GAZA/JERUSALEM: Palestinian health officials said at least 50 Palestinians were killed when Israeli air strikes hit a densely populated refugee camp in north Gaza on Tuesday, as Israeli ground forces battled Hamas gunmen based in a sprawling tunnel network.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed international calls for a halt to the fighting to enable emergency aid deliveries to civilians suffering from critical shortages of food, medicine, drinking water and fuel.
UN and other aid officials said Gaza’s civilians were engulfed by a public health catastrophe, with hospitals struggling to treat snowballing casualties as electricity supplies peter out.
Officials at Gaza’s Indonesian Hospital said more than 50 Palestinians were killed and 150 wounded when tons of aerial explosives struck residential dwellings in the heart of the Jabalia refugee camp in urbanized north Gaza.
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military. It has accused Hamas of using civilian buildings as cover for fighters, commanders and weaponry, accusations the group denies.
Footage obtained by Reuters showed a swathe of destruction, with deep bomb craters and gutted, multi-story cement dwellings as people dug through mounds of rubble with their hands in search of loved ones, dead or alive.
Medics lay the dead swaddled in white cloth in a long line outside the hospital, located in the adjacent town of Beit Lahiya, as the injured including wailing children were rushed inside for treatment amid scenes of pandemonium.
A Hamas statement said there were 400 dead and injured in Jabalia, which lies on Gaza City’s outskirts within the main northern ground zone of combat between dug-in Hamas militants and Israeli troops and tanks. Jabalia houses families of refugees from wars with Israel dating back to 1948.
Reuters could not independently verify the reported casualty figures.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed again on Tuesday for the protection of civilians caught in the conflict, stressing the need for proportional behavior and precaution by all parties.
“International humanitarian law establishes clear rules that cannot be ignored. It is not an a la carte menu and cannot be applied selectively,” Guterres said in a statement.
TUNNELS AT EPICENTRE OF WAR
The tunnels under the cramped enclave are a prime objective for Israel as it expands a four-day-old ground offensive — after three weeks of aerial bombardment — into Gaza from the north to hit Hamas in retaliation for the Islamist group’s deadly surprise attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7.
Some of the 240 hostages that Israel says were seized by Hamas that day are believed to be held in the tunnel complex, posing a further complication for the Israelis on top of the difficulties of fighting in an urban setting.
In an update, the Israeli military said its force had struck about 300 targets over the past day, including anti-tank missile and rocket launch posts below tunnel shafts, as well as underground Hamas military compounds.
Militants responded with anti-tank missiles and machine gun fire, it said. A number of militants were killed, it said, without specifying a number.
Hamas said in a statement its fighters were engaged in fierce battles with Israeli ground forces, who were taking losses. “The occupation is pushing its soldiers into proud Gaza, which will always be the cemetery of invaders,” Hamas said.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed in combat in north Gaza, the military said on Tuesday, without saying when.
The Israeli military has repeatedly called for civilians to evacuate north Gaza southwards to avoid the main focus of its armored onslaught. Hundreds of thousands have left but many have hung on, residents say, for fear of permanent displacement and deadly Israeli bombardments that have hit the south as well.
“The north is at the moment, at least we hope, as clean as possible of non-combatants because that is the goal we have set for ourselves, to know how to deal primarily with terrorists and not harm non-combatants,” Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told a televised briefing in Jerusalem.
“But the south’s turn will come, the center’s turn will come… As we have mentioned, this is a long battle,” Hanegbi said.
Gaza health authorities say that 8,525 people, including 3,542 children, have been killed in Israeli attacks since Oct. 7. UN officials say more than 1.4 million of Gaza’s civilian population of about 2.3 million have been made homeless.
About 1,400 people, mainly civilians, were killed in the cross-border Hamas assault on Oct. 7, Israel says.
Reuters has been unable to independently verify casualty counts.
The Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, said militants clashed early on Tuesday with Israeli forces invading Gaza’s south, hitting four Israeli vehicles with rockets.
Later, it said fighters ambushed Israeli armored vehicles penetrating the central Jur Al-Dik area of Gaza and destroyed three of them with al Yassin 105mm shells, before withdrawing safely to avoid an Israeli mortar barrage.
Israel’s military had no immediate comment on Hamas’ accounts.
BARE TRICKLE OF HUMANITARIAN AID
Far fewer humanitarian aid trucks than needed have reached the besieged enclave, UN officials said. Aid trucks have been trickling into Gaza from Egypt over the past week via Rafah, the main crossing that does not border Israel.
But distribution of the aid within Gaza is being hampered by a lack of fuel — which Israel says may be used by Hamas to wage war — by looting of stores, the choking of streets with rubble from Israeli shelling and by the displacement of civilians.
Air raid sirens sounded in the area of Israel’s far southern resort city of Eilat on the Red Sea on Tuesday and the Israeli military said it downed an approaching “aerial target.”
Over 1,000 miles south of Gaza, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis said they had
a “large number” of ballistic missiles and drones toward Israel in support of Palestinian militants, their third operation targeting Israel, with more to come.
Their statement confirmed the widening spectre of spillover from Gaza’s conflict that has unnerved states including the world’s biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia.