DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops battled Hamas militants and attacked underground facilities on Tuesday, focusing on the northern Gaza Strip, where an estimated 800,000 Palestinians have fled south despite continued Israeli bombardment of the besieged enclave .
Buoyed by the first successful rescue of a prisoner held by Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected calls for a ceasefire and vowed again to destroy Hamas’s ability to rule Gaza or threaten Israel after the bloody Oct. 7 rampage that took place the fire started war.
More than half of the territory’s 2.3 million Palestinians have fled their homes. Hundreds of thousands are seeking refuge in overcrowded UN schools converted into emergency shelters or in hospitals, along with thousands of wounded patients. There have been Israeli attacks near several hospitals in the north in recent days, alarming doctors.
The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, says nearly 672,000 Palestinians are seeking refuge in its schools and other facilities – four times their capacity. Thousands of people broke into relief camps over the weekend to collect food as supplies of basic goods ran low due to the Israeli siege.
Gaza has been without a central power supply for weeks, and Israel has banned the import of fuel to power emergency generators for hospitals and private homes.
UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini accused Israel of “collective punishment” of Palestinians and accused Israel of pushing them out of the northern Gaza Strip to the south, where they are still not safe.
The agency, which hundreds of thousands of Gazans rely on for basic supplies even in normal times, says 64 of its employees have been killed since the war began, including a man who was killed along with his wife and eight children in a late strike became Monday.
“This is the highest number of U.N. aid workers ever killed in such a short period of time in any conflict anywhere in the world,” spokeswoman Juliette Touma told The Associated Press. “UNRWA will never be the same without these colleagues.”
The war also threatened to trigger even more intense fighting on other fronts. There are daily exchanges of fire at the border between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah group, and Israel and the US have attacked targets in Syria linked to Iran, which controls Hamas, Hezbollah and other armed groups in the region supports.
The military said it shot down a drone outside Israeli airspace near the Red Sea city of Eilat on Tuesday, without giving further details. Earlier this month, a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Red Sea intercepted three cruise missiles and several drones fired at Israel by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In the occupied West Bank, where Israeli-Palestinian violence has also increased, the army destroyed the family home of Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official who was exiled more than a decade ago. Ali Kaseeb, chairman of the local council in Aroura village, said the house has been empty for 15 years.
Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said ground operations in Gaza were focused on the north, including Gaza City, which he said was Hamas’s “center of gravity.”
“But we continue to strike in other parts of the Gaza Strip. We hunt down their commanders, we attack their infrastructure and whenever there is an important target linked to Hamas, we attack it,” he said.
The military said it struck around 300 militant targets over the past day, including buildings in tunnels, and that troops fought several battles with Palestinian militants armed with anti-tank missiles and machine guns.
Hamas released its own video on Sunday purporting to show a battle in northern Gaza. A militant wearing a GoPro-style camera emerged from a tunnel with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and ran across sand dunes and bushes with other militants amid gunfire.
Independent confirmation of the reports was not possible.
Major ground operations were launched both north and east of Gaza City, where over 650,000 people lived before the war.
Video footage released by the military showed soldiers walking across an open area as heavy gunfire rang out in the background and taking up positions in the ruins of a badly damaged building.
Conricus said about 800,000 people followed Israeli military orders and fled south from the northern part of the strip. But tens of thousands of people remain in and around Gaza City and casualties are expected to mount on both sides as the fighting expands into dense residential neighborhoods.
The window to escape south may be closing as Israeli forces entered Gaza’s main north-south highway this week. On Monday, a video circulated showing a tank opening fire on a car that had approached a sandbank but turned around. Gaza’s health ministry said three people were killed.
Zaki Abdel-Hay, a Palestinian who lives within walking distance of the road south of Gaza City, said people were afraid to use it. “People are very afraid. “The Israeli tanks are still nearby,” he said by phone, adding that “artillery fire was constantly heard” near the road.
In a news conference late Monday, Netanyahu rejected calls for a ceasefire to facilitate the release of prisoners or end the war, which he said would be protracted and difficult. “Calls for a ceasefire are calls for Israel to surrender to Hamas,” he told a news conference. “That will not happen.”
Netanyahu, facing growing anger over Israel’s failure to prevent the worst surprise attack on the country in half a century, also said he had no plans to resign.
More than 8,500 Palestinians have been killed in the war, mostly women and minors, Gaza’s health ministry said on Monday. This figure is unprecedented in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Over 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mostly civilians killed in Hamas’ first attack, also an unprecedented number. Palestinian militants have continued to fire rockets into Israel.
The military said on Monday that special forces had rescued one of an estimated 240 prisoners seized from Palestinian militants during the large-scale attack. There stood Pvt. 19-year-old Ori Megidish was “doing well” and reunited with her family.
Hamas has released four hostages and said it would release the others in return for thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. However, Israel rejected the offer. Hamas released a short video on Monday showing three more female prisoners.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip continues to worsen.
The World Health Organization said two hospitals had been damaged and an ambulance destroyed in Gaza in the past two days. It said all 13 hospitals operating in the north had received Israeli evacuation orders in recent days. Medical professionals rejected such orders on the grounds that it would be a death sentence for patients on life support.
Israel says it is targeting Hamas fighters and infrastructure and that the militants operate among civilians, putting them in danger.
Israel has allowed more than 150 trucks loaded with food and medicine to enter the Gaza Strip from Egypt in recent days, but aid workers say that is not enough to meet rapidly growing needs.
Israel says it has restarted two main water pipes in Gaza, but the U.N. humanitarian affairs office said one of them was no longer functional after two weeks of operation and the other needed repairs.
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