Israel steps up Gaza bombardment after talks on hostages

Israeli forces say they gain control over central Khan Younis as Gaza health officials put the Palestinian death toll at over 19,000

By Reuters

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A picture taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing following Israeli bombardment in the Palestinian territory. — AFP
A picture taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing following Israeli bombardment in the Palestinian territory. — AFP

Published: Sun 17 Dec 2023, 6:15 PM

Israel stepped up its bombardment of Gaza overnight and into Sunday, killing at least 40 people, Palestinians said, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the only way to secure the release of hostages was intense military pressure on Hamas.

The Israeli attacks took place amid fierce fighting the length of the coastal enclave, according to residents and militants, with communications down for a fourth day, making it hard to reach the wounded.

"The communication blackout in #Gaza is the longest since the start of the Israeli escalation," the Palestinian Red Crescent said on X, adding that its teams were also hampered by shelling.

Israel's spy chief held talks on Friday with the prime minister of Qatar, which mediated earlier hostage releases in return for a week-long ceasefire and the freeing of Palestinian prisoners, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

But the militants have said they will not discuss freeing any more of those captured when they attacked southern Israel on October 7 while Israel continues the all-out war on Gaza it unleashed in response.

With no signs of compromise, the violence intensified.

Israeli missile strikes against a house belonging to the Shehab family killed 24 people and wounded dozens of others in Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, Hamas Aqsa radio said, quoting the director of the health ministry.

A man takes pictures from a rooftop as smoke billows over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip during Israeli bombardment. — AFP
A man takes pictures from a rooftop as smoke billows over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip during Israeli bombardment. — AFP

Health officials were not available for immediate comment but a medic said dozens of people had been killed or wounded in the Shebab family home and others nearby that were also hit.

"Jabalia suffered tank, air, and naval bombardment overnight, it has been suffering a brutal war for days, people are dying in the streets and we can't get to them," he said by telephone, using an e-sim that can connect to outside networks and declining to give a name fearing Israeli reprisal.

"We believe the number of dead people under the rubble is huge but there is no way to remove the rubble and recover them because of the intensity of Israeli fire."

In Deir Al Balah, central Gaza, medics said 12 Palestinians had been killed and dozens were wounded, while in Rafah in the south, they said an Israeli air strike left at least four people dead.

Israel said it had operated against "terrorist" targets.

Around 19,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza health officials, and thousands buried in the rubble of Israeli air strikes since October 7.

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. — Reuters
Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. — Reuters

Israel's military said on Sunday that 121 soldiers had been killed since the ground campaign began on October 27, when tanks and infantry began to push into Gaza's cities and refugee camps.

Netanyahu read out a letter at his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday which he said was written by relatives of dead soldiers.

"You have a mandate to fight. You do not have a mandate to stop in the middle," he quoted them as saying, responding: "We will fight to the end."

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The toll is already almost twice as high as during a ground offensive in 2014, a reflection of how far it has pushed into the enclave and of Hamas' effective use of guerrilla tactics and an expanded arsenal.

The Israeli military said its ground troops had found weapons and a tunnel used by militants to attack troops in Shejaia, a suburb east of Gaza City in the north, and destroyed a weapons storage facility in the home of a Hamas operative.

Militants also fought Israeli troops in the centre of Khan Younis city in the south, residents said, while Israeli tanks shelled the eastern villages of Mughraqa and Juhr Eldeek in central Gaza Strip, where fighting has intensified with Hamas gunmen in the past days.

The rubble of a house destroyed in reported Israeli bombardment on December 13 litters the surrounding area in the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila. — AFP
The rubble of a house destroyed in reported Israeli bombardment on December 13 litters the surrounding area in the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila. — AFP

In Khan Younis in southern Gaza, residents reported hearing Israeli planes and tanks bombing and shelling and the sound of rocket grenades, apparently fired by Hamas fighters.

Medics said Israeli forces had shelled the courtyard of the city's Nasser hospital and surrounding areas, with a new air strike on a school on Sunday morning.

The Israeli military said it had killed seven "terrorists" in an air strike on Khan Younis and found rocket manufacturing parts and three tunnel shafts near a school used as a shelter. It also said it had struck the local Hamas commander's office and gained control over the central Bani Suheila Square.

Israel says it goes to great lengths to avoid hitting civilians as it seeks to eliminate Hamas, which has run Gaza since 2006 and is sworn to Israel's destruction.

Netanyahu said on Saturday the war in Gaza was existential and must be fought until victory, with the enclave demilitarised and under Israeli security control.

"The instruction I am giving the negotiating team is predicated on this pressure, without which we have nothing," he told a press conference, sidestepping a question on the meeting in Europe between his spy chief David Barnea and Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. Barnea later returned to Israel.

The accidental killing of three hostages by Israeli forces has put increased pressure on Netanyahu to find a way to secure the release of those held.

Hamas reiterated that it would not negotiate any exchange "unless the aggression against our people stops once and for all".

In the southern town of Rafah, people rushed to help rescue families trapped under the rubble of a building that housed dozens of people, including some from the north who had followed Israeli army warnings to head south to avoid ground operations.

Mahmoud Jarbou', who lives nearby, said the sound of the explosion was "as powerful as an earthquake".

"We were sitting in the house when suddenly shrapnel fell on us and people were screaming and streaming out into the street."


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