• Associated Press

Israeli Military Says Gaza Ground Offensive Has Expanded into Urban Refugee Camps

AP Photo/Leo Correa
Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli forces on Tuesday expanded their ground offensive into urban refugee camps in central Gaza after bombarding the crowded Palestinian communities and ordering residents to evacuate. Gaza’s main telecom provider announced another “complete interruption” of services in the besieged territory.

The military’s announcement of the new battle zone threatens further destruction in a war that Israel says will last for “many months” as it vows to crush the ruling Hamas militant group after its Oct. 7 attack. Israeli forces have been engaged in heavy urban fighting in northern Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, driving Palestinians into ever-smaller areas in search of refuge.

The U.S. said Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, was meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan to discuss topics including transitioning to a different phase of the war to maximize focus on high-value Hamas targets, improving the humanitarian situation, and planning for governance and security in Gaza after the war.

Despite U.S. calls for Israel to curb civilian casualties and international pressure for a cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was deepening the fighting.

“We say to the Hamas terrorists: We see you and we will get to you,” Netanyahu said.

Israel’s offensive is one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history. More than 20,900 Palestinians, two-thirds women and children, have been killed, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, whose count doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants. The agency said 240 people were killed over the past 24 hours.

The U.N. human rights office said the continued bombardment of middle Gaza had claimed more than 100 Palestinian lives since Christmas Eve. The office noted that Israel had ordered some residents to move there.

Israel said it would no longer grant automatic visas to U.N. employees and accused the world body of being “complicit partners” in Hamas’ tactics. Government spokesman Eylon Levy said Israel would consider visa requests case by case. That could further limit aid efforts in Gaza.

Residents of central Gaza described shelling and airstrikes shaking the Nuseirat, Maghazi and Bureij camps. The built-up towns hold Palestinians driven from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war, along with their descendants.

“The bombing was very intense,” Radwan Abu Sheitta said by phone from Bureij.

The Israeli military ordered residents to evacuate a belt of territory the width of central Gaza, urging them to move to nearby Deir al-Balah. The U.N. humanitarian office said the area ordered evacuated was home to nearly 90,000 people before the war and now shelters more than 61,000 displaced people, mostly from the north.

The military later said it was operating in Bureij and asserted that it had located a Hamas training camp.

The telecom outage announced by Paltel follows similar outages through much of the war. NetBlocks, a group that tracks internet outages, confirmed that network connectivity in Gaza was disrupted again and “likely to leave most residents offline.”

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said several countries had sent proposals to resolve the conflict following news of an Egyptian proposal that would include a transitional Palestinian government in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. He did not offer details of the proposals.

REGIONAL SPILLOVER

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel faces a “multi-arena war” on seven fronts — Gaza and the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran. “We have responded and acted already on six of these,” he told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Iranian-backed militia groups around the region have stepped up attacks in support of Hamas.

Iranian-backed militias in Iraq carried out a drone strike on a U.S. base in Irbil on Monday, wounding three American service members, according to U.S. officials. In response, U.S. warplanes hit three locations in Iraq connected to a main militia, Kataib Hezbollah.

Almost daily, Hezbollah and Israel exchange missiles, airstrikes and shelling across the Israeli-Lebanese border. On Tuesday, Israel’s military said Hezbollah struck a Greek Orthodox church in northern Israel with a missile, wounding two Israeli Christians, and fired again on arriving soldiers, wounding nine.

“Hezbollah is risking the stability of the region for the sake of Hamas,” said Israel’s military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

In the Red Sea, attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen against commercial ships have disrupted trade and prompted a U.S.-led multinational naval operation to protect shipping routes. The Israeli military said a fighter jet on Tuesday shot down a “hostile aerial target” above the Red Sea that the military asserted was on its way to Israeli territory.

The USS Laboon, a Navy destroyer, and American fighter jets shot down 12 drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles and two land-attack cruise missiles in the southern Red Sea that were fired by the Yemen-based Houthis over a 10-hour period Tuesday, according to the Pentagon. U.S. Central Command said there was no damage to ships in the area or reported injuries.

A MASS GRAVE

More than 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes. U.N. officials say a quarter of the territory’s population is starving under Israel’s siege, which allows in a trickle of food, water, fuel, medicine and other supplies. Last week, the U.N. Security Council called for immediately speeding up aid deliveries, but there has been little sign of change.

In an area Israel had declared a safe zone, a strike hit a home in Mawasi, a rural area in the southern province of Khan Younis. One woman was killed and at least eight were wounded, according to a cameraman working for The Associated Press at the nearby hospital.

In response, Israel’s military said that it wouldn’t refrain from operating in safe zones, “if it identifies terrorist organization activity threatening the security of Israel.”

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 others hostage. Israel aims to free the more than 100 hostages who remain in captivity.

President Joe Biden and Qatar’s ruling emir, Amir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, spoke on Tuesday, discussing the urgent effort to secure the release of all remaining hostages held by Hamas, including American citizens. The leaders also discussed the ongoing efforts to facilitate increased and sustained flows of life-saving access to humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Israel blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll in Gaza, citing militants’ use of crowded residential areas and tunnels. Israel says it has killed thousands of militants, without presenting evidence.

At the Kerem Shalom border crossing, U.N. and Gazan medical workers unloaded a truck carrying about 80 unidentified bodies that had been held by Israeli forces in northern Gaza. They were buried in a mass grave.

Medical workers called the odors unbearable. “We cannot open this container in a neighborhood where people live,” Dr. Marwan al-Hams, health emergency committee director in Rafah, told the AP. He said the health and justice ministries would investigate the bodies for possible “war crimes.”

The Israeli military announced the deaths of two more soldiers, bringing the total killed since the ground offensive began to 161.