Fighting in Central Gaza Rages on Amid Hostage Families’ Growing Doubts

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
Palestinians bid farewell Thursday outside al-Najjar Hospital to relatives killed when their home east of Rafah was hit by an explosion.

JERUSALEM – Israel pounded southern Gaza on Thursday, including one attack in Rafah near the Egyptian border that killed at least 16 people, according to reports. The major southern city of Khan Younis saw some of Gaza’s heaviest fighting in weeks, with at least 40 Hamas fighters killed, according to Israel.

The fierce fighting, especially in central Gaza, suggested that Israeli forces are not yet fully scaling back their assault despite U.S. pressure over heavy civilian casualties and increasing doubts among families of hostages held by Hamas and its allies. In one sign of hope in the conflict, medicine destined for the hostages appears to have crossed into Gaza, though it is not clear whether it has reached its intended recipients yet.

The Israel Defense Forces said its troops, backed by tanks and aircraft, attacked several Hamas weapons caches and bases around Khan Younis. The IDF withdrew from the vicinity of al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis on Wednesday, after several days of heavy fighting that destroyed residential buildings and a cemetery and caused thousands of refugees to flee, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Combat also flared in northern Gaza, where some civilians have been trying to return home after a partial drawdown of Israeli troops in the area. Witnesses reported shelling and gunfire in several parts of Gaza City and surrounding communities. One resident provided The Washington Post with recordings of gunfire and explosions around the heavily damaged Jabalya refugee camp.

A broad communications collapse across the Gaza Strip continued into its seventh day – the longest of the many during the conflict – making it difficult to reach witnesses.

The heavy fighting continued despite Israel’s pulling out at least three divisions and declaring it had largely completed operations in the north. The number of firefights had decreased compared with the early months of the ground invasion, residents said, but shelling is still common.

“The Israeli bombing of various areas in Gaza City has not stopped,” said Mahmoud, a resident who saw civilians fleeing to al-Shifa Hospital on Wednesday afternoon during one attack. Israeli tanks in the area withdrew Thursday, he said. Like other Gazans, he spoke on the condition that his last name not be used to protect his safety.

Shukri, another Gaza City resident, said the increased combat has forced Palestinians back into the streets. “During this week, my family and I moved to three different places due to renewed bombings and clashes in the northern Gaza Strip,” he said.

The intense pace of combat and aerial bombardment fed concerns among the families of the more than 100 hostages who have been held in Gaza for almost 15 weeks. Many of them have pleaded with the Israeli government for a cease-fire that would allow for the negotiated release of the hostages.

About 100 Israeli hostages were freed during a week-long pause in late November. Military and political leaders contend that continued fighting is the best way to pressure Hamas back into meaningful talks for another agreement. Hamas has said it would not approve a deal unless Israel halts all military actions.

“We have no right to stop the fighting as long as there are hostages in Gaza,” Israeli Defense Secretary Yoav Gallant said Thursday in a radio interview.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed Gallant in an evening address to the nation, pushing back on growing international calls for an end to the conflict: “We strive to achieve total victory,” he said. “This is not just a matter of hitting Hamas, this is not another round with Hamas – this is a complete victory.”

But several released hostages have said the bombings seemed to leave Hamas unfazed and, in some cases, killed or injured hostages. Merav Svirsky, the sister of a hostage recently reported dead inside Gaza, blamed the continued combat for his demise after his long captivity. Both of his parents were killed in the initial Hamas attacks.

“It’s unfortunate that it didn’t end for him, too, on October 7. That way he would have been saved from 99 days of fear and death,” she said, referring to Itai Svirsky in a radio interview Thursday, according to the Times of Israel. “He was shot by Hamas apparently out of their stress due to a nearby strike – the military pressure is endangering the hostages.”

Anger among hostage families at the government and Netanyahu has increasingly spilled into the public, both in Israel and abroad.

At an appearance Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington, Liz Hirsh Naftali – whose grandniece Abigail Edan, 4, was kidnapped after Hamas militants killed her parents, and then released in November – accused Netanyahu of putting his own political needs ahead of securing more hostage releases. President Biden, she said, should reconsider his strong support for the Israeli government until it does more.

“Sometimes friends have to deliver hard messages,” Naftali said, in remarks that appeared to take some of the pro-Israel U.S. lawmakers with her by surprise. “And after 104 days, we need to deliver those messages. We need to make sure that Israel is put under the pressure to make a deal to stop this war and bring home these hostages.”

Advocates for the hostages did hail a rare diplomatic breakthrough: a shipment of pharmaceuticals into Gaza in a deal between Israel and Hamas brokered by Qatar. The militant group agreed to let the drugs, given by France, reach individual hostages. In exchange, the agreement provides for critical medicines to be transferred to the most vulnerable parts of Gaza, where the health system is collapsing as fighting rages.

The medicines entered the enclave overnight Wednesday after inspection by Israel, according to local news reports, but officials were still awaiting proof that they had been given to the hostages. The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that it was working with the parties to facilitate the delivery.

“To my knowledge, to date, we have not seen evidence of that,” Avi Hyman, an Israeli government spokesman, said at a briefing Thursday.

A crowd of Israelis tried to block the entrance of aid trucks into Gaza on Thursday, objecting to humanitarian assistance that they said mainly serves to prolong Hamas’s hold on the enclave.

“These trucks that enter straight into Hamas’s murderous arms, this must stop,” Reut Ben Haim said in an interview with Israeli radio at the scene, where police were keeping the protesters from blocking the vehicles.

Ben Haim lives in Netivot in southern Israel, which endured a barrage of rocket fire from central Gaza on Tuesday. The IDF had pulled thousands of troops from the area earlier in the week, prompting anger from Israelis pressing for more aggressive attacks.

Israeli forces have also stepped up raids across the occupied West Bank, and on Wednesday, Palestinian officials reported airstrikes in two refugee camps that they said killed at least nine people. At least one other Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire and 12 others were injured as of Thursday morning, the Palestine Red Crescent said.

Israeli military operations centered on the northern Tulkarm and Nur Shams refugee camps for a second day Thursday. Local media shared videos of Israeli bulldozers and tanks in torn-up streets, and reported on raids and clashes between Palestinian fighters and Israeli forces.

The IDF told The Post on Thursday that there was a “continuing and ongoing counterterrorism operation in the Tulkarm Camp for over 35 hours,” and that security forces were “continuing to operate in the city.”