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Gaza death toll passes 22,000 with no let-up in fighting between Hamas and Israel troops

ISRAELI forces attacked Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip with tank fire and air strikes, residents said, and Israeli ground troops and Hamas militants also battled in other parts of the shattered Palestinian enclave.

Israel said its troops had killed dozens of militants in Gaza’s north in the past day. Residents said Israeli tanks had shelled parts of the Al-Bureij refugee camp in the central area. The Gaza health ministry said 207 people had been killed in the past 24 hours, bringing the total recorded Palestinian death toll to more than 22,000 in nearly three months of warfare in the Hamas-ruled enclave.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the operations in the south around Khan Younis were focused on areas above the tunnel network where Hamas leaders were believed to be hiding.

“We are reaching them all ways. There already is engagement and there are hostages there too sadly,” he told troops in Gaza in footage shown on Israeli television.

“This will continue as high-intensity efforts in the heart of Khan Younis,” he said.

The latest fighting took place after Israel announced plans to pull back some troops, signalling a new phase in the war against Hamas amid global concern over the plight of Gaza residents.

Israeli bombardments have reduced much of the territory to rubble and engulfed its 2.3 million residents in a humanitarian disaster in which many thousands have been left destitute and threatened by famine due to a lack of food supplies. Israeli officials say the offensive has many months to run.

READ:  Israeli tanks reach centre of Khan Younis in new storm of southern Gaza

In a tent camp for displaced Palestinians in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, Shadi Maarouf, his wife Safeya and their six children gathered around a campfire, braving the cold and dark.

An Israeli soldier walks by tanks, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, in southern Israel, January 1, 2024. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

After a perilous journey from their home in Beit Lahia in the north, constantly fleeing Israeli air strikes, they ended up in a tent in Rafah with no basic amenities.

“We have nothing. We are living in cold, as you can see. We use straps of clothes for the fire, there is no firewood,” Maarouf told Reuters.

“There is no water even to clean up or wash ourselves. If I want to pray, I perform ablution using the sand. There is no drinking water. There is no tent to protect us.”

In its daily briefing, the Israeli military said in the past day its forces had targeted militants in Gaza City in the north of the enclave and in unspecified locations along the Mediterranean coast.

“In Jabaliya area, troops killed dozens of terrorists, among them those who attempted to plant explosive devices, others who operated drones and those who were armed identified driving toward the forces,” the military said.

Troops also dismantled rocket launching sites in Khan Younis and in a United Nations school in Al-Bureij, the military said.

Hamas could not be reached for comment on the Israeli reports.

BOMBARDMENTS

Gaza residents said Israeli warplanes and tanks stepped up bombardments of the eastern and northern areas of Khan Younis, where tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought refuge after being forced from their homes elsewhere in the densely populated territory.

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The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli forces had hit its headquarters in Khan Younis, resulting in several deaths and wounded among displaced people sheltering there.

At a house in the centre of Khan Younis, medical teams retrieved the bodies of two women killed in an Israeli air strike on Tuesday morning, health officials said.

Another Israeli strike on the Al-Nusseirat refugee camp in northern Gaza killed or wounded several people in a house, medics said.

Hamas and its Islamic Jihad allies said in separate statements they had fired mortar bombs and anti-tank rockets against Israeli forces in Khan Younis and were stopping them from advancing to the western area. Israel did not comment on these reports.

Defence Minister Gallant said that in the north of Gaza, Israel had destroyed 12 Hamas regiments and only a few thousand militants remained out of 15,000-18,000 that were in the area. Others had fled to the south, he said.

“The significance, tactically, operationally, is that in this area there will be attacks, entering and manoeuvring, special operations. This is to exhaust the enemy, kill it and control the territory.”

Hamas showed its continued ability to target Israel after more than 12 weeks of the war, firing rockets at Tel Aviv.

The war was triggered by a surprise Hamas attack on Israeli towns on October 7 that Israel says killed 1,200 people – the bloodiest single day in the Jewish state’s 75-year history.

READ:  Hamas, Israel release more hostages, prisoners in fifth day of Gaza truce

Gaza health authorities say Israel’s retaliatory offensive has so far killed at least 22,185 Palestinians, in the deadliest chapter of the decades-long Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Displaced Palestinians, who fled their homes due to Israeli strikes, shelter in a tent camp, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, January 1, 2024. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

NEW PHASE

Israel has promised to wipe out Hamas but it is unclear what it plans to do with the enclave should it succeed in subduing it, and where that leaves the prospect of an independent Palestinian state.

An Israeli official said on Monday the military would reduce its forces inside Gaza this month and shift to a months-long phase of more localised “mopping up” operations.

The troop reduction would allow some reservists to return to civilian life, shore up Israel’s war-battered economy, and free up units in case of a wider conflict with the Iran-backed Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon, the official said.

Washington, Israel’s main backer, has been urging Israel to reduce the intensity of its military operations given the high civilian cost.

A prime concern for Israel is the return or rescue of hostages held by Hamas. The militants seized 240 hostages on Oct. 7 and Israel believes 129 are still held after some were released during a brief truce and others killed during air strikes and rescue or escape attempts.

By NIDAL AL-MUGHRABI, ARAFAT BARBAKH and MAAYAN LUBELL

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