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Palestinians inspect a house after it was hit by an Israeli bombardment on Rafah Fatima Shbair/AP/PA Images
Khan Yunis

Israeli army bombs scores of targets in Gaza as diplomats press on with efforts to halt fighting

As places for people to go continues to shrink, international outrage has mounted over the rising death toll.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Dec 2023

THE ISRAELI ARMY has said bombed scores of targets in the Gaza Strip as diplomats pressed on with efforts to halt the fighting that Hamas says has killed 20,000 people in the Palestinian territory.

United Nations relief chief Martin Griffiths called the surging death toll a “tragic and shameful milestone” as the UN Security Council was to again discuss a draft resolution calling for a pause in the bloodiest ever Gaza conflict.

The army said its aircraft had struck another 230 targets in besieged Gaza over the past day, including a rocket launch site, while ground forces had found weapons inside a school in Jabalia near Gaza City.

Incoming rocket fire set off air raid sirens in southern Israel and Tel Aviv, where police reported falling shrapnel but no casualties so far after the projectiles were intercepted by air defences.

Hamas’s military wing announced it had launched the Tel Aviv-bound “missile barrage in response to the Israeli massacres against civilians”.

The conflict began when Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, killing around 1,140 people, mostly civilians, and abducting about 250, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The Hamas government’s media office said yesterday at least 20,000 people had been killed in the Palestinian territory, with 8,000 children and 6,200 women among the dead.

Hamas is an Islamic militant group who are deemed a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and the EU, among other powers. It has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007 after winning the 2006 Palestinian elections and taking power by force.

In the far-southern city of Rafah, a centre for many internally displaced Palestinians, fireballs and smoke rose after explosions yesterday.

Truce talks

Hopes that Israel and Hamas could be inching towards another truce and hostage release deal have risen this week as the head of the Palestinian militant group visited Egypt and talks were held in Europe.

Mossad director David Barnea held a “positive meeting” in Warsaw with CIA chief Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, a source familiar with the talks told AFP.

Qatar-based Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh visited Egypt yesterday for talks with the country’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

However, the stated positions of Israel and Hamas remain far apart.

A Hamas official told AFP that “a total ceasefire and a retreat of the Israeli occupation army from the Gaza Strip are a precondition for any serious negotiation” on a hostage-prisoner swap.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there could be no ceasefire in Gaza before the “elimination” of Hamas, which Israel, the United States and some other countries consider a “terrorist” organisation.

And US President Joe Biden said of a fresh hostage release deal: “There’s no expectation at this point. But we are pushing it.”

Screenshot 2023-12-21 09.09.08 The destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah Hatem Ali / AP/PA Images Hatem Ali / AP/PA Images / AP/PA Images

Qatar, backed by Egypt and the United States, last month helped broker a first week-long truce that saw 80 Israeli hostages freed in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

One former hostage, Ofir Engel, 18, returned to Kibbutz Beeri alongside families of other captives and gathered at the burnt remains of their former homes.

“They abused us mentally,” he recounted of his captivity. “One of the most difficult moments was when terrorists moved us in complete darkness with lots of booms.

“I was there. Every moment hostages are there it’s dangerous. They have no time. Why do I get to be here and they don’t? They have to come back home. Now.”

Tunnel network

The UN human rights office in Ramallah said it had received reports that Israeli troops had “summarily killed” at least 11 unarmed Palestinian men in a Gaza neighbourhood this week.

The incident “raises alarm about the possible commission of a war crime”, it said, adding the men were killed in front of their family members in the Al-Rimal area of Gaza City.

An Israeli official rejected the claims as “nothing but blood libel” and “yet another example of the partisan and prejudiced approach against Israel” by the UN body.

Israel said its troops had uncovered a tunnel network used by Hamas leaders including Yahya Sinwar, the Gaza chief of the militant group.

The military released footage yesterday it said showed the “large network” around Gaza City’s Palestine Square linking hideouts and residences.

Israel’s army said three soldiers were killed yesterday, bringing the death toll of its forces to 137 in the Gaza Strip since ground operations began in late October.

An AFPTV live camera yesterday filmed two bombs hitting Rafah, where many of the territory’s estimated 1.9 million displaced have fled.

The Gaza health ministry said Israeli strikes killed at least 12 Palestinians when houses and a mosque in Rafah were hit. It said later at least 30 more people were killed in an Israeli strike that hit two houses east of Khan Yunis.

UN impasse

The UN Security Council is due to try once again today to pass a resolution calling for a halt in fighting after previous efforts to win Washington’s backing fell short.

Israel has rejected the term “ceasefire”, and Washington has used its veto twice to thwart resolutions opposed by Israel since the start of the conflict.

The United Arab Emirates is sponsoring a proposed resolution which has already been watered down to secure compromise, according to a draft version seen by AFP.

It calls for “the urgent suspension of hostilities to allow safe and unhindered humanitarian access, and for urgent steps towards a sustainable cessation of hostilities”.

The conflict has sparked fears of regional escalation, with exchanges of fire over the Lebanon border, and missiles from Iran-backed Yemeni rebels disrupting Red Sea shipping.

Israel said today one of its fighter jets and artillery had struck Iran-backed Hezbollah militants overnight in response to incoming fire.

An Israeli strike killed a woman in her 80s in a south Lebanon village early today, Lebanese state media said, with rescuers confirming the death to AFP.

© AFP 2023