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A Palestinian man evacuates a wounded girl following Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis refugee camp Alamy Stock Photo

Heavy urban fighting rages around Gaza's biggest cities as today marks two months since 7 October attack

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has invoked a rare measure to seek a ceasefire, sparking anger from Israel.

HEAVY URBAN COMBAT has raged in and around Gaza’s biggest cities today as the bloodiest-ever conflict between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas entered its third month since the militants’ attack on 7 October.

An increasingly dire humanitarian situation prompted United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to invoke a rare measure to seek a ceasefire, sparking anger from Israel.

The death toll has soared to 17,177 according to the Gaza health ministry, and vast areas of the besieged territory have been reduced to a rubble-strewn wasteland of bombed-out or bullet-scarred buildings.

Israeli forces have encircled major urban centres in their vow to destroy Hamas over its unprecedented attack in October when militants broke through Gaza’s militarised border to kill around 1,200 people and seize hostages, 138 of whom remain captive, according to Israeli figures.

Backed by air power, tanks and armoured bulldozers, Israeli troops were fighting Hamas in Khan Yunis, the biggest city in southern Gaza, as well as in Gaza City and the nearby Jabalia district of the north.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said troops had closed in on the Khan Yunis home of Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, 61, vowing “it is only a matter of time until we find him”.

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.

Air strikes also rained down on Rafah city in the far south, near the Egyptian border. The area has become a vast camp for many of the 1.9 million internally displaced Palestinians – 80% of Gaza’s population.

smoke-rises-following-an-israeli-bombardment-in-the-gaza-strip-as-seen-from-southern-israel-thursday-dec-7-2023-ap-photoleo-correa Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Rare UN move

Eight more air strikes hit Rafah overnight. AFP journalists saw around 20 corpses in white body bags, including a child, at its Nasser hospital, while men gathered nearby to pray.

Mass civilian casualties in the war have sparked global concern, heightened by dire shortages caused by an Israeli siege that has seen only limited supplies of food, water, fuel and medicines enter Gaza.

Yesterday, Israel approved a “minimal” increase in fuel supplies to prevent a “humanitarian collapse and the outbreak of epidemics”.

But Guterres invoked the rarely-used Article 99 of the UN’s charter, calling on the Security Council to push for a ceasefire.

The secretary-general said he feared “public order (would) completely break down soon due to the desperate conditions” in Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen responded that this would help Hamas and that Guterres was “a danger to world peace”.

“We, too, want this war to end,” an Israeli government spokesman said. “But it can only end in a way that ensures that Hamas can never attack our people again.”

‘Dozens’ of targets

Four more Israeli soldiers were killed, raising the toll inside Gaza to 87, said the military.

In a morning briefing, it said troops had “killed Hamas terrorists and struck dozens of terror targets” in Khan Yunis, and raided a military compound of Hamas’s Central Jabalia Battalion.

Naval forces struck Hamas military compounds and infrastructure “using precise ammunition and firing shells”, the military said.

palestinians-inspect-the-damage-of-a-destroyed-building-following-israeli-airstrikes-in-khan-younis-refugee-camp-southern-gaza-strip-thursday-dec-7-2023-ap-photomohammed-dahman Palestinians inspect the damage of a destroyed building following Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis refugee camp Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Hamas released footage of its fighters shooting AK-47 assault rifles and grenade launchers from abandoned buildings in what it said was Gaza City, and said it was battling Israeli troops “on all axes of the incursion into the Gaza Strip”.

Hamas said it had destroyed two dozen military vehicles in Khan Yunis and in Beit Lahia in the territory’s north.

Rocket fire from inside Gaza has continued to target Israel, where the projectiles have been intercepted by air defences.

Fighting in Khan Yunis means aid distribution has virtually stopped in the city, leaving Rafah the only area “where limited aid distributions took place” yesterday, UN humanitarian agency OCHA said.

Hamas has declared a “state of famine” in northern Gaza, saying no aid had arrived there since 1 December.

Israeli rights group B’Tselem said the “miniscule amount of aid” allowed into Gaza was “tantamount to deliberately starving the population”.

A spokesman for COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, responded: “We are trying to expand the humanitarian aid, and over 60,000 tonnes of aid have entered through Rafah.”

He added that hundreds of trucks are being allowed into Gaza.

palestinians-displaced-by-the-israeli-ground-offensive-on-the-gaza-strip-set-up-a-tent-camp-in-the-muwasi-area-thursday-dec-7-2023-ap-photofatima-shbair Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip set up a tent camp in the Muwasi area Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The BBC reported yesterday that a school in Khirbet Zanuta, a small Palestinian village south of Hebron in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, was destroyed along with most of the houses. 

In a statement today, President Michael D Higgins said the “destruction of a school, part funded by Irish Aid, in the village of Khirbet Zanuta … along with the forced abandonment of the village as a whole in recent weeks following settler violence and harassment is further evidence of the appalling impact which the increase in that violence of recent weeks is having on the lives of children”. 

“As Janez Lenarčič, the European Commissioner for Crisis Management, has stated, such destruction of a school is intolerable and a violation of international humanitarian law,” President Higgins said. 

“It is incumbent on all of us who believe in the basics of international humanitarian law to seek to ensure that children in particular are shielded from violence and abuse and to provide them with special protection at times of conflict,” he said. 

“Responding to the horrific number of children who have been killed since 7 October must inform all of our actions. We must support our international institutions and the Secretary-General of the United Nations in their plea that an end be brought to this death and destruction.”

Israel-Lebanon border

Meanwhile, near-daily exchanges of fire across the UN-patrolled Israel-Lebanon border have continued, mainly involving Lebanon’s Hezbollah which, like Hamas, is backed by Iran.

An anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon killed a civilian in Israel, Israel’s army and medics said today.

An investigation by AFP into a strike in southern Lebanon on 13 October that killed a Reuters journalist and injured six others, including two from AFP, concluded that it involved a tank shell only used by the Israeli army in this region.

Today, watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged Israeli and Egyptian authorities to allow journalists to move freely over the Rafah crossing.

Includes reporting by Hayley Halpin and © AFP 2023

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