Israel pursues Hamas in and around Gaza's biggest cities
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Israel pursues Hamas in and around Gaza's biggest cities

A picture taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on Dec 7, 2023, shows smoke billowing during Israeli bombardment on Gaza. (Photo: AFP)
A picture taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on Dec 7, 2023, shows smoke billowing during Israeli bombardment on Gaza. (Photo: AFP)

GAZA STRIP (PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES) - Israel pressed on with its offensive in and around Gaza's main cities on Friday, more than two months after Hamas's deadly attack sparked a war that has claimed thousands of lives and left the Palestinian territory in ruins.

The death toll in Gaza has soared above 17,000, mostly women and children, the Hamas-run health ministry said, and vast areas of the besieged territory have been reduced to a rubble-strewn wasteland of bombed-out and bullet-scarred buildings.

Early Friday, the health ministry reported another 40 dead in strikes near Gaza City, and "dozens" more in Jabalia and Khan Yunis.

Israeli forces have encircled major urban centres as they seek to destroy Hamas over its unprecedented attack on Oct 7, when militants broke through Gaza's militarised border to kill around 1,200 people and seize hostages, 138 of whom remain captive, according to Israeli figures.

In a Thursday phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United States President Joe Biden "emphasised the critical need to protect civilians and to separate the civilian population from Hamas", the White House said in a statement.

Biden also called for "corridors that allow people to move safely from defined areas of hostilities".

Backed by air power, tanks and armoured bulldozers, Israeli troops are fighting in Khan Yunis, the biggest city in southern Gaza, as well as in Gaza City and Jabalia district in the north.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said troops had closed in on the Khan Yunis home of Hamas's Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, 61, vowing "it is only a matter of time until we find him".

Israeli television stations aired footage Thursday of tens of blindfolded Palestinian men wearing only underwear, guarded by Israeli soldiers in Gaza, setting off strong reactions on social media.

"We are investigating to see who is linked to Hamas and who is not," Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari said at a press conference.

London-based news outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed said one of its journalists was among them.

- 'We are dead already' -

The fighting has pushed Gazans south, turning Rafah near the Egyptian border into a vast camp for many of the 1.9 million displaced by the conflict -- 80 percent of Gaza's population.

"Two months on the road, moving from one place to another. These are the hardest two months we have experienced in our lives," said Abdallah Abu Daqqa, displaced from Khan Yunis to Rafah.

Air strikes have followed them.

Eight more hit Rafah overnight. AFP journalists saw around 20 corpses in white body bags, including a child, at its Nasser hospital, while men gathered nearby to pray.

The mass civilian casualties in the conflict have sparked global concern, heightened by dire shortages caused by an Israeli siege that has seen only limited access for food, water, fuel and medicines.

Israel has approved a "minimal" increase in fuel supplies to prevent a "humanitarian collapse and the outbreak of epidemics", and called on the international community to "increase its capabilities" to distribute aid.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said there were "promising signs" Israel may open the southern Kerem Shalom crossing to aid deliveries.

But Hamas has declared a "state of famine" in northern Gaza, saying no aid has arrived there since Dec 1.

And Israeli rights group B'Tselem said the "minuscule amount of aid" allowed into the territory was "tantamount to deliberately starving the population".

"We are dying here, without even the need for rockets and bomb strikes. We are dead already, dead from hunger, dead from displacement," said Abdelkader al-Haddad, a Gaza City resident now in Rafah.

- Intense fighting -

The Netanyahu government has responded angrily to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres invoking the rarely used Article 99 of the world body's charter, calling on the Security Council to push for a ceasefire.

The Security Council will hold an emergency at 1500 GMT Friday to discuss the crisis.

The fighting in Gaza has killed 89 Israeli soldiers so far, including Gal -- the son of war cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot -- on Thursday.

In a Thursday briefing, the Israeli military said troops had "killed Hamas terrorists and struck dozens of terror targets" in Khan Yunis, and raided a military compound of Hamas's Central Jabalia Battalion.

Hamas released footage of its fighters firing AK-47 assault rifles and grenade launchers from abandoned buildings in what it said was Gaza City, and said it was battling Israeli troops "on all axes of the incursion into the Gaza Strip".

The militant group said it had destroyed two dozen military vehicles in Khan Yunis and Beit Lahia in the territory's north, and its rockets continue to target Israel, though they have been intercepted by air defences.

- Lebanon tensions -

Israelis remained deeply traumatised by the horror of the Hamas attack and fearful for the fate of hostages as they headed into the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, from Thursday evening.

One of the worst-hit sites on Oct 7, the Supernova music festival, was recreated in a Tel Aviv exhibition hall to remember those killed and abducted by Hamas, complete with victims' tents and recovered belongings.

"My brother Idan Dor, 25, was murdered at this festival and it took eight days for us to be told he was dead," said Daniela Dor-Levin.

"He loved to dance, he had just started his life. He wanted peace."

Meanwhile on Thursday, an anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon killed a civilian in Israel, the Israeli army said.

There have been near-daily exchanges across the UN-patrolled Israel-Lebanon border, mainly involving Lebanon's Hezbollah which, like Hamas, is backed by Iran.

Netanyahu warned Hezbollah that if it "chooses to start a global war, then it will turn Beirut and South Lebanon... into Gaza and Khan Yunis with its own hands".

An investigation by Agence France-Presse into an Oct 13 strike in southern Lebanon that killed a Reuters journalist and injured six others, including two from AFP, concluded that it involved a tank shell only used by the Israeli army in this region.

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