GAZA/JERUSALEM – Israeli forces have pushed further into Gaza City in their assault on Hamas in the north of the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, but they faced resistance from militant hit-and-run attacks from underground tunnels.
The Palestinian death toll from nearly four weeks of Israeli air and artillery strikes on the blockaded enclave meanwhile rose past 9,000 on Thursday, Gaza health authorities said.
The Gaza Strip’s main population centre in the north has become the focus of attack for Israel, which has vowed to annihilate the Islamist group’s command structure and has told civilians to flee to the south.
“We’re at the height of the battle. We’ve had impressive successes and have passed the outskirts of Gaza City. We are advancing,” Netanyahu said in a statement. He gave no further details.
Israeli military chief Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevi said in a televised statement: “Our forces are now in the heart of a ground operation in the northern Gaza Strip.”
Brigadier General Iddo Mizrahi, chief of Israel’s military engineers, said troops were in a first stage of opening access routes in Gaza but were encountering mines and booby-traps.
“Hamas has learned and prepared itself well,” he said.
Hamas and allied Islamic Jihad fighters were emerging from tunnels to fire at tanks, then disappearing back into the network, residents said and videos from both groups showed.
“They never stopped bombing Gaza City all night, the house never stopped shaking,” said one Palestinian man, asking not to be identified by name.
“But in the morning we discover the Israeli forces are still outside the city, in the outskirts and that means the resistance is heavier than they expected.”
As international calls for a humanitarian pause in hostilities go unheeded, Palestinians are suffering shortages of food, fuel, drinking water and medicine.
“Water is being used as a weapon of war,” said Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.
In Khan Younis, in the south of the Gaza Strip, nine-year-old Rafif Abu Ziyada said she was drinking dirty water and getting stomach pains and headaches.
“There is no cooking gas, there is no water, we don’t eat well. We are getting sick,” she said. “There’s garbage on the ground and the whole place is polluted.”
Over a third of Gaza’s 35 hospitals are not functioning, with many turned into impromptu refugee camps.
“The situation is beyond catastrophic,” said the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, describing packed corridors and many medics themselves bereaved and homeless.
The United Arab Emirates offered to treat 1,000 children while Turkey offered to take cancer patients.
The latest war in the decades-old conflict began when Hamas fighters broke through the border on Oct. 7. Israel says they killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took more than 200 hostages in the deadliest day of its 75-year history.
Israel’s ensuing bombardment of the small Palestinian enclave of 2.3 million people has killed at least 9,061 people, including 3,760 children and 2,326 women, according to Gaza health authorities.
Though the United States and other Western nations have traditionally supported Israel, harrowing images of bodies in the rubble and hellish conditions inside Gaza have triggered appeals for restraint and street protests around the world.
DESTRUCTION ACROSS GAZA
Residents reported mortar fire around Gaza City and said Israeli tanks and bulldozers were sometimes driving over rubble and knocking down structures rather than using regular roads.
Though Israel has told Gazans to go south, that part of the territory was not spared either. Three Palestinians died in tank shelling near the town of Khan Younis and an air strike killed five outside a U.N. school in Beach refugee camp, Gaza health officials said.
In central Gaza, an air strike destroyed clusters of houses in the Bureij refugee camp, residents and Gaza officials said, with 15 bodies pulled from the rubble.
“A massacre, a massacre,” people cried as they gathered corpses in blankets.
After a total blockade of Gaza for more than three weeks, foreign passport-holders and some wounded were allowed out.
Palestinian border official Wael Abu Mehsen said 400 foreign citizens would leave for Egypt via the Rafah crossing on Thursday, after some 320 on Wednesday.
Dozens of critically injured Palestinians were to cross too. Israel asked foreign countries to send hospital ships for them.
“I want to pass. We are not animals,” said Ghada el-Saka, an Egyptian at Rafah waiting to return home after visiting relatives. “We’ve seen death with our own eyes,” she added, describing a strike near her siblings’ house that had made her and her daughter live on the street.
Israel’s latest strikes have included the heavily populated area of Jabalia, set up as a refugee camp in 1948.
Gaza’s Hamas-run media office said at least 195 Palestinians were killed in the two hits on Tuesday and Wednesday, with 120 missing and at least 777 people hurt.
Israel, which accuses Hamas of hiding behind civilians, said it killed two Hamas commanders in Jabalia.
With Arab nations vocal in their outrage at Israel’s actions, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said Israel’s “disproportionate attacks” may constitute war crimes.
Israel says it has lost 18 soldiers and killed dozens of militants since ground operations were expanded on Friday.
Violence has also spread to the occupied West Bank, with Israeli raids touching off clashes with gunmen and people throwing stones.