Israel mounts fiercest attacks so far in Gaza war against Hamas

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Gaza (Reuters) – Israel’s military bombarded southern Gaza’s main city in what it said was the fiercest fighting since it began a ground invasion to eliminate Hamas five weeks ago, while the U.S. again pressed Israel to minimise Palestinian civilian casualties.

Israel reported its forces, backed by war planes, on Tuesday reached the heart of Khan Younis in southern Gaza and also surrounded the city. Hamas’ armed wing, the al Qassam Brigades, said its fighters engaged in violent clashes with Israelis.

“We are in the most intense day since the beginning of the ground operation,” the commander of the Israeli military’s Southern Command, General Yaron Finkelman, said in a statement.

The combat was also the most intense since a truce between Israel and Hamas collapsed last week. Israeli forces also fought in Jabalia, a large urban refugee camp and Hamas hotbed in the north next to Gaza City, and in Shuja’iyya to the east, Finkelman said.

Hamas’ armed wing said it killed or wounded eight Israeli troops and destroyed 24 military vehicles on Tuesday. An Israeli military website listed two troop deaths for Tuesday and 83 since the ground operation began.

Gaza health officials said many civilians were killed in an Israeli strike on houses in Deir al-Balah, north of Khan Younis. Dr Eyad Al-Jabri, head of the Shuhada Al-Aqsa Hospital there, told Reuters at least 45 people were killed. Reuters could not reach the area nor confirm the toll.

Israel unleashed its campaign in response to an attack on Oct. 7 by Hamas fighters who rampaged through Israeli towns, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages, according to Israel’s tally.

Israeli police are investigating alleged sexual crimes and Israel’s justice ministry has said “victims were tortured, physically abused, raped, burned alive, and dismembered”.

Hamas’ media office said on Tuesday at least 16,248 people including 7,112 children and 4,885 women had been killed in Gaza by Israel’s military since Oct. 7. Thousands more are missing and feared buried under rubble.

Those figures were not immediately verified by the Gaza health ministry.

U.S. Pressure On Israel

Since the truce collapsed, Israel has been posting an online map to tell Gazans which parts of the enclave to evacuate to avoid attacks. Khan Younis’ eastern quarter was marked on Monday, and many of its hundreds of thousands of residents took flight on foot.

Reuters Graphics
Reuters Graphics

Gazans say there is no safe place, with remaining towns and shelters already overwhelmed, and Israel continuing to bomb the areas where it is telling people to go.

At Khan Younis’ main Nasser hospital, the wounded arrived by ambulance, car, flatbed truck and donkey cart after what survivors described as a strike on a school being used as a shelter for the displaced.

Inside a ward, almost every inch of blood-splattered floor space was taken up by the wounded including small children, with medics hurrying from patient to patient while relatives wailed.

Two girls were being treated, still covered in dust from the collapse of the house that had buried their family.

“My parents are under the rubble,” sobbed one child. “I want my mum, I want my mum, I want my family.”

Amid continued international criticism of Gaza’s plight, the United States, Israel’s close ally, reiterated on Tuesday that Israel needed to do more to allow fuel and other aid into Gaza and reduce harm to civilians. Despite the mounting death toll, it said Israel was now showing some receptiveness to the calls.

“The level of assistance that’s getting in is not sufficient,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a press briefing. “It needs to go up, and we’ve made that clear to the government of Israel.”

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that Hamas had repeatedly raped women and mutilated their bodies during its assault on southern Israel, citing survivors and witnesses.

“It is appalling,” he told a political fundraiser in Boston.

In a statement on its Telegram channel, Hamas denounced Biden’s accusations as false and said he was joining Israel’s effort to cover up war crimes committed with U.S. support.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the claims of rape and other abuse in a meeting with families of returned hostages on Tuesday that some participants described as angry because of frustration over the government’s handling of the situation.

“I heard stories that broke my heart… I heard and you also heard, about sexual assault and cases of brutal rape unlike anything,” Netanyahu said at a press conference.

Israel says a number of women and children remain in Hamas hands. During the pause in fighting, Hamas returned more than 100 hostages while 138 captives remain.

Biden blamed Iran-backed Hamas for the collapse of the truce last week, saying the militant group’s “refusal to release the remaining young women is what broke this deal”.

Israel and Hamas have accused each other of wrecking negotiations.

Asked late on Tuesday whether Hamas was the only group holding U.S. hostages in Gaza, Biden said: “Well there’s others. Look, I’m not going to talk more about it. We’re not walking away.”

Hamas official Osama Hamdan said on Tuesday there would be no more hostages released until Israel’s aggression stopped.

Separately, the U.S. imposed visa bans on people involved in violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank after appeals for Israel to do more to prevent attacks on Palestinians by Jewish settlers.

Two Palestinian teenagers were killed by the Israeli gunfire in Tubas, West Bank, the official Palestinian WAFA news agency reported on Wednesday.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Tuesday condemned settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

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