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An Israeli airstrike in Gaza's south kills at least 9 Palestinians, including 6 children

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — An Israeli airstrike on a house in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah killed at least nine people, six of them children, hospital authorities said Saturday, as Israel pursued its nearly seven-month offensive in the besieged Palestinian territory.

Israel's war against the Islamic militant group Hamas has led to a dramatic escalation of tensions in the Middle East, notably between Israel and Iran in recent weeks. Now attention is returning to Rafah, which hosts more than half of Gaza’s population of about 2.3 million, most of them displaced by fighting elsewhere.

The strike late Friday hit a residential building in Rafah's western Tel Sultan neighborhood, according to Gaza’s civil defense. At al-Najjar hospital, site of the area's main morgue, relatives sobbed and hugged white-shrouded children's bodies. “Hamza my beloved. Your hair looks so pretty,” a mourning grandmother said.

The fatalities included Abdel-Fattah Sobhi Radwan, his wife Najlaa Ahmed Aweidah and their three children, his brother-in-law Ahmed Barhoum said. Barhoum lost his wife, Rawan Radwan, and their 5-year-old daughter, Alaa.

"This is a world devoid of all human values and morals,” Barhoum told The Associated Press, crying as he gently rocked Alaa's body. “They bombed a house full of displaced people, women and children. The only martyrs were women and children.”

No victims were reported from a second overnight strike in Rafah. Later Saturday, an Israeli airstrike hit a house in the urban refugee camp of Bureji in central Gaza, killing at least one man and injuring two others, according to authorities at the al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al-Balah, where an AP journalist saw the casualties.

Israel has insisted for months that it intends to push a ground offensive into Rafah, where it says many of the remaining Hamas militants are holed up, despite calls for restraint from the international community including Israel’s staunchest ally, the United States.

The war was sparked by an unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel by Hamas and other militant groups that left about 1,200 people dead, the vast majority of them civilians, and saw about 250 people kidnapped and taken into Gaza. Israel says about 130 hostages remain in Gaza, although more than 30 have died, either killed on Oct. 7 or in captivity.

The overall Palestinian death toll from the war is at least 34,049, and the number of wounded is 76,901, the Gaza Health Ministry said, adding Saturday that the bodies of 37 people killed by Israeli strikes were taken to hospitals in Gaza over the past 24 hours. The Hamas-run health authorities do not differentiate between combatants and civilians in their count but say at least two-thirds have been children and women.

Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties, saying it embeds in the population.

The war has sent regional tensions spiraling, provoking fears that violence between Israel and its archenemy Iran might escalate into a full-blown war.

On Friday, both Iran and Israel played down an apparent Israeli airstrike near a major air base and nuclear site in central Iran, indicating the two sides were pulling back from what could have become an all-out conflict. Over the past several weeks, an alleged Israeli strike killed two Iranian generals at an Iranian consulate in Syria and Iran responded with an unprecedented missile barrage on Israel.

Israel also continues to face off with Iran's proxies in the region. It frequently trades rocket and drone attacks across the Lebanese-Israeli border with the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group. Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have launched strikes against merchant ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in what they call a campaign of solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza.

Tensions have also been high in the occupied West Bank. An Israeli army raid in the Nur Shams urban refugee camp that killed at least three militants and a 15-year-old boy on Friday continued into Saturday. The Islamic Jihad militant group confirmed the deaths of three members, including one it called a local military commander.

The Israeli army said its forces killed 10 militants in the camp and surrounding areas while the military and the Border Police arrested eight Palestinian suspects. Nine of its officers and soldiers were wounded, it said.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said medical teams were informed about several Palestinians killed and injured in Nur Shams but that Israeli forces were preventing health workers from reaching them. An AP journalist at the camp said sounds of intermittent gunfire and explosions still rang out Saturday afternoon.

The raid appeared to be one of the largest at the refugee camp since the Israel-Hamas war began. At least 469 Palestinians from east Jerusalem and the West Bank have been killed by Israeli fire since October, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, has a limited foothold in many of the territory's northern towns and cities.

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