A Palestinian family walks past rubble in the aftermath of Israeli bombing in Rafah, southern Gaza, on Tuesday. AFP
Israeli ground forces attacked Hamas fighters and infrastructure on Tuesday in northern Gaza, which the military said some 800,000 people have fled since the war began more than three weeks ago, even as warplanes continued to strike from end to end of the sealed-off territory.
Buoyed by the first successful rescue of a captive held by Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected calls for a ceasefire and again vowed to crush the group's ability to govern Gaza or threaten Israel following its bloody Oct. 7 rampage, which ignited the war.
More than half the territory's 2.3 million Palestinians have fled their homes, with hundreds of thousands sheltering in packed UN-run schools-turned-shelters or in hospitals alongside thousands of wounded patients. Israeli strikes have hit closer to several northern hospitals in recent days, alarming medics.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, says nearly 672,000 Palestinians are sheltering in its schools and other facilities – four times their capacity. Thousands of people broke into its aid warehouses over the weekend to take food, as supplies of basic goods have dwindled.
There has been no central electricity in Gaza for weeks, and Israel has barred the entry of fuel needed to power emergency generators for hospitals and homes.
People stand at a window see a building that was hit by Israeli bombardment in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. AFP
UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini accused Israel of "collective punishment” of the Palestinians, and of forcing their displacement from northern Gaza to the south, where they are still not safe.
64 UN staffers killed
The agency, which hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza rely on for basic services even in normal times, says 64 of its staff have been killed since the start of the war, including a man killed alongside his wife and eight children in a strike late on Monday.
"This is the highest number ever of UN aid workers killed in any conflict around the world in such a short time,” spokesperson Juliette Touma told the Associated Press. "UNRWA will never be the same without these colleagues.”
The war has also threatened to ignite other fronts. Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah group have traded fire on a daily basis along the border, and Israel and the US have struck targets in Syria linked to Iran, which reportedly supports Hamas, Hezbollah and other armed groups in the region.
The military said it shot down a drone outside Israeli airspace on Tuesday near the Red Sea city of Eilat, without providing further details. Earlier this month, a US Navy destroyer in the Red Sea intercepted three cruise missiles and several drones launched toward Israel by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Palestinians mourn relatives killed following Israeli bombardment in Deir Al Balah in the central Gaza Strip. AFP
In the occupied West Bank, where Israeli-Palestinian violence has also surged, the army demolished the family home of Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official exiled over a decade ago. Ali Kaseeb, head of the local council in the village of Aroura, said the home had been vacant for 15 years.
Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said ground operations in Gaza are focused on the north, including Gaza City, which he said was the "centre of gravity of Hamas."
"But we also continue to strike in other parts of Gaza. We are hunting their commanders, we are attacking their infrastructure, and whenever there is an important target that is related to Hamas, we strike it," he said.
Larger ground operations have been launched in both north and east of Gaza City, which before the war was home to over 650,000 people, a population comparable to that of Washington, D.C.
'People are very scared'
Video footage released by the military showed soldiers walking across an open area as heavy gunfire echoes in the background and setting up a position in the ruins of a heavily damaged building.
Conricus said some 800,000 people have heeded the Israeli military's orders to flee from the northern part of the strip to the south. But tens of thousands of people remain in and around Gaza City, and casualties are expected to mount on both sides as the battle moves into dense, residential neighbourhoods.
Men carry logs of wood to be used in fires heating up large cooking pots outdoors along a street in Rafah. AFP
The window to flee south may be closing, as Israeli forces reached Gaza's main north-south highway this week. A video circulating on Monday showed a tank opening fire on a car that had approached a sand berm but was turning around. Gaza's Health Ministry said three people were killed.
Zaki Abdel-Hay, a Palestinian man living a few minutes' walk from the road south of Gaza City, said people are afraid to use it. "People are very scared. The Israeli tanks are still close,” he said over the phone, adding that "constant artillery fire” could be heard near the road.
The military said it struck some 300 targets over the past day and that troops had engaged in several battles with Palestinians armed with antitank missiles and machine guns. Hamas' military wing said it fired mortar rounds at Israel forces near a closed border crossing between Israel and Gaza in the southern end of the territory. It was not possible to independently confirm the reports.
The death toll among Palestinians passed 8,300, mostly women and children, the Gaza Health Ministry said Monday. The figure is without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence. More than 1.4 million people in Gaza have fled their homes.
The densely populated northern area of Gaza, specifically Gaza City and adjacent crowded urban refugee camps, are the focus of Israel’s campaign to crush Hamas, the militant group that has ruled Gaza for 16 years.
Israel reopened its goods and commercial border crossings, allowing fuel to flow to the lone power plant in the blockaded coastal enclave. Shops and public offices reopened and crowds returned to streets that had been deserted for days.
Palestinians fired several rockets into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip early on Thursday and Israeli aircraft hit militant targets in Gaza, part of an escalation that was eerily similar to the run-up to last year's Israel-Gaza war.
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