Palestinian militants carried out the deadliest attack on Israeli forces since the Hamas raid that sparked the conflict, killing 21 soldiers, the army said Tuesday, a significant setback that could add to growing calls for of a ceasefire.
Hours later, the army announced that ground forces had surrounded the southern town of Khan Younis, Gaza’s second largest city. It’s a major step forward, but it’s unclear how much closer it would bring Israel to defeating Hamas or freeing Israeli hostages – two central goals of the conflict that have proven increasingly elusive – nor what impact it would have on the ceasefire talks which appear to be gathering pace.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mourned the soldiers but pledged to continue the offensive until “absolute victory” over Hamas. But Israelis are increasingly divided over whether such a victory is possible – and whether it is compatible with the return of the hostages. In previous conflicts, large numbers of casualties prompted Israel to end its military operations.
A senior Egyptian official said Israel had offered a two-month ceasefire in which hostages would be released in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel and top Hamas leaders in Gaza would be allowed to leave. install in other countries.
The official, who was not authorized to brief the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hamas had rejected the proposal and insisted that no more hostages would be released until that Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. The Israeli government declined to comment on the negotiations.
Egypt and Qatar – which brokered past deals between Israel and Hamas – were developing a multi-stage proposal to try to bridge the differences, the official said. The families of the hostages have called on Israel to reach a deal with Hamas, saying time is running out to bring their loved ones home alive.
Israel launched its offensive after Hamas crossed the border on October 7, killing more than 1,200 people and kidnapping some 250 others. More than 100 people were freed in November during a week-long ceasefire.
The offensive has caused widespread death and destruction, displaced around 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents and left a quarter of them facing starvation. Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have meanwhile attacked US and Israeli targets in support of the Palestinians.
The United States and Britain launched a new wave of strikes on Monday against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have targeted international shipping in the Red Sea. The Lebanese group Hezbollah said it fired rockets at a strategic military installation in northern Israel for the second time this month.
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‘One of the most difficult days’ for Israel
Israeli reservists were preparing explosives Monday to demolish two buildings in the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza when a militant fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a nearby tank. The explosion triggered the explosives, causing the two two-story buildings to collapse on top of the soldiers.
At least 217 soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began in late October, including three in another event on Monday, according to the army.
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Netanyahu acknowledged on social media that it was “one of the hardest days” of the conflict, but vowed to continue the offensive.
“We are in the middle of a more than justified war. In this war, we are making great achievements, such as the encirclement of Khan Younis, and there are also very heavy losses,” he later said in a video statement.
Gaza’s health ministry said Tuesday that the bodies of 195 people killed in Israeli strikes had been taken to hospitals in the previous 24 hours. Hospitals also received 354 injured people, the press release said.
The deaths bring the death toll in the Gaza Strip to 25,490 since the start of the conflict, the ministry said. 63,354 others were injured, the statement added. The ministry’s count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.
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Heavy fighting in Khan Younis
Israel claims to have killed thousands of militants and largely defeated Hamas in northern Gaza in operations that caused widespread destruction in that part of the territory, including Gaza City. In recent weeks, the offensive has focused on Khan Younis and refugee camps in central Gaza, including Maghazi, which date back to the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel.
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The army said its forces had killed dozens of militants in Khan Younis in recent days and surrounded the city, without providing evidence. It was not possible to independently confirm these claims.
Raed al-Nems, a spokesman for the Palestinian Red Crescent relief services, said there was heavy fighting around the city’s Al-Amal hospital. He said a shell hit the fourth floor, killing one person and injuring ten others. Medical teams were unable to enter or leave the hospital, and a territory-wide communications breakdown further complicated rescue efforts, he said.
Thousands of people fled Khan Younis on Tuesday, some on foot with only what they could carry. Thick black smoke rose above the city.
“We heard very intense shelling and we couldn’t sleep at night because we were so scared,” Ibtisam Abu Jommaiza said as she left the city.
Israel believes Hamas commanders may be hiding in vast tunnel complexes beneath Khan Younis, the hometown of the group’s top leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar, whose location is unknown. Hamas leaders also reportedly use hostages as human shields, further complicating rescue efforts.
The rising death toll and dire humanitarian situation have led to growing international pressure on Israel to slow its offensive and accept the path forward for the creation of a Palestinian state after the conflict. The United States, which provided crucial military aid to the offensive, joined these calls.
But Netanyahu, whose popularity has plummeted since October 7 and whose governing coalition is beholden to far-right parties, rejected both demands.
Instead, he said Israel will need to expand its operations and eventually seize the Gaza side of the border with Egypt – an area where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have fled other areas are crowded together. in overflowing UN-run shelters and sprawling tent camps. .
That sparked an angry protest from the Egyptian government, which rejected Israeli claims that Hamas was smuggling weapons across the heavily guarded border.
Diaa Rashwan, head of Egypt’s State Information Service, said Monday that any Israeli decision to occupy the border area “would pose a serious threat” to relations between the two countries, which signed a historic peace treaty more than four decades ago. Egypt is also deeply concerned about any potential influx of Palestinian refugees into its Sinai Peninsula.
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Magdy reported from Cairo and Jobain from Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Melanie Lidman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.