GAZA STRIP, Palestinian terrorities – Israel on Monday pounded Gaza with "significant" strikes with soldiers battling Hamas forces in the besieged territory, ignoring ceasefire calls by UN aid agencies who condemned surging civilian deaths in the month-long conflict.
Israeli troops and Hamas fighters engaged in house-to-house combat in densely populated Gaza, where the war has sent 1.5 million people fleeing to other parts of the territory in a desperate search for cover.
“We are striking Hamas, and we are going stronghold after stronghold, according to our plan, in a systematic effort to dismantle Hamas from its military capabilities,” Israeli army spokesman Jonathan Conricus told CNN.
“We have troops on the ground; infantry, armour, combat engineers. They are striking and they are also directing fire from the air,” he said, adding efforts were focused on the “underground infrastructure” network of Hamas tunnels.
“This strike is like an earthquake,” Gaza City resident Alaa Abu Hasera said, in a devastated area where entire blocks were reduced to rubble.
Israel launched a massive bombing campaign on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip after the Palestinian militants staged the worst attack in Israel’s history.
In their October 7 attack, Hamas gunmen killed more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took more than 240 others hostage.
According to the health ministry in Gaza, which is run by Hamas, more than 9,770 people, mostly civilians, have beenkilled in Israeli strikes and the intensifying ground campaign since the war began.
– Civilians remain –
Israel has distributed leaflets and sent text messages ordering Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza to head south, but a US official said Saturday at least 350,000 civilians remained in what is now an urban war zone.
On Sunday, the health ministry said 45 people were killed in Israeli strikes on a refugee camp in central Gaza, leaving survivors desperately searching through the rubble.
“Are there any survivors?” shouted Said al-Najma, as he tried to shift the blocks of concrete strewn across the road in the camp.
“They brought down an entire street on the heads of women and children without any notice,” he said.
Deepening the desperation in the crowded territory, the sole border crossing into Egypt was closed Sunday for a second day in a row, with Hamas suspending the evacuation of foreign passport holders after Israel refused to allow some injured Palestinians to be evacuated.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) confirmed the closure, saying more than 1,100 people had been allowed out in the two days previous.
The Israeli army has encircled Gaza City, effectively splitting the territory in two, with “significant” strikes carried out, army spokesman Daniel Hagari said late Sunday.
Shortly before the strikes, internet and telephone lines were cut, and the strikes would continue overnight and in the days to come, Hagari added.
Since Israel sent ground forces into the north of Gaza late last month, “over 2,500 terror targets have been struck” by “ground, air and naval forces”, the army said Sunday.
The fighting comes as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken presses a whirlwind Middle East tour focused on humanitarian aid for the Palestinians, that has taken him to Israel and the occupied West Bank, as well as to Jordan, Iraq and Cyprus.
Blinken, who has rebuffed calls for a ceasefire and backed Israel’s goal of crushing Hamas, met Sunday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank.
Abbas denounced “the genocide and destruction suffered by our Palestinian people in Gaza at the hands of Israel’s war machine, with no regard for the principles of international law,” the official Palestinian news agency Wafa said.
The war has exacerbated tensions in the West Bank, where more than 150 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli forces and in settlers since the start of the war, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
As concern grows at mounting casualties, the heads of all major United Nations agencies issued a joint statement expressing outrage at the civilian death toll in Gaza and calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”.
“For almost a month, the world has been watching the unfolding situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory in shock and horror at the spiralling numbers of lives lost and torn apart,” the UN chiefs said, including the heads of UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization.
“We need an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. It’s been 30 days. Enough is enough. This must stop now.”
– ‘Continue until we win’ –
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has remained firm on his position, vowing that “there won’t be a ceasefire until the hostages are returned”.
“Let them remove this from their lexicon. We are saying this to our enemies and to our friends,” the right-wing premier said after meeting troops.
“We will simply continue until we win. We have no alternative.”
Blinken faced a rising tide of anger in meetings with Arab foreign ministers in Jordan on Saturday, where he reaffirmed US support for “humanitarian pauses” rather than a ceasefire.
Jordan’s air force air-dropped vital medical supplies to a field hospital in Gaza, King Abdullah II said Monday, adding that it was his country’s “duty to aid our brothers and sisters injured in the war on Gaza”.
On Monday, Blinken holds tough talks in Turkey in a bid to soothe the anger of one of Washington’s most strategic but difficult allies about the bloodshed in Gaza.
NATO member Turkey, which is allied to the Palestinians but also has ties with Israel, has said it is recalling its ambassador to Israel and breaking off contacts with Netanyahu.
In the north of Israel, the army and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement traded fire across the border, with each claiming to have hit the other’s positions along the frontier.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has said Israel’s war with Hamas could draw in other regional forces, but Conricus said Israel’s position was “very defensive” and soldiers have “only been responding to attacks from Hezbollah”.