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Desperation grows among Palestinians as Israel’s war in Gaza continues

Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Desperate Palestinians fleeing Israel’s expanding ground offensive crowded into an ever-shrinking area of the Gaza Strip as the Israel-Hamas war entered its third month on Friday.

The United Nations warned that its aid operation is “in tatters” because no place in the besieged enclave is safe.

Israel’s ferocious military assault on Gaza, a tiny, densely populated territory, has led to widespread civilian casualties and mass displacements, triggering international alarm.

Israel Palestinians
The Palestinian Health Ministry says that several Palestinians were killed when Israeli forces raided the Faraa refugee camp prompting fighting with local militants (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

The Israeli army said on Friday that over the past day, the military had struck about 450 targets in the Gaza Strip by air, sea and ground, signalling the continued intensity of Israel’s campaign.

The military said on Friday that it found weapons and a tunnel under the campus of Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

The military said the tunnel stretched one kilometre (0.6 mile) from the university to a nearby school. It did not provide video or photo evidence of the tunnel, but released photos of weapons it said soldiers found at the university, including explosives and rocket parts.

The military said it also found a Hamas control room with cameras, phones, walkie-talkies and weapons near a hospital in northern Gaza, as well as an additional tunnel entrance. A photo released by the military showed an opening to an underground passageway with a ladder stretching downward.

Israel Palestinians
The Israeli army said that its forces had struck around 450 targets in the Gaza Strip (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Israel said the discoveries show that Hamas is embedded in civilian zones — a claim central to Israel’s justification for heavily striking civilian areas in Gaza and calling for mass evacuations. Israel says the militants use an extensive tunnel network running underneath civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals to conduct military operations.

Israel also dropped leaflets over parts of Gaza with a biblical warning to Hamas leaders that it would take “a life for a life, an eye for an eye.”

A day after troops rounded up hundreds of Palestinians for questioning about suspected ties to Hamas, an Israeli government spokesman suggested that practice would continue.

The first images of such roundups emerged on Thursday from the northern town of Beit Lahiya, showing dozens of men kneeling or sitting in the streets, stripped down to their underwear, their hands bound behind their backs and some with their heads bowed.

Israel Palestinians
Israeli leaflets dropped over Gaza warned Hamas leaders that it would take ‘a life for a life, an eye for an eye’ (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used a rarely exercised power to warn the Security Council of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe,” and Arab and Islamic nations have called for a vote on a draft Council resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, appears likely to block any UN effort to halt the fighting, which was triggered by the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas militants on southern Israel.

Still, US concern over the devastation was growing.

(PA Graphics)

US officials told Israel ahead of the expansion of its ground offensive to southern Gaza several days ago that it must limit civilian deaths and displacement, saying too many Palestinians were killed when it obliterated much of Gaza City and the north.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a call with Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer that casualties are still too high, a senior State Department official said.

Mr Blinken told Mr Dermer that Israel must also do more to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Israel Palestinians Southern Gaza Human Toll
Palestinians flee the Israeli ground offensive in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman, File)

Israel insists that it must crush the military capabilities of Hamas, which rules Gaza, and remove it from power following the group’s October 7 attack.

In the first stage of the war, Israel’s devastating air and ground campaign focused on the northern half of Gaza, as hundreds of thousands of residents fled south.

Intense battles continued in parts of the north in recent days, while troops there have rounded up hundreds of Palestinian men.

In photos and video published on Thursday, dozens of men were seen sitting in rows on a street in northern Gaza, stripped down to their underwear with their heads bowed as they are being guarded by Israeli troops.

The images were the first showing such detentions in the war.

Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said troops have detained and interrogated hundreds of people in Gaza suspected of militant links.

Israel Palestinians Southern Gaza Human Toll
Officials say that many people are still trapped beneath the rubble in Gaza following Israeli strikes (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

UN monitors said troops reportedly detained men and boys from the age of 15 in a school-turned-shelter in the town of Beit Lahiya, in the north.

Over the past week, Israeli forces expanded their ground offensive into southern Gaza, with a focus on Khan Younis, the territory’s second-largest city.

With the entire Gaza Strip under military assault, tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting have packed into the border city of Rafah, in the far south of the Gaza Strip, and Muwasi, a nearby patch of barren coastline that Israel has declared a safe zone.

With shelters significantly beyond capacity, many people pitched tents along the side of the road leading from Rafah to Muwasi.

“Humanitarian actors … are reporting extreme overcrowded conditions and lack of basic resources in Rafah,” said the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs section.

Pictures of the Week Global Photo Gallery
Palestinians go through a house destroyed during an Israeli bombardment in Rafah, Gaza Strip (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The ability of UN aid agencies to receive vital aid supplies had been “significantly impaired” over the past few days due to trucks and staff being stranded by the fighting, and telecommunications blackout, it said.

Martin Griffiths, the UN’s humanitarian chief, warned: “We do not have a humanitarian operation in southern Gaza that can be called by that name anymore.”

He said the pace of Israel’s military assault “has made no place safe for civilians in southern Gaza, which had been a cornerstone of the humanitarian plan to protect civilians and thus to provide aid to them”.

“But without places of safety, that plan is in tatters,” he added.

With the entire Gaza Strip under military assault, Israel designated Muwasi on the territory’s Mediterranean Coast as a safe zone for those seeking safety from the fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.

But the UN and relief agencies say it is a poorly planned solution that offers no guarantee of safety in a territory where civilians have been faced by airstrikes even in other areas where the Israeli army has ordered them to evacuate to.

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Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive on the Gaza Strip set up a tent camp in the Muwasi area safe zone (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Israel’s campaign has killed more than 17,100 people in Gaza — 70% of them women and children — and wounded more than 46,000, according to the territory’s Health Ministry, which says many others are trapped under rubble.

The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.

Hamas and other militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in the October 7 attack and took more than 240 hostages.

An estimated 138 hostages remain in Gaza, mostly soldiers and civilian men after 105 were freed during a ceasefire in late November.