Airstrikes on the Gaza Strip killed a Hamas weapons maker and several fighters, the Israeli military said on Wednesday, as its air and ground offensive targeted the militants’ tunnel network beneath the besieged Palestinian enclave.
Gaza City, the Hamas militant group’s main stronghold in the territory, is encircled by Israeli forces. The military said troops have advanced to the heart of the densely-populated city while Hamas says its fighters have inflicted heavy losses.
Witnesses said thousands of people were leaving northern areas and heading south on a road controlled by Israeli tanks on Wednesday, during a daily four-hour window proclaimed by Israeli forces for civilians to leave.
Thousands of others still remain inside the encircled area, including at Gaza City’s main al-Shifa hospital, where Um Haitham Hejela was sheltering with her young children in an improvised tent.
“The situation is getting worse day after day,” she said. “There is no food, no water. When my son goes to pick up water, he queues for three or four hours in the line. They struck bakeries, we don’t have bread.”
With the war now entering its second month, UN officials and G7 nations stepped up appeals for a humanitarian pause in the hostilities to help alleviate the suffering in Gaza, where buildings have been flattened and basic supplies are running out. Palestinian officials say more than 10,000 people have been killed, 40 percent of them children.
The level of death and suffering is “hard to fathom,” UN health agency spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said in Geneva.
Israel struck at Gaza in response to a Hamas raid on southern Israel on October 7 in which gunmen killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. The war has descended into the bloodiest episode in the generations-long Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Israel’s stated intention is to wipe out Hamas, the group that rules Gaza, pounding it from air, land and sea while ground troops have moved in to divide the narrow coastal strip in two in fierce urban fighting amid the ruins of buildings.
The Israeli military said on Wednesday two separate strikes eliminated a leading Hamas armorer, Mahsein Abu Zina, and fighters engaged in anti-tank or ground-to-ground rocket fire.
Palestinian media reported clashes between militants and Israeli forces near al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp in Gaza City. Hamas’ armed wing, the Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades, said its fighters had destroyed an Israeli tank in Gaza City.
There was no further word from Israel on the possible fate of Yahya Sinwar, the most senior Hamas leader in Gaza and believed to be a key planner of the October 7 attacks. Israel said on Tuesday he had been cornered in his bunker.
Chief military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said combat engineers were using explosive devices to destroy a tunnel network built by Hamas that stretches for hundreds of kilometers (miles) beneath Gaza.
Israeli tanks have met heavy resistance from Hamas fighters using the tunnels to stage ambushes, according to sources with Hamas and the separate Islamic Jihad militant group. Israel says 33 of its soldiers have been killed.
Israel seeks ‘indefinite period’ of control
Israelis have voiced fear that military operations could further endanger the hostages, who are believed to be held in the tunnels. Israel says it will not agree to a ceasefire until the hostages are released. Hamas says it will not stop fighting while Gaza is under attack.
The fighting is concentrated in the north of the Gaza Strip and Israel has told civilians to flee to the south, but it has been bombing southern areas as well.
In the main southern city Khan Younis, six Palestinians, including a young girl, were killed in a house that was hit, medics said. Reuters reported seeing the bodies of the girl and at least two others arrive at a hospital.
Nearly two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are internally displaced, according to UN figures, with thousands seeking refuge at hospitals including in makeshift canvas shelters in their car parks.
Washington has backed Israel’s position that a ceasefire would help Hamas militarily. But US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday he had urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pause fighting for humanitarian reasons.
Israel has so far been vague about its long-term plans if it achieves its stated goal of vanquishing Hamas. Netanyahu said on Tuesday Israel would seek security responsibility for Gaza for an indefinite period after the war. But officials said Israel is not interested in governing the enclave.
‘No food, no water’
An Israeli airstrike on Wednesday hit Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, killing two people, health officials said.
The UN says Gaza’s health system is close to collapse, battered by air strikes, flooded with patients, and running out of medicines and fuel.
“The longer we wait, the worse some patients will get. Many people will die merely because they have no access to treatment,” said Osama Qadoumi, the supervisor at Makassed Hospital.
G7 foreign ministers meeting in Tokyo called for a humanitarian pause in the fighting and a “peace process.”
A joint statement said Israel had the right to defend itself but civilians must be protected and international humanitarian law followed. A two-state solution “remains the only path to a just, lasting, and secure peace,” it said.
Such a solution, envisaging the creation of an independent country for Palestinians in territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, has long been the aim of international peace efforts but the process has been moribund for years.
Saudi Arabia will host summits of Arab and Islamic nations in coming days to push for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, a Saudi minister said.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will travel to Riyadh on Sunday for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit, Etemadonline news reported, the first visit by an Iranian head of state since Tehran and Riyadh ended years of hostility under a deal brokered by China in March.
Iran is a sponsor of Hamas and applauded its attacks on Israel last month although it denies being behind them.