Israel on Tuesday kept up its strikes against Gaza targets despite grave concern expressed by the United Nations, which named a coordinator for desperately needed humanitarian aid.
The Israeli army said it struck military sites and tunnel shafts in Jabalia, northern Gaza, and Khan Yunis in the south, as heavy ground combat continued.
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Incidents linked to Iran-backed groups in the Red Sea, on the Lebanese border and in Iraq added to regional tensions surrounding the war.
Black smoke clouded the sky over central Gaza on Tuesday afternoon and, in the south, horse-drawn carts carried some victims to hospital in Khan Yunis, AFP images showed.
The bloodiest-ever Gaza war erupted when Hamas gunmen attacked Israel on October 7 and killed about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
During the attack — the deadliest in Israel’s history — Hamas took around 250 hostages of whom 129 remain inside Gaza, Israel says.
Israel retaliated with a relentless bombardment and a siege followed by a ground invasion. The campaign has killed at least 20,915 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest toll issued Tuesday by Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry.
Gaza’s 2.4 million people are suffering dire shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine, with only limited aid entering.
The UN Security Council last week, in a resolution that did not call for an immediate end to fighting, sought “safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance at scale”.
It requested the appointment of a UN humanitarian coordinator to oversee and verify third-country aid to Gaza. On Tuesday the UN named Sigrid Kaag, the outgoing Dutch finance minister, to the post and said she would start work on January 8.
After days of wrangling, the resolution passed after Washington abstained. It effectively leaves Israel with operational oversight of aid deliveries.
An estimated 1.9 million Gazans have been displaced, according to the UN, many having fled south.
Internet and telephone services were again cut across the Palestinian territory, “due to the ongoing offensive,” announced Gaza’s main telecoms firm, Paltel.
“We are gravely concerned about the continued bombardment of Middle Gaza by Israeli forces,” particularly after the military ordered residents to move to the central Gaza and Rafah regions, said Seif Magango, spokesman for the UN Human Rights Office.
France, a staunch Israeli ally, also said it was “gravely concerned” by Israel’s vow to intensify and prolong fighting.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published late Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that peace can only come with three prerequisites: “Hamas must be destroyed, Gaza must be demilitarised and Palestinian society must be deradicalised.”
On Tuesday Israel’s army chief Herzi Halevi told a news conference that the war “will continue for many more months”, a point made earlier in December by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.
The army is concentrating its efforts in Gaza’s south, Halevi said.
– Watching a child die –
On Tuesday three more Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza fighting, bringing the total to 161 since the ground invasion began on October 27, the military said.
AFPTV images from Beit Lahia, in Gaza’s far north, showed dirt and rubble piled up in front of the Indonesian hospital. An ambulance lay abandoned and destroyed, crumpled like a piece of paper.
Some residents of Al-Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza returned to the ruins of their homes after strikes that Gaza’s health ministry said killed at least 70 people. AFP was unable to independently verify that toll.
Sean Casey, a World Health Organization Emergency Medical Teams coordinator, was part of a WHO mission to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah city after the refugee camp strikes.
In a video shot inside the hospital, Casey appeared to be fighting back tears as he described a nine-year-old boy, Ahmed, “being treated basically with sedation to ease his suffering as he dies”, after receiving a head wound when a building was struck.
Only a minority of Gaza’s hospitals are even partly functioning, says the WHO, whose Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus repeated his “call for an immediate ceasefire”.
He said relief efforts “are not coming close” to meeting Gazans’ needs.
The Israeli army said it was “reviewing the incident” at Al-Maghazi and “committed to international law, including taking feasible steps to minimise harm to civilians”.
Israel has been under increasing pressure from its allies to protect non-combatants.
– US-Israeli consultations –
Netanyahu told members of his conservative Likud party on Monday that he was ready to support the voluntary migration of civilians out of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
In a statement, Hamas rejected as “absurd” any such discussion, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the idea of pushing Palestinians into Egypt “is a non-starter”.
Blinken was meeting on Tuesday with Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan for consultations on “matters related to the conflict in Gaza and the return of hostages held by Hamas”, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.
Israel returned the bodies of 80 Palestinians killed in Gaza after taking them from morgues and graves to check there were no hostages among them, sources in the territory’s health ministry said.
There was no immediate army comment.
– Regional sparks –
The impact of the war has rippled throughout the region, with armed groups backed by Israel’s arch-foe Iran escalating activity.
US military forces shot down more than a dozen attack drones and several missiles fired by Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels at shipping in the Red Sea, the Pentagon said, reporting no damage or injuries.
The Huthis had claimed a missile strike on a vessel in the Red Sea and a drone attack towards Israel, their latest such actions in solidarity with Gaza.
Israel’s military said one of its fighter jets had intercepted “in the Red Sea area a hostile aerial target that was on its way to Israeli territory”.
In Iraq, the US military launched strikes on pro-Iran groups it has blamed for numerous attacks on US and allied forces during the Israel-Hamas war.
The strike claimed at least one life, Iraqi authorities said.
An anti-tank missile fired by Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement wounded nine soldiers, Israel’s military said, while Hezbollah announced the death of two of its fighters.