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Israel-Hamas war: Iraq condemns U.S. drone strike on militant commander

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his forces to ready an assault on Gaza’s southernmost city, Rafah, after dismissing Hamas' hostage deal counterproposal.

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What we know

  • Hamas officials traveled to Cairo today for further cease-fire talks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected proposals from the militant group to end the fighting, insisting that Israel would fight on until it secured "absolute victory." After a second day of talks with Israeli leaders, Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew out of the country without a hostage deal.
  • Iraq has criticized the U.S. after it killed a commander of the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia in a drone strike, calling the attack in Baghdad "a clear-cut assassination operation." U.S. Central Command described Abo Baqir Al-Saadi as being directly responsible for planning and participating in attacks on American forces in the region.
  • U.S. strikes launched last week in Iraq and Syria killed or wounded more than 40 militants from Iranian-backed militias in those countries, the Pentagon said.
  • Israel stepped up its assault on the city of Rafah in southern Gaza early today after Netanyahu called it the "last bastion" of Hamas and said his country's military would expand its offensive into the city, where more than half of the strip’s population is sheltering. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned the assault would worsen Gaza’s "humanitarian nightmare."
  • More than 27,800 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. More than 67,300 have been injured, and thousands more are missing and presumed dead.
  • Israeli military officials said at least 224 soldiers have been killed during the ground invasion of Gaza.
  • NBC News’ Keir Simmons, Raf Sanchez, Matt Bradley and Chantal Da Silva are reporting from the region.

Texas A&M to close Qatar campus

The board of regents for Texas A&M University voted today to close its campus in Qatar.

While the university said the Qatar campus was no longer needed, the situation in the region played a role in discussions, with the university citing "heightened instability in the Middle East."

Board Chairman Bill Mahomes said the board decided the university's core mission "should be advanced primarily within Texas and the United States."

“By the middle of the 21st century, the university will not necessarily need a campus infrastructure 8,000 miles away to support education and research collaborations," he said.

The vote was 7-1.

Texas A&M at Qatar opened in 2003. Nothing will happen immediately; the termination will take four years, the university said.

Biden says Israel’s military response in Gaza has been ‘over the top’

Biden, speaking to reporters at the White House tonight, offered one of his most pointed criticisms of the Israeli government since Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack, characterizing the country’s military operations in the Gaza Strip as “over the top.”

He added that his administration was working to secure a pause in the fighting.

Biden has expressed support for Israel while increasingly putting pressure on Netanyahu to scale back Israeli military operations in Gaza. Biden’s backing of Israel has been a point of contention among key voting blocs as he seeks re-election.

United Nations chief chief vows immediate action on ‘infiltration of Hamas’ in U.N.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pledged today to act immediately on any new information from Israel related to “infiltration of Hamas” in the U.N. after nine U.N. staff members in the Gaza Strip were fired last month.

Israel last month accused 12 staff members with the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency of taking part in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants. Of the remaining three staff members, one is dead, while the U.N. was clarifying the identity of the two others.

An internal U.N. investigation has been launched as the U.S. — the largest donor to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East — and other countries paused funding following the allegations.

“One thing that you can be absolutely sure, any delegation that is presented to us by the government of Israel in relation to any other infiltration of Hamas in the U.N., at whatever level, we will act immediately upon it,” Guterres told reporters.

Family says two American brothers, 18 and 20, detained in Israeli raid in Gaza

Israeli forces detained two young adult American brothers in Gaza and their Canadian father in an overnight raid on their home in the besieged Palestinian territory, relatives of the men said.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the administration will “be talking to our Israeli counterparts” about the brothers’ reported detentions.

Borak Alagha, 18, and Hashem Alagha, 20, two brothers born in the Chicago area, are among fewer than 50 U.S. citizens known to still be trying to leave sealed-off Gaza, nearly four months into the Israeli-Hamas war.

Other U.S. green card holders and close relatives of the citizens and permanent residents also are still struggling and unable to leave, despite U.S. requests that they be allowed to exit, according to their American families and advocates.

Cousin Yasmeen Elagha, a law student at Northwestern University, said Israeli forces entered the family home in the town of al-Masawi, near Khan Younis, around 5 a.m. Gaza time Thursday.

The soldiers tied up and blindfolded the women and children in the family and placed them outside the home, the cousin said.

The two American brothers, their Canadian citizen father, a mentally disabled uncle and two other adult male relatives were taken away by the Israelis, and they have not returned, Elagha said.

Men of a neighboring household were also taken away. So were other adult male relatives of another Alagha family household, for a total of about 20 family members detained, the U.S. cousin said.

A family social media account from Gaza also described the detentions.

An advocate for American families who are still trying to get loved ones out of Gaza faulted U.S. officials for not having moved more urgently to help get the Alagha brothers and other Palestinian Americans, U.S. residents and close relatives out of harm’s way in Gaza.

Detention or death in an Israeli airstrike “were two of the biggest fears this family has had all along. And now the worst has happened,” said Maria Kari, an immigration attorney who has been advocating for the family. “It could have been avoided. It could have been avoided if the U.S. had more timely advocated for this family."

The State Department said it was seeking more information on the reported detentions. It cited privacy concerns for the brothers in not commenting further.

U.S. officials said in December that they had helped 1,300 Americans, green card holders and their eligible close family members leave Gaza since Oct. 7.

State Department officials declined last month to say how many people for whom the U.S. has requested permission to leave remain in Gaza, citing the “fluidity” of the situation.

The brothers would be among three American citizens taken into custody by Israeli forces this week, when Blinken was visiting the region to try to mediate with ally Israel and regional Arab leaders.

A Palestinian American woman, Samaher Esmail, 46, was taken from her home in the occupied West Bank on Monday and detained. The Israeli military said she had been arrested for “incitement on social media” and held for questioning.

The U.S. Embassy in Israel said today that it had no updates on her case.

Esmail’s family said the U.S. Embassy asked them today for a list of her medications but said it would not be able to have contact with her before Monday. Relatives said she needs the medication for uterine cancer. The family said it still does not know where she is being held.

The Israeli military and the Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Israel and Egypt control the official exit lists that are the only authorized way out of Gaza for foreigners and Palestinians. U.S. authorities say they are working with the two U.S. allies to get more of the names of Americans, U.S. residents and their close kin who are seeking to leave placed on the exit lists. The Alagha brothers’ family says they are among those who have been unable to get their names on the lists.

Israeli security forces in the course of the war have rounded up large numbers of Palestinian military-age men in Gaza, later releasing some. Israel says the mass detentions are a necessary part of fighting Hamas. Palestinians say Israel is unjustly including large numbers of civilian men in the sweeps.

More than 40 militants killed or wounded in U.S. strikes

WASHINGTON — More than 40 militants from Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have been killed or wounded in a series of U.S. airstrikes launched in retaliation for a drone attack that killed three American troops in Jordan last month, the Pentagon said.

The casualty estimate was the first offered by Defense Department officials since the Biden administration announced a campaign of reprisal strikes against Iranian-supported militants that Washington blames for more than 160 attacks on American forces in the region. 

“Initial indications are that over 40 militants associated with Iranian proxy groups were killed or injured in the U.S. strikes against seven facilities,” the Defense Department press secretary, Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said of the U.S. bombing raids launched Friday in Iraq and Syria.

“The United States will continue to take necessary action to protect our people, and we will not hesitate to hold responsible all those who threaten the safety of our forces,” Ryder said.

The U.S. military was investigating allegations that a civilian had been killed in airstrikes in Iraq, Ryder said.

There were no indications that any Iranians were killed, Ryder said. Iran often deploys members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to assist militias and other proxies in the region.

Ryder also said that a U.S. drone strike yesterday on a car in Baghdad killed a senior commander of the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Baqir al-Saedi, and that the military had “high confidence” that no one else was killed. 

The Pentagon previously had not publicly named the militia commander who was killed.

The U.S. military also has been carrying out airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen to try to safeguard commercial ships from Houthi drone and missile attacks in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. 

The U.S.-led strikes in Yemen have destroyed or degraded more than 100 missiles and launchers, three helicopters, drones, communications systems, coastal radars, air defense networks and weapons storage areas, Ryder said.

Biden aides meet in Michigan with Arab American and Muslim leaders, aiming to mend political ties

Top Biden administration officials were meeting today with Arab American and Muslim leaders in Michigan to mend ties with a community that has an important role in deciding whether Biden can hold on to a crucial swing state in the 2024 election.

He faces increasing backlash from Arab Americans and progressives for his vocal support of Israel since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas against Israel, although he has insisted he is trying to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza.

More than 27,000 people, most of them women and minors, have been killed in Gaza since militants attacked Israel, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. Hamas killed more than 1,200 people and kidnapped about 250 more, most of them civilians, in its attack.

The meetings began this morning and stretched throughout the afternoon. State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, the second-ranking Democrat in the Michigan House, spoke to The Associated Press after a nearly two-hour meeting with the Biden officials this afternoon in Dearborn, describing the conversations as “intense” but “direct.”

“I relayed the emotions and the concerns of our community, and we gave them tangible steps,” said Aiyash, who is the state’s highest-ranking Arab or Muslim leader. “We want to see a permanent cease-fire. We want to be able to see restrictions and conditions on any military aid that is sent to Israel. And we want to see the United States take a serious commitment towards rebuilding Gaza.”

Aiyash added that “there will not be engagement beyond this if we do not see any tangible changes after this discussion.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the meetings were “private.”

“We want to give them the space to have a meeting that certainly has candor, certainly where — we can hear directly from them,” she said.

“We want to hear directly from them. We want to hear their concerns. We believe it’s important for these leaders to be able to speak directly to officials in the White House.”

Michigan is home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the country, and more than 310,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. Nearly half of Dearborn’s roughly 110,000 residents claim Arab ancestry.

“Dearborn is one of the few places where you have Arab Americans in such a concentrated area that your vote can actually matter,” said Rima Meroueh, the director of the National Network for Arab American Communities. “So it gets the attention of elected officials, because if they want to win the state, they’re going to have to address this population.”

After Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016, Wayne County and its large Muslim communities helped Biden retake the state for the Democrats in 2020 by a roughly 154,000-vote margin. Biden enjoyed a roughly 3-to-1 advantage in Dearborn and a 5-1 advantage in Hamtramck, and he won Wayne County by more than 330,000 votes.

The White House and Biden’s campaign are keenly aware of the political dynamics.

Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, and other campaign aides went to suburban Detroit late last month but found a number of community leaders unwilling to meet with them. Biden traveled to Michigan last week to court union voters but did not meet with any Arab American leaders.

Administration officials making the trip to Michigan today included Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development; principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer; and Steven Benjamin, who directs the Office of Public Engagement, a White House official said.

In addition to Aiyash, the administration was also meeting with Arab American and Muslim leaders, including Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, Deputy Wayne County Executive Assad I. Turfe and Arab American News publisher Osama Siblani.

Hammoud said in a statement after his meeting with Biden officials, “We represented the voices of Dearborn in a two-hour-long policy discussion with senior advisors.”

“This meeting was held to ensure that the White House and those with the ability to change the course of the genocide unfolding in Gaza very clearly hear and understand the demands of our community,” he said.

Some community leaders, including Dearborn Heights Mayor Bill Bazzi, said they had declined invitations from the White House.

Aiyash, Hammoud and Turfe are among more than 30 elected officials in Michigan who have signed on to a “Listen to Michigan” campaign and pledged to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s Feb. 27 presidential primary.

Imran Salha, the imam of the Islamic Center of Detroit, told reporters before a protest today in Dearborn that he is calling for “all people of conscience to vote ‘uncommitted’” in the state’s primary.

“We’re going to have the conversation at the ballot,” Salha said. “The main thing ... it’s about the bombs. While people are talking, bombs are falling. The only way for us to converse is to add pressure.”

About three dozen demonstrators chanting “free, free Palestine” and “stop the genocide” marched from a shopping mall parking lot to near the hotel where the meeting took place. Some walked with children or pushed kids in strollers.

“I’m 100% Palestinian,” said Amana Ali, 31, who said she was born in the U.S. “I feel the need to fight for where I came from and where my people came from.”

Aruba Elder of Dearborn said new words are needed to describe what she said were the atrocities the Israeli army is committing in Gaza.

“We’ve passed brutality. We’ve passed every word you can think of to describe a humanitarian crisis,” Elder said. She said she hopes the protest and others like it continue to create awareness.

“You can’t give up. It’s worked in the past, hasn’t it?” she said.

Militant killed in Baghdad strike was key figure in Iranian-backed militia

The militant killed yesterday in a U.S. military strike in Baghdad was an important figure in an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq and played a key role in months of attacks against U.S. forces in the region, regional analysts and U.S. officials say.

Abu Baqir al-Saedi was the chief of operations for the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia group in Iraq and had close ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which oversees and arms Iran’s proxies across the Middle East. Al-Saedi also is suspected of overseeing a drone attack on the United Arab Emirates in 2021, analysts said.

An umbrella group of Iran-affiliated militias, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, announced al-Saedi’s death after the strike, and Kata’ib Hezbollah posted a photo of him and a car destroyed by an explosion in an eastern Baghdad neighborhood.

Saedi “was a major figure within the operational heart of Kata’ib Hezbollah — a trusted aide to its former leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis and reportedly a leading player in KH’s external operations wing,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute think tank.

“Given his status, position and relationships, Saedi would unquestionably have been someone in the room with the [Revolutionary Guard’s] Quds Force — he was also the primary operative coordinating the receiving and distribution of Iranian drones and missiles for use in attacks on ‘external’ targets,” Lister said.

“Removing Saeedi from the scene won’t in any [way] cripple KH or the wider Iranian proxy network in Iraq, but it removes a veteran of the group’s now more than 20-year campaign against the United States,” he added.

A U.S. official said that “this precision strike was against an individual directly involved in attacks against Americans.”

Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank said Al-Saedi was “very senior.”

“This guy is one of a club of five or six of the most senior people” in the group, said Knights, who studies Iran’s network of proxies.

The strike sent a clear message to “the enemy that if you attack our forces and kill them, you are going to get hunted down to the ends of the Earth,” Knights said.

Iranian-backed militias have scaled back the pace and intensity of their attacks on U.S. forces over the past week, even before the Biden administration launched a series of retaliatory air strikes Friday, according to Knights and other analysts.

White House would not support major Israeli military operations in Rafah

The White House said today it would not support any plans by Israel for major military operations in Rafah and said Secretary of State Antony Blinken had made clear U.S. concerns about such operations.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby stressed at the press briefing there was no indication Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has immediate plans to deploy the IDF into the southern Gaza city.

“We’ve seen no plans that would convince us that they are about to or imminently going to conduct any kind of major operations in Rafah,” Kirby said.

Israeli forces bombed areas in the southern border city today, where more than half of Gaza’s population is sheltering.

Senate advances Ukraine and Israel aid after GOP blocked larger border bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday afternoon to proceed with a stripped-down bill that would provide aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, one day after Republicans in the chamber rejected a bipartisan border security and foreign aid bill.

The vote of 67-32 means the Senate can begin consideration of the $95 billion package, although the next steps are uncertain and it’s not yet clear it will have the votes for final passage in the chamber.

“This is a good first step. This bill is essential for our national security,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor after the vote. “Failure to pass this bill would only embolden autocrats like Putin and Xi, who want nothing more than America’s decline. Now that we are on the bill, we hope to reach an amendment with our Republican colleagues on amendments.”

He said the Senate would keep at it “until the job is done.”

Read the full story here.

Chuck Schumer at the U.S. Capitol
Chuck Schumer at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 17, 2024.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Houthis say U.S. raid in Yemen ‘futile and failed’

The spokesman for the Houthis in Yemen blasted last night's airstrikes against the militants as "futile and failed," saying that the "continuation of the American-British aggression represents a violation of the sovereignty of an independent state."

"We affirm that this will not prevent the Yemeni armed forces from continuing their supportive mission for Gaza, nor will the aggression be able to provide security for Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine."

More than 12,150 Palestinian children killed since start of war, Hamas says

Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip has killed more than 12,150 Palestinian children, Hamas said today. Nearly 17,000 Palestinian children in the besieged enclave are now living without their parents.

"Among these children are those whose parents were martyred, arrested, and are still missing, either under the rubble or their fate is still unknown as a result of the ongoing war," Hamas said.

More than 27,800 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, with 70% of the victims being children and women.

Israeli attacks on Gaza continue
An injured Palestinian child is treated today at a hospital in Rafah, Gaza.Belal Khaled / Anadolu via Getty Images

Video shows emotional moment Gazan doctor discovers son among wounded patients

An NBC News camera crew was at the Kuwait Hospital in Rafah when Dr. Rami Abu Libdeh found his son among the wounded victims of an Israeli airstrike that reportedly killed 14 people. Here's the emotional moment:

International Red Crescent chief says deaths of 15 members in Gaza and Israel are 'unacceptable'

The head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies confirmed that another member has been killed in the Gaza Strip.

Mohammed Al-Omari was killed and two other paramedics were wounded while they were transferring several injured people from the north to the south of Gaza, according to Jagan Chapagain, the group’s secretary general.

Chapagain added that the deaths of 15 members since the start of the war are "unacceptable."

"Since the beginning of the conflict, the IFRC network has lost 15 members. Twelve Palestine RCS staff and volunteers have been killed, and three from Israel’s Magen David Adom. This is unacceptable," Chapagain said.

Jordanian king to meet Biden, press for end of Gaza war

Jordan's King Abdullah embarked on a tour of major Western capitals today that will eventually take him to the U.S. for a meeting with Biden at the White House, where he is expected to lobby for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and increased humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the besieged enclave, according to a statement from the royal palace.

The king's tour also includes stops in Canada, France and Germany, according to the statement.

"The royal tour aims to mobilize international support for a ceasefire in Gaza, protect civilians, provide permanent and adequate humanitarian aid to the Strip, and emphasize the importance of finding a political horizon that leads to a comprehensive settlement that ends the Palestinian crisis," the palace said.

Hillary Clinton calls for ouster of Netanyahu

Hillary Clinton, appearing on MSNBC last night, blasted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as untrustworthy and said he should step down.

"Netanyahu should go," the former U.S. secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee told host Alex Wagner. "He is not a trustworthy leader."

Hamas' Oct. 7 terror attack took place "on his watch," she said, adding: "He needs to go, and if he's an obstacle to a cease-fire, if he's an obstacle to exploring what's to be done the day after, he absolutely needs to go."

Clinton appeared to stop short of explicitly calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. She has previously expressed support for Israel's military operations in the enclave following Oct. 7. However, she told ABC’s "The View" in November that "Israel should conduct itself by the rules of war and do everything it can to prevent and limit civilian casualties."

33 pro-Palestinian protesters arrested in suburban Chicago for blocking street

Seven men and 26 women were arrested in a Chicago suburb yesterday after they allegedly blocked a street, sitting in a roadway "purposely blocking traffic and creative a hazard," according to a statement from police.

The Niles Police Department said in a news release that the protesters had "bound themselves to each other using PVC pipe, chicken wire and duct tape." The protesters were asked to "leave the roadway numerous times," according to the release, but they "refused."

Police said the demonstrators were "protesting a business," but the department news release did not provide any specifics.

Local news articles said the protesters were standing outside a company that makes products for the aerospace and industrial markets, but NBC News could not immediately confirm that detail.

U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees says north Gaza is 'unrecognizable'

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) said in a tweet early Thursday that north Gaza is "unrecognizable" after months of brutal bombardment from Israeli military forces.

In a post on X, UNRWA quoted an employee of the agency identified as Abdallah: "The situation is catastrophic. There is not a single house that was not damaged."

UNRWA has drawn intense international scrutiny amid an investigation into allegations that some workers participated in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The agency is entrusted with getting humanitarian aid into Gaza.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has said that he was “horrified” by the accusations, adding that those found to have been involved would be referred for potential criminal prosecution.

U.N. human rights chief says Israeli destruction near Gaza border a 'grave breach' of Geneva Conventions

The United Nations' high commissioner for human rights said today that Israel's reported destruction of all buildings along the border inside the Gaza Strip — an operation with the goal of creating a "buffer zone" — constitutes a war crime.

In a statement, Volker Türk cited those reports and said: "I stress to the Israeli authorities that Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits destruction by the occupying power of property belonging to private persons, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.'"

Türk added that reports of Israel's attempts to create a buffer zone "do not appear consistent with the narrow 'military operations' exception set out in international humanitarian law."

"Further," he said, "extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime."

An Israeli tank on the border with Gaza on Jan. 19, 2024.
An Israeli tank on the border with Gaza on Jan. 19.Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images file

American support is vital, prime minister of Iraq’s Kurdish enclave tells NBC News

Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, told NBC News’ Keir Simmons that he would continue to seek America’s support, although the nature of U.S. backing might need to change.

“The challenges we face today are different than the ones we faced against ISIS,” he said. “We need to be economically strong, we need to be politically strong, we need to be militarily strong,” he added.

German frigate heads to the Red Sea on mission to protect ships

A German Navy frigate set sail today toward the Red Sea, where Berlin plans to have it take part in a European Union mission to help defend cargo ships from attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that are hampering trade.

The Hessen set off from the North Sea port of Wilhelmshaven with about 240 service members on board. The aim is to have it in place once the E.U. mission is given the official go-ahead and the German parliament has approved a mandate for the ship to join in, which is expected at the end of February.

E.U. foreign ministers are expected to sign off on the Red Sea mission on Feb. 19. Officials have said that seven countries in the bloc are ready to provide ships or planes.

More than half of Gaza's population crammed in Rafah, U.N. says

Intense fighting in southern Gaza is pushing more displaced Palestinians into Rafah, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report yesterday.

Gaza's southernmost city was already hosting over half of the enclave's entire population of around 2.3 million.

Children gather outside a tent sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8, 2024.
Children gather outside a tent sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah today.Mohammed Abed / AFP - Getty Images

Martin Griffiths, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said families who have already "endured the unthinkable" are now facing the prospect of hostilities in Rafah, as Israel warns of an expansion of its military campaign.

OCHA added that the population influx is battering the already stretched health and food distribution system.

U.S. woman detained for incitement on social media, IDF says

An American woman arrested in the occupied West Bank on Monday is being held for “incitement on social media,” a spokesperson for the Israeli military told NBC News today.

Samaher Esmail, 46, was picked up as part of an operation in Silwad by the Israel Defense Forces Binyamin Brigade, the spokesperson said. “Suspects arrested in the operation were transferred to the security forces for further questioning,” the spokesperson added.

Esmail, a U.S. citizen from New Orleans, had been staying on a property she owns in Silwad, about eight miles northeast of Ramallah, her son Ibrahim Hamed said in an interview earlier this week.

Rep. Troy Carter, a Democrat who represents Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, where Esmail lives, said in Facebook post on Monday that he had been in contact with the State Department to “inquire why a U.S. citizen is being held.”

The U.S.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the State Department to demand Esmail’s release.

Maersk reports massive drop in net profits, warns of uncertainty due to Houthi attacks in Red Sea

Shipping giant Maersk today reported a massive drop in profitability as it warned that tensions in the Red Sea had impacted its operations.

Maersk reported an overall loss of more than $400 million in the fourth quarter of last year, compared to an almost $5 billion profit the same period in 2022, according to its earnings reports released today.

"The Red Sea crisis has caused immediate capacity constraints and a temporary increase in rates," it said, as it warned of the "high uncertainty" of the disruption through the critical shipping route.

Maersk is among the critical sea carriers that have suspended shipping through the Red Sea in light of the Houthi attacks, forcing its ships to take much longer routes.

Displaced Gazan children sleep on shelves in chicken cages

Several young children are sleeping in chicken cages on a poultry farm where they are sheltering with their family in southern Gaza.

On a visit to the farm yesterday, an NBC News team filmed the flimsy mattresses and blankets on shelves inside the large cages where they now rest at night. Toothpaste and a few toys were seen nearby.

Fadil Hanoun, 13, said the mattresses were shared among several family members.

“I sleep here with my sister and a little girl, my niece,” he said. “Here is the place for my cousin and his brother. Here is the place of my cousin and her father,” he added.

Fadil and several other children said the foul odor from the chickens and sewage kept them up at night, along with the cold temperatures.

“We now live like chickens; here we became like chickens,” Fadil said as he pointed at a chicken in a closed cage near his own makeshift bed. “I would stay awake all night to avoid hitting the iron,” he added referring to the metal cage shelves.

Fadil’s father, Ibrahim, said it took several days to convince the children that the cages were safer than the previous places they had stayed despite “the terrible conditions.”

After fleeing their home in Gaza City, in the north of the enclave, he said the family had lived in a school facility and other parts of the enclave where they had been bombarded.

"We did not expect to live like that," he said, adding that he spent days trying to convince them it was better to live there because it was "protected from shelling."

U.S. carried out more self-defense strikes against Houthi targets

U..S. forces in the Red Sea carried out two “self-defense” strikes last night against Houthi militants in Yemen, with one against anti-ship missiles about to be launched and a second against a land attack cruise missile, according to U.S. Central Command.

"CENTCOM identified these missiles in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and determined they presented an imminent threat to U.S. Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region," it said in a statement this morning.

"These actions will protect freedom of navigation and make international waters safer and more secure for U.S. Navy and merchant vessels."

Hamas sends delegation to Cairo for cease-fire talks

Hamas has sent a delegation to Egypt to follow up on its counterproposal that was rejected by Netanyahu and termed an "absolute nonstarter" by Blinken.

The delegation was sent to Cairo “in the framework of following up on the ideas we presented and to achieve the best results that serve the interests of our people,” Hamas official Osama Hamdan said in a statement yesterday. He added the delegation would be led by Khalil Al-Hayya, a senior official with the militant group.

It came as Blinken met with Israeli lawmakers in the hope of advancing a deal that could see the release of some hostages in exchange for a pause in fighting.

Iraq blasts U.S. after drone strike

Iraq today condemned the U.S. over the drone strike that killed a top Kata’ib Hezbollah commander, who the U.S. says had participated in the attack that killed three U.S. soldiers on a base in Jordan.

Calling it a "blatant assassination," Yehia Rasool, spokesperson for the Iraqi prime minister, said the U.S. strike was conducted in the heart of a residential neighborhood in the capital.

"By this act, the American forces jeopardize civil peace, violate Iraqi sovereignty," he said in a post on X.

White House officials to visit Michigan to meet with Muslim and Arab American community leaders

Senior Biden administration aides will travel to Michigan today to hear directly from Muslim and Arab American community leaders on their top issues and concerns including, most notably, the Israel-Hamas war and civilian casualties in Gaza.

The White House teased the upcoming visit to Michigan when President Joe Biden traveled to Detroit last week for a labor-focused event with the United Auto Workers union.

The meeting with Muslim and Arab American community leaders in Detroit is a White House-driven event. Biden campaign officials are not planning to participate at this time.

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IDF exercises near the Lebanon border

An Israeli helicopter takes off during a military exercise in Upper Galilee near the Lebanon border yesterday.

Israel Lebanon Border
Jalaa Marey / AFP - Getty Images

Blinken meets with Lapid, war Cabinet members in Israel

Blinken kicked off his second day of talks in Israel at a meeting with the Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, along with war Cabinet ministers Gadi Eisenkot and Benny Gantz.

Blinken reviewed the latest efforts to facilitate the return of the hostages, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

“We are, of course, focused on the hostages,” Blinken told reporters.

U.S. presence is still required in northern Iraq, Kurdish PM tells NBC News

ERBIL, Iraq — An American military presence is still required in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq despite growing calls from some politicians in Baghdad for it to end, the prime minister of the semi-autonomous region told NBC News in an exclusive interview today. 

“Americans have been very supportive in supporting Iraq and fighting terrorism,” Masrour Barzani said in an interview at his office. “I wouldn’t call for the withdrawal of the U.S. troops.”

His comments came after the Iraqi government condemned last night’s U.S drone attack in Baghdad which killed Abo Baqir Al-Saadi, a commander of the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, calling it “a clear-cut assassination operation.”    

Masrour Barzani Iraq
Masrour Barzani in Erbil today.Mo Abbas / NBC News

Several lawmakers also called for the full withdrawal of U.S. forces after the wave of retaliatory strikes on Iraq and Syria over the weekend, following the attack on the American base in Jordan which killed three service members.    

But Barzani said there were still “many challenges” and “many threats” still out there including ISIS, which he said was not completely defeated. “The presence of Americans of some sort, and the U.S. would also agree, is necessary,” he added.  

Although he praised U.S. support for Kurdistan, he called for “urgent” aid for the region, particularly air defense systems to counter the barrage of missiles fired by Iran-backed militias on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria and on Kurdish territory, an onslaught that has increased in intensity since the war in Gaza.

Sweden has thwarted Iranian attack plots, counterintelligence police say

A senior member of the Swedish security police said today that Iran had planned attacks on the country, days after local media reported that two Iranians were deported for a plot to kill three Swedish Jews several years ago.

Earlier this week, Swedish broadcaster SR reported that two Iranians had been suspected of planning to kill members of the Swedish Jewish community. They were arrested in 2021 and were expelled from Sweden in 2022 without charges, according to Swedish radio.

Daniel Stenling, counterespionage head at Sweden’s domestic security agency, told SR on Thursday that Iran “has been preparing and conducted activities aimed at carrying out a so-called physical attack against someone or something in Sweden.”

He added, “We have worked on a number of such cases where we have, as we gauge it, thwarted such preparations.” He declined to give specifics.

Fears grow in Rafah as Netanyahu orders troops to prepare for push into the city

Fear is growing in Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah where tens of thousands of displaced people have been seeking shelter after Netanyahu ordered his troops to prepare a push into the city.

After rejecting cease-fire proposals from Hamas, Netanyahu said Rafah was the "last bastion" for the militant group.

Rafah Israeli Strikes
Palestinian women react after their home was hit by an Israeli strike in Rafah today.Fatima Shbair / AP

In a Telegram post today, Gaza’s Information Ministry reported dozens of injuries from bombardment in the city, where tens of thousands of people fled after the Israeli military ordered them to evacuate the north of the enclave.

Blinken, who will hold a second day of talks with Israeli leaders today, has said that Israel has a "obligation" and "responsibility" to prioritize safety of civilians.

Militant commander blamed for participating in killings of three U.S. soldiers killed in Baghdad drone strike

A Kata’ib Hezbollah commander was killed in a U.S. drone strike last night in Baghdad as part of the response to an attack on American forces in the region two weeks ago, a U.S. official confirmed to NBC News. 

The U.S. first launched retaliatory strikes in both Iraq and Syria last week following an attack on a base in Jordan that killed three U.S. soldiers.  

Kata’ib Hezbollah announced the death of Abo Baqir Al-Saadi on its Telegram channel yesterday following Iraqi news report that a drone strike had hit a car in eastern Baghdad. 

U.S. Central Command posted a statement on X announcing the strike, describing the man killed as someone directly responsible in planning and participating in attacks on American forces in the region. 

“There are no indications of collateral damage or civilian casualties at this time,” the post said.

Precision strike kills militant commander in Baghdad

Iraqis gather around a burned vehicle targeted by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad last night.

Iraq drone strike
Hadi Mizban / AP

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