By Najib Jobain, Wafaa Shurafa and Samy Magdy | Associated Press
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israeli forces expanded their ground offensive Tuesday to urban refugee camps in central Gaza after bombarding crowded Palestinian communities and ordering residents to evacuate. Gaza’s main telecommunications provider has announced another “complete interruption” of services in the besieged territory.
Army’s announcement of new battle zone threatens further destruction in a war Israel says will last “several months” as Israel vows to crush ruling militant group Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack . Israeli forces are engaged in heavy urban fighting in northern Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, pushing Palestinians into smaller and smaller areas in search of refuge.
The United States said Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer was meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Despite U.S. calls for Israel to reduce civilian casualties and international pressure for a ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was intensifying the fighting.
“We say to the Hamas terrorists: we see you and we will attack you,” Netanyahu said.
The Israeli offensive is one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history. More than 20,900 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and children, were killed, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, whose count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. The agency said 240 people were killed in the past 24 hours.
The UN human rights office said continued bombings in central Gaza have claimed the lives of more than 100 Palestinians since Christmas Eve. The office noted that Israel had ordered some residents to move there.
Israel said it would no longer grant automatic visas to UN employees and accused the world body of being “complicit partners” in Hamas tactics. Government spokesman Eylon Levy said Israel would consider visa applications on a case-by-case basis. This could further limit aid efforts in Gaza.
Residents of central Gaza described shelling and airstrikes that rocked the Nuseirat, Maghazi and Bureij camps. The built-up towns house Palestinians driven from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war, as well as their descendants.
“The shelling was very intense,” Radwan Abu Sheitta said by telephone from Bureij.
The Israeli military ordered residents to evacuate a belt of territory stretching the width of central Gaza, urging them to move to nearby Deir al-Balah. The U.N. humanitarian office said the area ordered evacuated was home to nearly 90,000 people before the war and is now home to more than 61,000 displaced people, mostly from the north.
The army later said it was operating in Bureij and claimed to have located a Hamas training camp.
The telecommunications outage announced by Paltel follows similar outages throughout much of the war. NetBlocks, a group that tracks internet outages, confirmed that network connectivity in Gaza was once again disrupted and “likely to leave most residents offline.”
Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said several countries had sent proposals to resolve the conflict following the announcement of an Egyptian proposal that would include a transitional Palestinian government in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. He did not provide details of the proposals.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel faces a “multi-arena war” on seven fronts: Gaza and the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran. “We responded and acted on six of them,” he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Iran-backed militias in the region have stepped up attacks in support of Hamas.
Iran-backed militias in Iraq carried out a drone strike on a U.S. base in Erbil on Monday, wounding three U.S. service members, U.S. officials said. In response, U.S. military aircraft struck three locations in Iraq linked to a main militia, Kataib Hezbollah.
Almost daily, Hezbollah and Israel exchange missiles, airstrikes and bombings across the Israeli-Lebanese border. On Tuesday, the Israeli military said Hezbollah hit a Greek Orthodox church in northern Israel with a missile, wounding two Israeli Christians, and fired again at arriving soldiers, wounding nine.
“Hezbollah is endangering the stability of the region for the sake of Hamas,” said Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari.
In the Red Sea, attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on commercial ships have disrupted trade and triggered a U.S.-led multinational naval operation to protect shipping lanes. The Israeli military said a fighter jet on Tuesday shot down a “hostile aerial target” over the Red Sea that the military said was en route to Israeli territory.
The USS Laboon, a Navy destroyer, and US warplanes shot down 12 drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles and two land-attack cruise missiles in the southern Red Sea, fired by the Yemen-based Houthis over a period of 10 hours. Tuesday, according to the Pentagon. U.S. Central Command said no ships were damaged in the area or injured.
A COMMON FOM
More than 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been driven from their homes. U.N. officials say a quarter of the territory’s population is starving under the Israeli siege, which is letting in a trickle of food, water, fuel, medicine and other supplies. The U.N. Security Council last week called for aid deliveries to be immediately accelerated, but there have been few signs of change.
In an area that Israel had declared a safe zone, a strike hit a house in Mawasi, a rural area in the southern province of Khan Younis. One woman was killed and at least eight were injured, according to a cameraman working for The Associated Press at the nearby hospital.
In response, the Israeli military said it would not refrain from operating in security zones, “if it identifies terrorist organization activity threatening the security of Israel.”
The Oct. 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 others hostage. Israel aims to free more than 100 hostages still in captivity.
Israel blames Hamas for the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza, citing the militants’ use of crowded residential areas and tunnels. Israel claims to have killed thousands of militants, without presenting evidence.
At the Kerem Shalom border crossing, UN and Gaza medical personnel unloaded a truck carrying around 80 unidentified bodies held by Israeli forces in northern Gaza. They were buried in a common grave.
Medical staff described the odors as unbearable. “We cannot open this container in a neighborhood where people live,” Dr. Marwan al-Hams, director of the health emergency committee in Rafah, told the AP. He said the health and justice ministries would investigate the bodies for possible “war crimes.”
The Israeli army announced the death of two additional soldiers, bringing the total number of deaths since the start of the ground offensive to 161.
Wafaa Shurafa reported from Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip and Samy Magdy from Cairo. Melanie Lidman in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.
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