RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Heavy fighting raged overnight and into Sunday across Gaza, including in the devastated north, as Israel pressed ahead with its offensive after the U.S. blocked the latest international push for a cease-fire and rushed more munitions to its close ally.
Israel has faced rising international outrage and calls for a permanent cease-fire after the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Nearly 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced within the besieged territory, where U.N. agencies say there is no safe place to flee.
The United States has lent vital support to the offensive once again in recent days, by vetoing United Nations Security Council efforts to end the fighting that enjoyed wide international support, and by pushing through an emergency sale of over $100 million worth of tank ammunition to Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked U.S. President Joe Biden for the “important ammunition for the continuation of the war,” and for supporting Israel at the Security Council.
The U.S. has pledged unwavering support for Israel’s goal of crushing Hamas’ military and governing abilities, and returning all the hostages captured in the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war. Hamas and other Palestinian militants stormed into southern Israel that day, killing some 1,200 people and capturing around 240, over 100 of whom were released during a weeklong cease-fire late last month.
Netanyahu’s office said Sunday that Hamas still has 117 hostages, as well as the remains of 20 people killed in captivity or during the Oct. 7 attack. The militants hope to exchange them for large numbers of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
In response to the attack, Israel launched an air and ground war that has killed thousands of Palestinians, mostly civilians, and forced some 1.9 million people to flee their homes. With only a trickle of aid allowed in, and delivery rendered impossible in much of the territory, Palestinians face severe shortages of food, water and other basic goods.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who invoked a rarely-used power last week to call for a cease-fire, said “we are facing a severe risk of collapse of the humanitarian system.”
“The situation is fast deteriorating into a catastrophe with potentially irreversible implications for the Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region,” he told a forum in Qatar.
Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Israel’s Channel 12 TV late Saturday that the U.S. has set no deadline for Israel to achieve its goals of dismantling Hamas and returning all the hostages.
“The evaluation that this can’t be measured in weeks is correct, and I’m not sure it can be measured in months,” he said.
FIGHTING AND ARRESTS IN THE NORTH
Israeli forces continue to face heavy resistance, even in northern Gaza, where entire neighborhoods have been flattened by air strikes and where ground troops have been operating for over six weeks.
Israel’s Channel 13 TV broadcast footage showing dozens of detainees stripped to their underwear with their hands in the air. Several held assault rifles above their heads, and one man could be seen slowly walking forward and placing a gun on the ground before returning to the group.
Other videos in recent days have shown groups of unarmed men held in similar conditions, without clothes, bound and blindfolded. Men from a separate group of detainees who were released on Saturday told The Associated Press they had been beaten and denied food and water.
Israeli media have portrayed the mass detentions as a sign that Hamas is surrendering in the north.
But residents said there was still heavy fighting underway in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah and the Jabaliya refugee camp, a dense urban area housing Palestinian families who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation.
“They are attacking anything that moves,” said Hamza Abu Fatouh, a resident of Shijaiyah. He said the dead and wounded were left in the streets as ambulances could no longer reach the area, where Israeli snipers and tanks had positioned themselves among the abandoned buildings.
“The resistance also fights back,” he added, saying gunbattles had raged late Saturday.
Israel ordered the evacuation of the northern third of the territory, including Gaza City, early in the war, but tens of thousands of people have remained there, fearing that the south would be no safer or that they would never be allowed to return to their homes.
NO SAFE PLACES
With the war in its third month, the Palestinian death toll in Gaza has surpassed 17,700, the majority women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.
Israel holds Hamas responsible for civilian casualties, saying the militants put civilians in danger by fighting in dense, residential neighborhoods. The military says 97 Israeli soldiers have died in the ground offensive. Palestinians militants have also continued firing rockets into Israel.
Israel says it has provided detailed instructions for civilians to evacuate to safer areas, even as it continues to strike what it says are militant targets in all parts of the territory. Thousands have fled to the southern town of Rafah and other areas along the border with Egypt in recent days — one of the last areas where aid agencies are able to deliver food and water.
Israel has designated a narrow patch of barren southern coastline, Muwasi, as a safe zone. But Palestinians there face overcrowded conditions with scant shelter and no toilets.
The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned Sunday that as displaced people pack into smaller areas without adequate food, water, shelter and sanitation, it creates “ideal conditions for disease to spread.”
The war has raised tensions across the region, with Lebanon’s Hezbollah trading fire with Israel along the border and other Iran-backed militant groups targeting the U.S. in Syria and Iraq.
France said one of its warships in the Red Sea shot down two drones that had approached it from Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have vowed to halt Israeli shipping through the key waterway.
Hanegbi said Israel has called on its Western allies to address the threat and would give them “some time” to organize a response. But he said if the threats persist, “we will act to remove this blockade.”