Israeli air strikes pounded Gaza City Thursday as soldiers battled street-by-street with Hamas militants, and tens of thousands of Palestinians desperate for safety fled their homes southwards in the besieged territory.
After more than a month of intense bombardment, hundreds of thousands of people remain trapped in a “dire humanitarian situation” in battle zones without enough food and water, the United Nations said.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday that his forces were “tightening the stranglehold” around Gaza City, as they pressed an offensive launched in response to the Hamas attacks on October 7 that killed 1,400 people in Israel, mainly civilians, in the worst attack in Israel’s history.
The militants also took more than 240 people hostage, among them babies and elderly people.
Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel retaliated with a relentless bombardment and ground invasion that the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says has killed more than 10,500 people, many of them children.
“We’ve lost our homes, we’ve lost our children. Where is the global community?” said Nouh Hammouda, who was among those fleeing.
“We left our homes due to the relentless bombardment. Where can we go now?” Hammouda said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected a ceasefire unless the hostages Hamas holds in Gaza are released.
According to a source close to Hamas, talks are underway for the release of 12 hostages, including six Americans, in return for a three-day ceasefire.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Washington “have a way to communicate with Hamas”, but that giving details could jeopardise the process.
“We’re doing everything we can to get these folks back with their families,” he said.
“We don’t have a perfect picture about where everybody is, what condition they’re in, or how they’re being held,” he said in response to a question about whether Islamic Jihad — another Gaza militant force — could hold some hostages.
“We cannot we cannot rule out the possibility that the other groups than Hamas may have hostages.”
The United States has backed Israel’s rejection of a ceasefire, and G7 foreign ministers in Japan said Wednesday they supported “humanitarian pauses and corridors”.
As the war intensifies, discussions on the possible future of Gaza once conflict ends have also grown, after Netanyahu this week said that Israel would assume “overall security” of the territory.
Kirby said Wednesday that it was plausible that “for at least some period of time” Israeli forces would remain in Gaza “to manage the immediate aftermath and security situation”.
Israel seized Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War and withdrew in 2005. Two years later, Hamas took control and Israel imposed a crippling blockade.
In the longer term, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested the Palestinian Authority — which exercises limited autonomy only in parts of the occupied West Bank — should retake control of Gaza.
“It must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority,” Blinken said on Wednesday, repeating the long-standing US call for a two-state solution.
But senior Hamas member Ezzat al-Reshq gave short shrift to the suggestion.
“All the powers of the world together would not be able to impose its conditions or its puppets” on the Palestinians, he wrote in a message on Telegram.
‘Let me take him home’
Israel has set an aim of destroying Hamas, with its soldiers targeting their deep network of tunnels and underground bases, while air-dropping leaflets and sending text messages ordering civilians in northern Gaza to flee south.
The army said 50,000 people had fled their homes in the main battle zone of northern Gaza on Wednesday, a sharp increase in numbers from earlier this week, adding to the more than 1.5 million people already seeking safety in the south of the coastal strip.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) confirmed the figure, and warned that conditions were “dire” in battle zones north of the central Wadi Gaza district.
“Hundreds of thousands of people remaining north of Wadi Gaza, including IDPs (internally displaced people), are facing a dire humanitarian situation and are struggling to secure the minimum amounts of water and food to survive.”
In the Indonesian hospital in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, a weeping father cradled the body of his two-year-old son Mohammed Abu Qamar, who died after an air strike.
“Please don’t put him in the morgue, let me take him home and I will bury him tomorrow”, his father Nidal said, as his wife screamed in grief alongside him.
UN rights chief Volker Turk condemned Israel over its bombardment and its orders for to Gazans to flee.
“The collective punishment by Israel of Palestinian civilians amounts also to a war crime, as does the unlawful forcible evacuation of civilians,” he told reporters at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the only route out of Gaza not controlled by Israel.
Efforts continue to resume the crossing into Egypt of wounded Palestinians and dual nationals after departures were stalled Wednesday, with Hamas blaming Israel for a failure to approve the list of injured to leave.
More than 100 trucks carrying aid crossed into Gaza from Egypt on Wednesday, OCHA said, taking the total to 756 since fighting began last month, fewer than what would normally have entered Gaza in just two days before the war.
“The aid getting through is a trickle,” Turk said.
A rare delivery of emergency medical supplies reached Gaza City’s main Al-Shifa hospital on Wednesday, just the second since the war began, the UN and World Health Organization said, warning it “far from sufficient to respond to the immense needs”.
Images taken by an AFP journalist embedded with Israeli troops showed them emerging from tanks to search destroyed homes.
“You feel like the whole of Israel is behind you,” said Ben, a 24-year-old Israeli combat engineer inside Gaza, who like all soldiers, cannot be fully named because of military censorship.
“It feels amazing that you’re the one that takes care of what happened after 7 October, you’re kind of giving the revenge after what they did.”