Fierce street-by-street combat rages in Gaza City
Israeli troops and Hamas were locked in heavy, close-quarters fighting in Gaza City on Thursday, including a 10-hour battle that Israel said toppled one of the Palestinian militants’ strongholds.
Hamas fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault rifles were clashing with Israeli soldiers backed by armored vehicles in the ruins of the besieged territory’s north.
Broken palm trees, mangled road signs and twisted lampposts marked the remains of what was once north Gaza’s main arterial route, an AFP journalist saw while embedded with Israeli troops on a controlled visit.
Israeli flags were flying over buildings at beach resorts in northern Gaza and there was little sign of any human presence amid the destruction as hundreds of thousands have fled a dire humanitarian situation.
The utter devastation is the result of over a month of war sparked by the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.
On that day, gunmen from the Islamist group poured over the Gaza border with Israel and, according to Israeli officials, killed 1,400 people and seized about 240 hostages in the worst attack in the country’s history.
Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel retaliated with an aerial bombing and ground offensive that the health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip says has killed more than 10,500 people, many of them children.
Oda Bikhet, a witness to the consequences of the latest bombardment in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, recounted the human toll.
“All of a sudden, an air strike hit the area, and we went out to check only to find children injured,” he said. “One child lost his arm, another lost an eye. Another old person was injured.”
- Stronghold and tunnels –
The Israeli military said its forces secured a Hamas “military stronghold” in western Jabalia area in the past day, adding the troops had “finished securing the compound after 10 hours of combat”.
The battle raged above and below ground, it said, exposing some of Hamas’s extensive network of tunnel and subterranean bases that form a significant element of the militants’ capacity to fight.
Israel said dozens of militants were killed, while adding the overall death toll for Israel’s troops in the ground offensive had risen to 34.
The intense combat and the densely populated coastal territory being effectively sealed off have led to increasingly dire conditions for civilians.
French President Emmanuel Macron urged nations to “work towards a ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas, as he opened a conference in Paris on Gaza aid.
Israel is not attending the meeting, which aims to mobilize the main players involved in the humanitarian response in the Palestinian territory.
Tom Potokar, chief surgeon at the International Committee of the Red Cross, described the scene at the European hospital in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza as “catastrophic”.
“In the last 24 hours, I’ve seen three patients with maggots in their wounds,” Potokar told AFP.
Italy said it is sending a hospital ship to the Middle East that is expected to arrive “in a couple of days”, without confirming how close the ship would get to Gaza.
- Thousands fleeing fighting –
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 hundreds of thousands of civilians remained in battle zones north of the central Wadi Gaza district.
An Israeli military official insisted Gaza was not in a humanitarian crisis, even as he acknowledged the Palestinian territory faces several challenges amid the ongoing war.
“We know the civil situation in the Gaza Strip is not an easy one,” said Colonel Moshe Tetro, head of coordination and liaison at COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry body handling civil affairs in Gaza.
Yet as he spoke, the climbing death toll in the territory meant that Palestinians were having to inter their dead in makeshift cemeteries.
“We bury the dead in football fields and other vacant lots because the proper burial grounds are full,” said Shihteh Nasser, 48, helped in the burials.
Bodies have piled up outside hospitals, on roads and in parks, in refrigerated trucks and even in a repurposed ice-cream van.
- After the war –
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected a ceasefire unless the 239 hostages Hamas currently 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.
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 the conflict ends have also grown, after Netanyahu this week said Israel would assume “overall security” of the territory.
US National Security Council spokesman John 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.
Since the war broke out, violence has also gripped the West Bank, whose health ministry said eight Palestinians were killed Thursday during an Israeli army raid on the northern city of Jenin.
by Adel Zaanoun with Jonah Mandel in Jerusalem
©️ Agence France-Presse