Israel says it has encircled Gaza City; UN team talks of ‘grave risk of genocide’
GAZA/JERUSALEM – Israeli forces on Thursday encircled Gaza City – the Gaza Strip’s main city – in their assault on Hamas, the military said, but the Palestinian militant group resisted their drive with hit-and-run attacks from underground tunnels.
The city in the north of the Gaza Strip has become the focus of attack for Israel, which has vowed to annihilate the Islamist group’s command structure and has told civilians to flee to the south.
“We’re at the height of the battle. We’ve had impressive successes and have passed the outskirts of Gaza City. We are advancing,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. He gave no further details.
Amid heavy explosions in Gaza, Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters his country’s “troops completed the encirclement of Gaza City, which is the focal point of the Hamas terror organization.”
Brigadier General Iddo Mizrahi, chief of Israel’s military engineers, said troops were encountering mines and booby traps.
“Hamas has learned and prepared itself well,” he said.
Abu Ubaida, spokesperson for the armed wing of Hamas, said in a televised speech on Thursday that Israel’s death toll in Gaza was much higher than the military had announced. “Your soldiers will return in black bags,” he said.
Israel has said it has lost 18 soldiers and killed dozens of militants since ground operations expanded on Friday.
Hamas and allied Islamic Jihad fighters were emerging from tunnels to fire at tanks, then disappearing back into the network, residents said and videos from both groups showed.
In one Hamas military video, a fighter surfaces in a Gaza field and places an explosive device on a tank. An explosion is audible as the fighter, who appears to be wearing a body camera to document the incident, sprints back to the tunnel and fires an anti-tank missile toward the tank.
There was no letup in the suffering of Palestinian civilians, with U.N. experts saying they were at “grave risk of genocide”.
Palestinian civilians have suffered shortages of food, fuel, drinking water and medicine.
“Water is being used as a weapon of war,” said Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.
‘WE ARE GETTING SICK’
In Khan Younis, in the south of the Gaza Strip, nine-year-old Rafif Abu Ziyada said she was drinking dirty water and getting stomach pains and headaches.
“There is no cooking gas, there is no water, we don’t eat well. We are getting sick,” she said. “There’s garbage on the ground and the whole place is polluted.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken left for the Middle East after saying he would discuss concrete steps to minimise harm to civilians in Gaza.
Over a third of Gaza’s 35 hospitals are not functioning, with many turned into impromptu refugee camps.
“The situation is beyond catastrophic,” said the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, describing packed corridors and many medics who were themselves bereaved and homeless.
“We remain convinced that the Palestinian people are at grave risk of genocide,” seven U.N. special rapporteurs said in a statement in Geneva.
“We demand a humanitarian ceasefire to ensure that aid reaches those who need it the most.”
U.S. national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Thursday that temporary, localized humanitarian pauses would not prevent Israel from defending itself.
“What we’re trying to do is explore the idea of as many pauses as might be necessary to continue to get aid out and to continue to work to get people out safely, including hostages,” he told reporters at a briefing.
In his meetings in Israel and Jordan on Friday, Blinken said he would also discuss the future of Gaza and laying the groundwork for future Palestinian statehood.
The latest war in the decades-old conflict began when Hamas fighters broke through the border on Oct. 7. Israel says they killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took more than 240 hostages in the deadliest day of its 75-year-old history.
Israel’s ensuing bombardment of the small Palestinian enclave of 2.3 million people has killed at least 9,061 people, according to Gaza health authorities.
‘WE ARE NOT ANIMALS’
The Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt was opened for limited evacuations for a second day under a Qatari-brokered deal aimed at letting some foreign passport holders, their dependents and some wounded Gazans out of the enclave.
Palestinian border official Wael Abu Mehsen said 400 foreign citizens would leave for Egypt via the Rafah crossing on Thursday, after some 320 on Wednesday.
Dozens of critically injured Palestinians were to cross too. Israel asked foreign countries to send hospital ships for them.
“I want to pass. We are not animals,” said Ghada el-Saka, an Egyptian at Rafah waiting to return home after visiting relatives. “We’ve seen death with our own eyes,” she added, describing a strike near her siblings’ house that had forced her and her daughter into the street.
Suzan Beseiso, a U.S. citizen with relatives in Gaza, said she was not excited to leave Gaza “because we have so many people that we love and care about”.
“Right now I’m between ice and fire. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to see the family I left behind or the friends I left behind. People are dying. Everybody’s dying. Nobody’s safe.”
Gaza border officials said the Rafah crossing would reopen on Friday for evacuations.
Egypt’s foreign ministry said nearly 7,000 nationals of more than 60 countries were expected to leave, and diplomatic sources said the process may take up to two weeks.
In central Gaza, an air strike destroyed clusters of houses in the Bureij refugee camp, residents and Gaza officials said, with 15 bodies pulled from the rubble.
“A massacre, a massacre,” people cried as they gathered corpses in blankets.
Israel was talking to medical agencies about setting up field hospitals in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, an Israeli official said on Thursday.
Israel’s latest strikes have included the heavily populated area of Jabalia, set up as a refugee camp in 1948.
Gaza’s Hamas-run media office said at least 195 Palestinians were killed in the two hits on Tuesday and Wednesday, with 120 missing and at least 777 people hurt.
Israel, which accuses Hamas of hiding behind civilians, said it killed two Hamas commanders in Jabalia.