Israel 'encircles' Gaza City, Hamas fighters retaliate from tunnels

An Israeli vehicle moves with a military convoy along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Photo: AFP

Israeli forces on Thursday encircled Gaza City - the Gaza Strip's main city - in their assault on Hamas, the military said, but the Palestinian militant group resisted their drive with hit-and-run attacks from underground tunnels.

The city in the north of the Gaza Strip 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," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. He gave no further details.

Amid heavy explosions in Gaza, Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters his country's "troops completed the encirclement of Gaza City, which is the focal point of the Hamas terror organization."

We're at the height of the battle, said Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Reuters

Brigadier General Iddo Mizrahi, chief of Israel's military engineers, said troops were encountering mines and booby traps.

"Hamas has learned and prepared itself well," he said.

Abu Ubaida, spokesperson for the armed wing of Hamas, said in a televised speech on Thursday that Israel's death toll in Gaza was much higher than the military had announced. "Your soldiers will return in black bags," he said.

Israel has said it has lost 18 soldiers and killed dozens of militants since ground operations expanded on Friday.

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.

In one Hamas military video, a fighter surfaces in a Gaza field and places an explosive device on a tank. An explosion is audible as the fighter, who appears to be wearing a body camera to document the incident, sprints back to the tunnel and fires an anti-tank missile toward the tank.

Palestinian civilians have suffered shortages of food, fuel, drinking water and medicine.

A child looks on as Palestinians gather to collect water, amid water shortages, as the conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Reuters

"Water is being used as a weapon of war," said Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.

Palestinians struggle for food, drinking water
As international calls for a humanitarian pause in hostilities go unheeded, Palestinians are suffering shortages of food, drinking water, fuel and medicine.
"Water is being used as a weapon of war," said Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the UN 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.

A man carries away a young victim following an Israeli strike on the Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. Photo: AFP

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 UN school in Beach refugee camp, Gaza health officials said.

A man reacts as Palestinians search for casualties a day after Israeli strikes on houses in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. Photo: Reuters

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 UN 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.

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