Live updates | Palestinians flee to overcrowded refuges as Israel expands offensive in Gaza

A Palestinian town with a typical population around 75,000 has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge as Israel expands its ground offensive across Gaza.

Some of the new arrivals Wednesday at Deir al-Balah traveled by foot or rode donkey carts loaded with belongings. While many crowded onto streets around the town’s main hospital, others set up tents on sidewalks.

Palestinian health officials said dozens were killed in Israel’s heavy strikes across the center and south of the territory.

The U.N. humanitarian office says the scale and intensity of ground operations and fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in most areas of Gaza and their devastating impact is impeding aid deliveries.

“Operational challenges due to insecurity, blocked roads and a scarcity of fuel are also hampering the humanitarian response,” the office, known as OCHA, said in a statement Wednesday.

OCHA warned that telecommunications blackouts are making communications and internet service unreliable and also impacting humanitarian deliveries.

More than 20,900 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and children, have been killed since the start of the war, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, which doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants among the dead.

About 1,200 people were killed after Hamas raided southern Israel on Oct. 7, with around 240 people taken hostage. Israel says it aims to free the more than 100 hostages who remain in captivity in Gaza.

Currently:

— The U.N. appoints a former Dutch deputy premier and Mideast expert as its Gaza humanitarian coordinator.

— An Israeli airstrike in Syria kills a high-ranking Iranian general.

— Biden orders strikes on an Iranian-aligned group after three U.S. troops are wounded in drone attack in Iraq.

— Pro-Palestinian protesters block airport access roads in US.

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

Here’s what’s happening in the war:

ISRAELI OFFICIAL SAYS MILITANT LEADER IN LEBANON COULD BE TARGETED

JERUSALEM — Israel’s foreign minister says the head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group could be Israel’s next target.

Eli Cohen spoke a day after a Hezbollah strike wounded 11 people in northern Israel. The Iranian-backed group has fired missiles and rockets into Israel throughout the two-and-a-half month war between Israel and Hamas. Israel has responded dozens of airstrikes and artillery barrages.

The daily battles have forced tens of thousands of Israelis to evacuate their homes from border communities and raised fears that they could escalate into a region-wide war.

Touring Israel’s border with foreign ambassadors. Cohen said Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, “must understand that he’s next.”

He said Hezbollah must respect a 2006 U.N. cease-fire that calls on the group to withdraw from the border area.

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“We will operate to make the most of the diplomatic option,” Cohen said. “If it doesn’t work, all options are on the table.”

Also Wednesday, Israel’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said the military is in a state of high readiness and has approved a number of plans for the northern front. “We need to be prepared to strike if required.”

SUPPORTERS OF ISRAELI-AMERICAN HOSTAGE RALLY AT AIRPORT

TEL AVIV, Israel — Dozens of friends and relatives of a 23-year-old Israeli-American man held hostage by Hamas gathered Wednesday at Israel’s international airport to draw attention to his plight.

Hersh Goldberg-Polin had been scheduled to fly out on Wednesday for a long-planned backpacking trip.

“Today, Dec. 27, Hersh Hersh has a one-way ticket to go traveling around the world. It’s a trip that he’s been planning for a long time. He’s been dreaming about it for a long time,” said his father, Jonathan Polin. “He’s unfortunately not going to be taking off on a trip today, but we are hoping and praying that he’s going to take off on this trip soon.”

Goldberg-Polin was attending a music party near the Gaza border that was targeted by Hamas in the Oct. 7 cross-border attack that triggered the Israel-Hamas war. Over 300 people were killed while several dozen were taken hostage.

About 50 people joined the gathering at Ben-Gurion airport, many holding posters of Goldberg-Polin’s picture with the slogan “Bring Hersh Home.”

His father brought a backpack that he said he had bought as a present for his son’s trip.

“The bag was not supposed to be here today on my back. It’s supposed to be on Hersh’s back,” he said. “We hope it’s going to be, soon.”

HAMAS IN A SPAT WITH IRAN’S REVOLUTIONARY GUARD SPOKESMAN

BEIRUT — A spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard claimed Wednesday that the deadly Hamas-led attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7 was launched in retaliation for the 2020 killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq. Hamas promptly denied the claim, in a rare public spat between the Palestinian militant group and its main sponsor.

The paramilitary guard’s spokesman Ramezan Sharif made the comments at a news conference where he threatened retaliation for the killing of another top Iranian military figure, Gen. Razi Mousavi, who was killed in an alleged Israeli airstrike in Syria on Monday.

On Wednesday, hundreds of mourners processed through the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala with Mousavi’s body. It is an Iranian tradition to take the bodies of prominent figures to the shrines of Shiite saints before being repatriated for burial.

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Sharif said that the Oct. 7 attack — in which some 1,200 people were killed in Israel and 240 taken hostage — was “one of the acts of revenge by the resistance front against the U.S. and the Zionists for the assassination of the martyr Soleimani.”

Hamas in a statement denied Sharif’s characterization and said the Oct. 7 operation was launched in response to threats to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and to the “Zionist occupation and its ongoing aggression against our people and our holy sites.”

Iranian and Hamas officials have previously denied that Iran ordered or played a role in planning the incursion. Hamas officials have pushed — sometimes publicly — for Iran and affiliated militant groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, to intervene more forcefully against Israel in the ensuing war, which has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, in the Gaza enclave.

ERDOGAN COMPARES NETANYAHU TO HITLER

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intensified his criticism of Israel on Wednesday, comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler. Netanyahu responded that Erdogan “is the last person who can preach morality to us.”

In a speech at an award ceremony, Erdogan also suggested that the United States was complicit in the deaths of 20,000 people in Gaza, for “supporting” Israel.

“We watched Israel’s Nazi camps in the stadiums, right?” Erdogan said in reference to a video aired on Turkish televisions that appeared to show Israeli soldiers rounding up half-naked men in a stadium in Gaza. “What is this? Remember they used to talk about Hitler in a weird way? How are you different than Hitler?”

Erdogan continued: “They will make us long for Hitler. Is there anything different in Netanyahu’s actions compared to Hitler’s?”

The Turkish leader went on to say that Netanyahu was receiving “all kinds of support” from the United States.

“And with all this support, what did they do to more than 20,000 Gazans? They killed them,” he said.

One of Israel’s most vocal critics, Erdogan has previously referred to Netanyahu as “the butcher of Gaza,” accused him of actions amounting to “genocide” and called for him to be prosecuted by an international war crimes tribunal.

“Erdogan, who is committing genocide against the Kurds and who holds the world record for imprisoning journalists who oppose his regime, is the last person who can preach morality to us,” Netanyahu said in his response.