Israel orders more evacuations as Gaza deaths cross 20,000

In the southern city of Rafah — where fireballs and smoke rose after explosions — residents expressed hope ongoing truce talks would succeed

By AFP

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Relatives of a Palestinian man killed in Israeli bombardment mourn at the Najar hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 21 amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. — Photo: AFP
Relatives of a Palestinian man killed in Israeli bombardment mourn at the Najar hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 21 amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. — Photo: AFP

Published: Thu 21 Dec 2023, 11:53 AM

Last updated: Thu 21 Dec 2023, 11:17 PM

Israel has ordered more evacuations in southern Gaza's main city as diplomats pressed on with efforts to secure a pause in the war that Hamas says has claimed 20,000 lives.

The UN said Israel had issued evacuation orders on Wednesday for large areas of Khan Yunis, where more than 140,000 displaced people were sheltering.

Israel told civilians to leave the north of the besieged Palestinian territory at the beginning of the conflict, urging them to seek safety in southern areas.

But as places for people to go continued to shrink, international outrage has mounted over the rising death toll.

The war began when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing around 1,140 people, mostly civilians, and abducting about 250, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

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The Hamas government's media office in the Gaza Strip said on Wednesday that at least 20,000 people had been killed in the Palestinian territory since the war with Israel began.

It said 8,000 children and 6,200 women were among the dead.

UN relief chief Martin Griffiths deemed it a "tragic and shameful milestone".

Residents pray for ceasefire

In the southern city of Rafah, where fireballs and smoke rose after explosions on Wednesday, residents expressed hope that truce talks would succeed.

"I wish for a complete ceasefire, and to put an end to the series of death and suffering. It's been more than 75 days," said Kassem Shurrab, 25.

Hopes that Israel and Hamas could be inching towards another truce and hostage release deal have risen this week as the head of the Palestinian group visited Egypt and talks were held in Europe.

Qatar-based Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh arrived in Egypt on Wednesday for talks with the country's intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

Haniyeh also met Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian but no details were released.

A Hamas official told AFP that "a total ceasefire and a retreat of the Israeli occupation army from the Gaza Strip are a precondition for any serious negotiation" on a hostage-prisoner swap.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there could be no ceasefire in Gaza before the "elimination" of Hamas.

And US President Joe Biden said of a fresh hostage release deal: "There's no expectation at this point. But we are pushing it."

Mossad director David Barnea held a "positive meeting" in Warsaw this week with CIA chief Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, a source familiar with the talks told AFP.

Qatar, backed by Egypt and the US, last month helped broker a first week-long truce that saw 80 Israeli hostages freed in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

New UN resolution

The UN Security Council was due to try once again Thursday to pass a resolution calling for a halt in fighting after previous efforts to win Washington's backing fell short.

Israel has rejected the term "ceasefire", and the US has used its veto twice to thwart resolutions opposed by Israel since the start of the war.

The United Arab Emirates is sponsoring a draft resolution on the conflict which has already been watered down to secure compromise, according to a draft version seen by AFP.

It calls for "the urgent suspension of hostilities to allow safe and unhindered humanitarian access, and for urgent steps towards a sustainable cessation of hostilities."

The war has sparked fears of regional escalation, with exchanges of fire over the Lebanon border, and missiles from Iran-backed Yemeni rebels disrupting Red Sea shipping.

Israel said Wednesday it had struck an "operational command centre" used by Iran-backed Hezbollah militants and fired on fighters heading for the Lebanon-Israel border.

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