Airstrikes intensify, hit civillian areas in Gaza; US urges more targeted strikes; tension in West Bank rises

CAIRO/ GAZA:

Palestinian health officials also said Israeli strikes on Gaza City in the north had hit the YMCA headquarters, which is sheltering hundreds of displaced people and reported several dead and wounded.

The official WAFA news agency said at least three dozen people had been killed in strikes on three houses in the Jabalia refugee camp, which health officials were unable to confirm. Gaza’s health ministry has said Israel’s ground offensive and the targeting of medical facilities have made it hard to gather information about casualties in northern Gaza.

Rescue workers believed some casualties remained buried under the rubble in some of those areas.

Gaza residents also reported intense overnight fighting and bombardment in Sheijaia, Sheikh Radwan, Zeitoun, Tuffah and Beit Hanoun in the north, and in the centre, east and north of Khan Younis.

“The Gaza Strip turned into a ball of fire overnight, we could hear explosions and gunshots echoing from all directions,” Ahmed, 45, an electrician and father of six, told Reuters from a shelter in central Gaza.

US urges Israel to narrow its campaign

President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, brought a message to Israel on Thursday and Friday to scale down the campaign and transition to more narrowly targeted operations against Hamas leaders, US officials said.

During the visit, Israeli officials publicly emphasised that they would continue the war until they eradicate Hamas. Washington appeared to acknowledge disagreement, as Sullivan said the timing was under “intensive discussion” between the allies.

An Israeli military official said three hostages killed mistakenly in Gaza by Israeli forces had been holding up a white flag, according to an initial inquiry.

The incident happened in an area of intense combat where Hamas fighters operate in civilian attire and use deception tactics, the official said, but the hostages were fired upon against Israel’s rules of engagement.

A man holds the flak jacket which belongs to Al Jazeera journalist Wael Al-Dahdouh, who was wounded in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, December 15, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

A man holds the flak jacket which belongs to Al Jazeera journalist Wael Al-Dahdouh, who was wounded in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, December 15, 2023.

Israel, which said it recovered the bodies of three other hostages killed by Hamas, believes around 20 of more than 130 hostages still held in Gaza are dead.

The Israeli military said on Saturday that it had bombed a building in Jabalia from the air after its forces came under fire and Hamas fighters were seen on the roof. It was unclear if the building was one of those that WAFA said had been hit.

 

The military also said it had killed fighters holed up in two school buildings in Gaza City, and raided apartments in Khan Younis stocked with weapons, uncovering what it described as underground infrastructure used by Hamas, the  group that runs Gaza and that Israel has vowed to destroy.

“Every day the situation gets worse. Food gets less, water gets worse, only death, fear and destruction get greater,” said Samira, 40, a mother of four, who is displaced in Rafah, near the southern border with Egypt.

Fire burns in Gaza as seen from southern Israel, December 15, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

Fire burns in Gaza as seen from southern Israel, December 15, 2023.

 

“I can’t handle the children anymore. They’re terrified and so am I. Every night we think it might be our last night. The bombing doesn’t stop,” she told Reuters by phone.

With intense fighting across the Gaza Strip and aid organisations warning of a humanitarian catastrophe, the United States has said Israel risks losing international support with “indiscriminate” air strikes.

In a surprise cross-border attack on Oct. 7, Hamas fighters rampaged through Israeli towns, killing 1,200 people and capturing 240 hostages. Israel’s counterattack has killed close to 19,000 people, according to Gaza health authorities, with thousands more feared buried under rubble.

Combat intensifies

Combat has intensified in the past two weeks since the collapse of a week-long truce that had allowed dozens of hostages to be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli and Qatari officials were set to meet in Norway on Saturday in an effort to revive talks about the release of hostages in Gaza in return for a ceasefire and the freeing of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In signs of the wider ramifications of the conflict, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis said they had attacked the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat with a swarm of drones, one of several drone incidents reported in the region on Saturday.

Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes over the past two months, many several times.

After Sullivan left, Israel said it would open the Kerem Shalom crossing, the main road link into Gaza, for aid shipments for the first time in the war, allowing in 200 trucks per day.

The UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said it had taken 1.4 million people into its facilities, now so overcrowded that there were 486 people for every toilet in its shelters in Rafah.

Around 1,000 refugees have been wounded in those shelters since Oct. 7 and at least 288 killed, along with 135 UNRWA workers, the agency said.

Tensions have also soared in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces detained 16 Palestinians overnight, according to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Association, taking the number of arrests there since Oct. 7 to 4,520.

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