Israel presses on with Gaza bombardments, including in areas where it told civilians to flee

Gaza’s borders with Israel and Egypt are effectively sealed, leaving Palestinians with no option other than to seek refuge within the territory

December 09, 2023 08:33 pm | Updated 08:33 pm IST - RAFAH

Smoke rises from the Gaza Strip after Israeli strikes on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

Smoke rises from the Gaza Strip after Israeli strikes on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

Israeli warplanes struck parts of the Gaza Strip overnight into Saturday in relentless bombardments, including some of the dwindling slivers of land Palestinians had been told to evacuate to in the territory’s south.

The latest strikes came a day after the U.S. vetoed a United Nations resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza, despite it being backed by the vast majority of Security Council members and many other nations. The vote in the 15-member council was 13-1, with the United Kingdom abstaining.

“Attacks from air, land and sea are intense, continuous and widespread,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said before the vote. Gaza residents “are being told to move like human pinballs — ricocheting between ever-smaller slivers of the south, without any of the basics for survival.”

Mr. Guterres told the council that Gaza was at “a breaking point” with the humanitarian support system at risk of total collapse, and that he feared “the consequences could be devastating for the security of the entire region.”

Gaza’s borders with Israel and Egypt are effectively sealed, leaving Palestinians with no option other than to seek refuge within the territory. The overall Palestinian death toll in Gaza has surpassed 17,400, the majority of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory, whose counts do not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for civilian casualties, accusing the militants of using civilians as human shields, and says it’s made considerable efforts with its evacuation orders to get civilians out of harm’s way. It has said 93 Israeli soldiers have died since the ground offensive began.

On Saturday, the Israeli military said its forces fought and killed Hamas militants and found weapons inside a school in Shijaiyah in a densely populated neighbourhood of Gaza City. It said soldiers discovered a tunnel shaft in the same neighbourhood where they found an elevator, and in a separate incident, militants shot at troops from an UN-run school in the northern town of Beit Hanoun. Hamas said on Saturday it had continued its rocket fire into Israel.

Residents reported airstrikes and shelling in Gaza's north and south, including the city of Rafah, which lies near the Egyptian border and where the Israeli army had ordered civilians to move to.

Two hospitals in central and southern Gaza received the bodies of a total of 133 people from Israeli bombings over the past 24 hours, the Health Ministry said.

Israel has been trying to secure the military’s hold on northern Gaza, where furious fighting has underscored heavy resistance from Hamas. Tens of thousands of residents are believed to remain despite evacuation orders, six weeks after troops and tanks rolled in during the war sparked by Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 raid targeting civilians in Israel.

About 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the Hamas raid, and more than 240 taken hostage. A temporary truce saw hostages and Palestinian prisoners released, but more than 130 hostages are believed to remain in Gaza.

On Saturday, a kibbutz that had come under attack on Oct. 7 announced that 25-year-old hostage Sahar Baruch had died in captivity. His captors said Baruch was killed during a failed rescue mission by Israeli forces early Friday. The Israeli military has only confirmed that two soldiers were seriously wounded in an attempted hostage rescue and that no hostages were freed.

More than 2,200 Palestinians have been killed since the Dec. 1 collapse of the truce, about two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

With only a trickle of humanitarian aid getting into just a few parts of the Gaza Strip, residents were reporting severe food shortages.

“I am very hungry,” said Mustafa al-Najjar, sheltering in a U.N.-run school in the devastated Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. “We are living on canned food and biscuits and this is not sufficient.”

While the adults can cope with the hunger, “it’s extremely difficult and painful when you see your young son or daughter crying because there are hungry and you are not able to do anything,” he said.

Despite growing international pressure, the Biden administration remains opposed to an open-ended cease-fire, arguing it would enable Hamas to continue posing a threat to Israel. Officials have expressed misgivings in recent days about the rising civilian death toll and dire humanitarian crisis, but have not pushed publicly for Israel to wind down the war, now in its third month.

“We have not given a firm deadline to Israel, not really our role,” deputy national security adviser Jon Finer told a security forum a day before the U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council. “That said, we do have influence, even if we don’t have ultimate control over what happens on the ground in Gaza.”

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant argued that “a cease-fire is handing a prize to Hamas, dismissing the hostages held in Gaza, and signalling terror groups everywhere."

A delegation of foreign ministers from mainly Arab nations and Turkey was in Washington to push the U.S. to drop its objections to an immediate cease-fire. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Friday ahead of a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel’s bombardment and siege of Gaza is a war crime that is destabilising the region.

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said the U.S. veto showed Washington’s isolation.

“The American political system is now helpless on issues related to Israel. Therefore, Israel acts recklessly on this issue and continues its oppression.," Mr. Fidan told Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu and broadcaster TRT.

Mr. Fidan and the Palestinian, Saudi, Indonesian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Qatari and Nigerian Ministers met with Mr. Blinken to press for an end to the fighting, while the group is to meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Melanie Joly on Saturday.

As fighting resumed after a brief truce more than a week ago, the U.S. urged Israel to do more to protect civilians and allow more aid to besieged Gaza. The appeals came as Israel expanded its blistering air and ground campaign into southern Gaza, especially Khan Younis, sending tens of thousands more fleeing.

"It was a night of heavy gunfire and shelling as every night,” Taha Abdel-Rahman, a Khan Younis resident, said by phone early Saturday.

Airstrikes were reported overnight in the Nuseirat refugee camp, where resident Omar Abu Moghazi said a family home was hit, causing casualties.

Israel has designated a narrow patch of barren coastline in the south, Muwasi, as a safe zone. But Palestinians who have headed there portrayed a grim picture of desperately overcrowded conditions with scant shelter and poor hygiene facilities.

“We didn’t see anything good here at all. We are living here in a tough cold. There are no bathrooms. We are sleeping on the sand,” said Soad Qarmoot, who was forced to leave her home in the northern town of Beit Lahiya.

“I am a cancer patient,” Qarmoot said late Friday as children circled a wood fire for warmth. “There is no mattress for me to sleep on. I am sleeping on the sand. It’s freezing.”

Imad al-Talateeny, a displaced man from Gaza City, said the area lacks basic services to accommodate the growing number of displaced families.

“I lack everything to feel a human,” he said, adding that he had a peaceful, comfortable life before the war in Gaza City. “Here I’m not safe. Here I live in a desert. There is no gas, no water. The water that we drink is polluted water.”

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