GAZA STRIP: Israeli troops and Hamas were locked in heavy, close-quarters fighting in Gaza City on Thursday, including a 10-hour battle that, Israel claimed, toppled a stronghold of the Palestinian fighters.
Hamas fighters, armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault rifles, clashed with Israeli soldiers backed by armoured vehicles in the ruins of the besieged territory’s north.
Meanwhile, Israel agreed to daily four-hour ‘military pauses’ in northern Gaza for humanitarian purposes, the White House said on Thursday.
Spokesman John Kirby said the pauses were “significant steps forward”. “Israel will begin to implement four-hour pauses in areas of northern Gaza each day, with an announcement to be made three hours beforehand,” Kirby told reporters.
In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron urged nations to “work towards a ceasefire”, as he opened a conference in Paris on Gaza aid.
Israel is not attending the meeting, which aims to mobilise the main players involved in humanitarian response in the Palestinian territory.
But US President Joe Biden once again ruled out a ceasefire on Thursday.
“None. No possibility,” he said in reply to a reporter’s question in Washington about prospects for a halt to the fighting in Gaza Strip.
Thousands of Palestinians fled the northern part of Gaza Strip for the south on Thursday while some 50,000 people did so the previous day.
In Gaza’s north, eyewitnesses saw broken palm trees, mangled road signs and twisted lampposts strewn over what was once a vital highway.
The utter devastation is the result of over a month of Israeli bombardment, sparked by the Oct 7 Hamas raid on Israel.
Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has resorted to relentless aerial bombing and ground invasion, which the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza Strip says, has killed more than 10,800 people.
Over 4,400 children are among the dead, while another 26,905 people have been wounded.
Oda Bikhet, a witness to the consequences of the latest bombardment in Deir Al Balah in central Gaza, recounted the human toll.
“All of a sudden, an air strike hit the area, and we went out to check only to find children injured,” he said. “One child lost his arm, another lost an eye. Another old person was injured.”
Stronghold and tunnels
The Israeli military said its forces had secured a Hamas ‘‘military stronghold” in western Jabalia, adding the troops had “finished securing the compound after 10 hours of combat”.
The battle raged above and below ground, it said, and “revealed some of Hamas’s extensive network of tunnel and subterranean bases”, which form a significant element of the Palestinian group’s capacity to fight.
Israel said 34 of its soldiers had died in the ground invasion.
The intense combat and the densely populated coastal territory being effectively sealed off have led to increasingly dire conditions for civilians.
Tom Potokar, chief surgeon at the International Committee of the Red Cross, described the scene at the European hospital in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza, as “catastrophic”.
“In the last 24 hours, I’ve seen three patients with maggots in their wounds,” Potokar said.
The Israeli army said 50,000 people had left their homes in the main battle zone of northern Gaza on Wednesday, a sharp increase in numbers from earlier this week, adding to the more than 1.5 million people already seeking safety in the south of the coastal strip.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirmed the figure and warned hundreds of thousands of civilians remained in battle zones north of the central Wadi Gaza district.
An Israeli military official insisted Gaza was not in a humanitarian crisis, even as he acknowledged the Palestinian territory faces several challenges amid the ongoing fighting.
“We know the civil situation in Gaza Strip is not an easy one,” said Colonel Moshe Tetro, head of coordination and liaison at COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry body handling civil affairs in Gaza.
Yet as he spoke, the climbing death toll meant that Palestinians were having to inter their dead in makeshift cemeteries.
“We bury the dead in football fields and other vacant lots because the proper burial grounds are full,” said Shihteh Nasser, 48, as he helped in the burials.
Bodies have piled up outside hospitals, on roads and in parks, in refrigerated trucks and even in a repurposed ice-cream van.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh arrived in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials.
Hamas said in a statement that its delegation had met Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel “for discussions on the current situation in the Gaza Strip”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected a ceasefire unless the 239 prisoners Hamas currently holds in Gaza are released.
According to a source close to Hamas, talks are underway for the release of 12 prisoners, including six Americans, in return for a three-day ceasefire.
The United States has backed Israel’s rejection of a ceasefire, and G7 foreign ministers in Japan said on Wednesday they supported “humanitarian pauses and corridors”.
As the situation deteriorates, discussions on the possible future of Gaza have also grown. Netanyahu said this week Israel would assume “overall security” of the territory.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said it was plausible that “for at least some period of time” Israeli forces would remain in Gaza “to manage the immediate aftermath and security situation”.
Israel captured Gaza in the 1967 war and withdrew in 2005. Two years later, Hamas took control and Israel imposed a crippling blockade.
In the longer term, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested the Palestinian Authority _ which exercises limited autonomy only in parts of the occupied West Bank _ should retake control of Gaza.
“It must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority,” Blinken said on Wednesday, repeating the long-standing US call for a two-state solution.
West Bank not spared
Bloodshed has now spread to the occupied West Bank, where 10 Palestinians were killed during an Israeli army raid in the northern city of Jenin on Thursday.
Eyewitnesses said they saw black smoke rising over Jenin and heard multiple explosions and gunfire.
The Israeli army said its forces were operating in the northern West Bank city, but did not provide further details.
At least 170 Palestinians have been killed across the occupied West Bank since Oct 7, 20 of them in Jenin alone. The town is home to a large refugee camp housing tens of thousands of Palestinians.
Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2023