barely functioning. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said the Israeli evacuation order has endangered the lives of recovering patients.

“Returning residents to Gaza during a military conflict and a humanitarian crisis is against international law and poses a deliberate risk to innocent lives,” the group said. “All the more so when it concerns patients who may face a death sentence due to insanitary conditions and hunger, along with the unlikely availability of medical care.”

Aseel Abu Raas, a spokeswoman for the group, said COGAT, the Israeli defense agency responsible for Palestinian civilians, had ordered the patients to leave by 3 a.m. Thursday.

In a statement, COGAT said Palestinians who do not need medical treatment will be returned to Gaza while those still needing treatment will stay, but did not elaborate.

Officials at two of the affected hospitals, Augusta Victoria and Makassed, east Jerusalem institutions that serve the Palestinian population, did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Sheba Hospital, a major Israeli institution, declined comment.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said late Wednesday that after it asked for an injunction, Israel’s Supreme Court froze the order for at least 13 Palestinians.

Israel previously rounded up and deported several thousand Palestinian laborers from Gaza who had been working in Israel before the war.

It remains unclear how many Palestinian medical patients remain in Israel for treatment.

WORLD BANK REPORT SAYS FAMINE IS IMMINENT IN NORTHERN GAZA STRIP

WASHINGTON — Famine is imminent for Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip and is projected to affect adults and children between now and May, according to a World Bank food security report released on Wednesday.

“The situation in the Gaza Strip has reached catastrophic levels,” the report warned.

Roughly 1.11 million people, or half of the Gaza Strip’s population, are in Phase 5 of the IPC Food Insecurity Scale — known as the “Catastrophe Phase” of extreme food shortage and unable to meet basic needs. Virtually all households skip meals daily and a significant portion of children under two are suffering from acute malnutrition, the report states.

The report recommends “restoring humanitarian access, curbing hostilities, and ensuring the safe delivery of aid to the population in need.”

Wednesday’s report echoes similar findings released Monday in a report from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, an agency that monitors hunger globally.

IRAN’S TOP LEADER SAYS COUNTRY WILL CONTINUE SUPPORTING FIGHTERS

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s supreme leader in his Persian New Year speech, said that his country will continue supporting anyone who fights with Israel, state TV reported Wednesday.

In a live broadcast, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that a great oppression is being done in the region due to the existence of Israel. “This is a very great oppression that has been going on for 10 years and this oppression must be stopped,” he said.

“Whoever enters this great jihad, humanitarian jihad, Islamic jihad, conscientious jihad, we support him and help him, and with the grace of God, we will achieve our goal,” Khamenei added.

The Iranian leader also rejected any accusation by the United States against his country about its role in the Israel-Hamas war and called it a U.S. miscalculation.

Khamenei also said that U.S. understanding of regional issues is wrong.

“Anywhere in this region — in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon — any action is taken by the fighting and brave forces of resistance, the Americans attributed it to Iran. This false analogy will definitely bring America to its knees,” he said.

MOURNERS PRAY OVER 28 KILLED IN ISRAELI AIRSTRIKES

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Mourners held funeral prayers Wednesday morning outside a hospital in central Gaza for 28 people killed in three separate Israeli airstrikes on urban refugee camps.

Associated Press footage showed mourners praying over the bodies, which were wrapped in funeral shrouds, before the bodies were taken away in donkey carts for burial.

Nineteen people, including five women and nine children, were killed when a strike flattened a family home late Tuesday in the urban Nuseirat refugee camp. Another person was killed in a separate strike in the camp. A strike in the nearby Bureij camp killed eight people, including three women.

The dead were brought to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital, the main medical facility in central Gaza. An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies and their names in hospital records.

Nuseirat and Bureij are among several dense, built-up refugee camps in Gaza that date back to 1948, when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in what is now Israel during the war surrounding its creation. Refugees and their descendants make up a majority of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million.

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