Israel claims progress against Hamas as humanitarian crisis worsens
JERUSALEM - Israel said it had tightened its grip on Hamas strongholds across Gaza with heavy airstrikes and ground fighting overnight Sunday, as its forces raced to deliver a decisive blow to the militant group before international outrage over civilian deaths and a humanitarian collapse compels it to ease its attacks.
The Israel Defense Forces said it struck more than 250 sites across Gaza and was "fighting fiercely" in Khan Younis, the largest southern city, and in the northern neighborhoods of Shejaiya and Jabalya. The attacks have forced tens of thousands of displaced civilians into overwhelmed pockets near the Egyptian border and driven Gaza's medical systems into "catastrophe," according to the World Health Organization.
IDF officials said Hamas was beginning to buckle under the onslaught. Recent leaked videos of captured Gazans - stripped to their underwear, in some cases blindfolded and with hands bound - were cited as evidence in Israel that the group's fighters had begun to surrender. Gazans, however, described seeing family members and children among the detainees who had no connection to Hamas.
The IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said during a Hanukkah candle-lighting for troops that the events were "a sign of the disintegration of the system, a sign that we need to push harder."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed directly to militants to abandon their leaders. "It's over. Don't die for Sinwar. Surrender now," he said in a video statement, referring to top Hamas commander Yehiya Sinwar.
The videos sparked outrage among rights groups, which said that parading stripped prisoners could amount to mistreatment under international law and that the lineups seemed to include noncombatants.
Israel said forcing captives to undress was a standard security precaution to detect concealed weapons and explosives and that those determined not to be fighters would be released.
"We found those images deeply disturbing and we are seeking more information," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Monday.
In recent weeks, the IDF has detained an unknown number of Gazan civilians without charge. While some are released within hours, others have disappeared, families told The Washington Post.
The IDF said its attacks have killed about 5,000 Hamas fighters, out of a force estimated to number as many as 40,000. About half of the group's battalion and company commanders are dead, officials said, although Sinwar and other key leaders are still in charge, believed to be hiding out in the south.
Hamas remained defiant, saying in a social media post Monday that Israel and the United States should not expect to recover additional hostages from Gaza alive "without exchange and negotiation."
Critics have cautioned that Israel will find it difficult to fulfill its stated goal of "eliminating" Hamas, given that the bulk of its fighters are reportedly sheltering in tunnels and subterranean chambers. The task is complicated by the presence of an estimated 137 Israeli hostages still held by the group and mounting pressure on the IDF to pull back on attacks that have killed more than 18,000 people, including thousands of children, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.
Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued the latest in a series of warnings from Washington that Israel needs to do more to protect civilians in Gaza. "I think the intent is there, but the results are not always manifesting themselves," he said Sunday on CNN, adding that Israel should also facilitate aid delivery and provide clarity over safe areas as its forces press south.
The death toll and the humanitarian misery, described by aid groups as nearly unprecedented and preventable, will overshadow Israel's military achievements, regional leaders said.
"This is a war that cannot be won," Jordan's foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said at a conference in Qatar. "Israel has created an amount of hatred that will haunt this region, that will define generations to come."
Military leaders said they still expected six to eight weeks of hard fighting. The next phase of Israel's war plan is expected to focus on maintaining a militarized buffer zone around the enclave and sending units in for more-targeted raids.
In this "corridor" phase, "the IDF is to carry out raids at various levels of intensity deep in the Gaza Strip in order to reach the Hamas forces that still remain and to make sure that Hamas not seize control again," defense analyst Yoav Limor wrote Monday in the Israel Hayom newspaper.
But that plan contrasts sharply with dire warnings from allies and aid agencies, which say displaced civilians are running out of time.
"The health-care system is collapsing," U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in Doha. "I expect public order to completely break down soon and an even worse situation could unfold, including epidemic diseases and increased pressure for mass displacement into Egypt."
Medical care in particular is "on its knees," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Sunday.
Tedros described "active shelling and artillery fire" nearby as the WHO delivered surgical supplies meant to cover the needs of 1,500 people to al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City.
"The hospital itself has been substantially damaged, and in acute need of oxygen and essential medical supplies, water, food and fuel," he said.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that multiple health facilities and personnel were attacked across Gaza over the weekend and that three medical workers were shot while trying to retrieve medical supplies for hospitals at Health Ministry warehouses.
The European Gaza Hospital was "repeatedly bombarded" for a third consecutive day, OCHA said, and two paramedics were injured when an ambulance near the hospital was fired upon. The Post could not independently verify the attacks.
Salah al-Jabari, a doctor at the Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah, told The Post that "the overcrowding in shelters is leading to the spreading of infectious diseases that we cannot control."
As Israel orders more people to flee to already packed parts of the south, the hospital has seen rising cases of gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory infections, skin rashes, urinary tract infections and diarrhea, he said.
Hamdi al-Boumbardi, 68, who was displaced from his home in the north and has been living for weeks at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, said his wife's kidney disease had deteriorated since the war began because of a lack of medical care and clean drinking water.
Searching for water "has become our first task every day, from morning until evening," he said. "And finding it requires a true miracle."
Israel and the United Nations continued to trade blame for the crisis.
Israeli officials said Monday that they were opening an additional crossing at Kerem Shalom to carry out inspections. One hundred aid trucks entered Gaza on Monday, according to the Rafah Crossing Authority - still a fraction of the number that crossed daily before the war.
"There is no holdup on the Israeli side," Eyon Levy of Netanyahu's office told reporters Monday, blaming international agencies for "not keeping pace to deliver the aid."
But a U.N. spokesperson said efforts to ramp up deliveries were futile during raging combat. "Let us emphasize that the biggest challenge is due to the intensity of bombardment in the south," Juliette Touma of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees told The Post.
The U.N. General Assembly was scheduled to hold an emergency session on the conflict Tuesday, following the U.S. veto of a Security Council cease-fire resolution on Friday. An assembly vote on the measure, which would which require a two-thirds approval, would be nonbinding.
In the occupied West Bank, stores, bakeries and businesses shut down Monday after Palestinian factions called for a general strike and protests to demand a cease-fire in Gaza, with more demonstrations expected across the globe.
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Balousha reported from Amman, Jordan, and Mellen from Washington. Loveday Morris in Jerusalem and Loay Ayyoub in Rafah contributed to this report.
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