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GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories: The Hamas-run Gaza Strip’s health ministry said Wednesday the death toll from the war with Israel had surged above 21,000, about two thirds of them women and children.

Israel again pounded Gaza with air strikes and shelling after its armed forces chief warned the war raging with Hamas since the October 7 attacks will last “many more months”.

Explosion lit up the sky over the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis — a focus of heavy urban combat since the Israeli army said it had largely gained operational control over Gaza’s north.

Heavy firefights however also raged again around Gaza City in the north, while an air strike wounded 11 near Rafah, a far-southern city crowded with internally displaced people, witnesses said.

Gaza’s spiralling humanitarian crisis has amplified calls for an end to the hostilities.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to keep up the campaign to destroy Hamas, an group blacklisted as a “terrorist” organisation by the United States and the European Union.

“This war’s objectives are essential and not simple to achieve,” armed forces chief Herzi Halevi said Tuesday. “Therefore, the war will continue for many more months.”

The conflict erupted when Hamas gunmen attacked southern Israel on October 7 and killed about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

During the deadliest attack in Israel’s history, Palestinian also took around 250 hostages, 129 of whom remain in captivity, Israel says.

Israel retaliated with a relentless bombardment and a siege followed by a ground invasion from October 27.

The campaign has killed at least 21,110 people, according to the latest toll issued by Gaza’s health ministry, which added that more than 55,000 people had been wounded.

The Israeli army blames Hamas and its allied armed groups for the high civilian death toll, charging that fighters hide in, or in tunnels below, schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure.

The army said the number of Israeli soldiers killed inside Gaza had risen to 164.

Israel on Tuesday returned the bodies of 80 Palestinians killed in Gaza, after checking there were no hostages among them, via the Red Cross, sources in the health ministry said.

An AFP photographer witnessed a digger lowering the human remains in blue body bags into a mass grave in Rafah.

Gaza’s 2.4 million people have suffered severe shortages of water, food, fuel and medicines, with only limited aid entering the territory.

An estimated 1.9 million Gazans have been displaced, according to the UN.

The Gaza war “goes beyond a catastrophe and a genocide,” Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas charged in an interview on Egyptian television.

The Palestinian Authority chief argued the war “is much uglier than what happened” during the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s creation when 760,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

“Netanyahu’s plan is to get rid of the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority,” Abbas said.

The UN Security Council, in a resolution last week, called for the “safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance at scale”.

The resolution, which did not call for an immediate end to the fighting, effectively leaves Israel with operational oversight of aid deliveries.

In Rafah, hundreds turned up at the Abdul Salam Yassin water company carrying baskets, pulling handcarts and even pushing a wheelchair stacked with bottles to queue for clean water.

“This was my father’s cart,” said Rafah resident Amir al-Zahhar. “He was martyred during the war. He used it to transport and sell fish, and now we are using it to transport fresh water.”

Elsewhere in the city, people split logs and stacked kindling as the lack of fuel forced them to burn wood for cooking and to keep warm.

One woman who was washing her family’s clothes by hand told AFP: “I’ve pleaded with people for water. I have absolutely nothing. I’ve borrowed everything, even the blankets, from others.”

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