Israeli Forces Battle Hamas as Disease Spreads among the Displaced

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
Palestinians inspect damage after the dawn bombing of a house Thursday in the Shaboura camp in Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

AMMAN, Jordan – Israeli forces fought Hamas militants in street battles across Gaza on Thursday, claiming they were closing in on the hideouts of key commanders, as the United Nations appealed for an urgent end to the war to avert an imminent “humanitarian catastrophe.”

In a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, President Biden “stressed that much more assistance was urgently required across the board,” the White House said in a summary of the call. Biden also emphasized the importance of humanitarian corridors that would allow civilians to flee “areas of hostilities.”

Biden appeared to blame Hamas for the collapse of a seven-day pause in the fighting last month, saying “it was Hamas’s refusal to release young women civilian hostages that led to a breakdown in the humanitarian pause.”

Some of the heaviest fighting Thursday was in the southern city of Khan Younis, which Israel once advised Gazans was a safe area but which is now a major focus of the battle. A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister’s office, Eylon Levy, said the Israel Defense Forces were in “close-quarter combat against Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip including Khan Younis, eliminating tunnel shafts and the terrorists operating within them.”

Khan Younis, the largest city in southern Gaza, was a major destination for Palestinians fleeing the north before it became the new center of fighting. According to the United Nations, a quarter of the city’s area has been declared an evacuation zone by the Israeli military in recent days. An estimated 358,000 people, nearly half of them refugees from elsewhere in Gaza, have received evacuation orders, the office for humanitarian affairs said on Wednesday.

The IDF and militants fought pitched battles in the Jabalya refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip, where local authorities said an estimated 100,000 people were at risk of starvation after two months of war. In the Jabalya and Shejaiya areas, Levy said, Israeli forces had “broken through their defensive lines and those terrorists are now emerging from their underground tunnels to engage our men in close combat.”

There were reports of mass arrests of Gazan men by Israeli troops. Photographs and video footage posted by Israeli news sites and circulated on social media showed hundreds of men in their underwear, blindfolded with their hands behind their heads, seated in rows on the ground and guarded by Israeli troops. It was unclear whether the men were fighters and whether they had surrendered or were rounded up. The Israeli military did not respond to a request to confirm the images.

Airstrikes continued across the Gaza Strip, including two in the southern border town of Rafah, a vital transshipment point for the faltering international aid effort, where tens of thousands of people have sought refuge in recent days.

The al-Houbi family home in the Shaboura area was hit at night, and Najjar Hospital reported receiving at least 20 dead. A second house was hit in the morning, but it had been evacuated and no casualties were reported. A motorcycle carrying four men was hit near the Rafah crossing into Egypt.

The Gaza Health Ministry said 350 people had been killed in the previous 24 hours, bringing to 17,177 the number who have died in Gaza during the two-month war.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres warned Wednesday evening that Gaza’s entire humanitarian system is on the brink of collapse, putting 2.1 million people at risk of death from hunger and epidemic disease.

“We are simply unable to reach those in need inside Gaza,” he said, and he appealed to the international community to take “urgent” steps to stop the fighting.

He invoked for the first time in his six-year tenure Article 99 of the U.N. Charter, which will force the Security Council to meet to discuss a course of action.

Guterres’s appeal for an immediate cease-fire was echoed Thursday by humanitarian aid agencies, a group of which told an online briefing that disease, hunger and unsanitary conditions could soon kill as many people as the violence.

“The situation in Gaza is not just a catastrophe. It’s apocalyptic,” said Bushra Khalidi, the Jerusalem-based Palestinian policy lead for Oxfam. Alexandra Saieh, the head of humanitarian policy and advocacy at Save the Children, described hospitals where amputations were being performed without anesthesia and maggots were being picked from the wounds of the injured. “We are literally running out of words to describe the horrors taking place in Gaza,” Saieh said.

Conditions have deteriorated rapidly for Gaza’s residents, over 85 percent of whom have been displaced from their homes and are sleeping in many cases out in the open and without access to adequate food, clean water or shelter from the winter cold.

Doctors have warned about the risk of disease spreading in overcrowded shelters and refugee camps in Gaza’s south.

“Through our inspection of refugee camps, we noticed a large spread of hepatitis, which is spreading due to crowding of people, lack of usable drinking water and contaminated food,” Imad Al-Hams, an emergency physician in Rafah, told The Washington Post. “This is a serious disease that leads to death.”

He said it was hard to issue official figures on the volume of infections, because of the large number of people and a lack of access for medical teams, but noted that many diseases were spreading because of poor hygiene conditions, and children were particularly at risk.

Saif Al-Din Muhammad Qadouha, 45, told The Post that his home in northern Gaza was destroyed at the outset of the war, driving him to Rafah, where he and his family now live in a makeshift school shelter. “We receive water only once, for an hour, every three or four days. … I live with my family of 11 people in this tent,” he said.

Israeli soldiers rounded up dozens of Palestinian men, stripped them down to their underwear and tied their hands tied behind their backs, according to a video apparently filmed in the Beit Lahia area of northern Gaza.

The IDF has not commented on the footage, but IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said at a news conference Thursday that Israeli troops in Gaza have “arrested and interrogated hundreds of suspects of terrorist activity.” He said many had turned themselves in over the previous day. Hagari said the IDF detains and interrogates anyone in areas of military activity.

Hani Almadhoun, a Palestinian man who lives in Washington, D.C., identified his brother, 32-year-old Mahmoud Almadhoun, and other relatives in the video clip. Almadhoun, the director of philanthropy in D.C. for UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said his relatives in the video are civilians who are not associated with Hamas or any other fighters. Israeli media outlets have been reporting that the videos show members of Hamas, without citing any sources.

“This is just to humiliate,” Almadhoun said. “In what planet is this okay? Why is this okay? Why are they rounding people from their homes?”

Photographer Abdul Hakim Abu Rayash, a resident of Beit Lahia, confirmed to The Post that the detained included a Diaa Al-Kahlot, the Gaza bureau chief of Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed newspaper.

Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the U.N. secretary general, called the images on social media “very concerning.”

U.S. drones have resumed flying over Gaza, the Pentagon said Thursday. Spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence said the drones were used previously on intelligence-gathering and surveillance missions, first disclosed in early November, in support of Israel’s hostage-recovery efforts. They were suspended late last month as part of the agreement between Israel and Hamas for the pause in hostilities, officials said at the time.

The IDF announced Thursday that Gal Meir Eisenkot, 25, the son of war cabinet minister and former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, was killed when a bomb exploded in northern Gaza, where he had been fighting as a part of the army’s 551st Brigade. Another soldier also was killed, bringing the total number of Israeli troops to die during the ground offensive to 89.