World

Gaza fighting rages as UN chief decries ‘horror and starvation’

Published March 24, 2024
Palestinians check the rubble of a building destroyed in overnight Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 24, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas. Photo: AFP
Palestinians check the rubble of a building destroyed in overnight Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 24, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas. Photo: AFP

GAZA STRIP: Heavy fighting raged in Gaza on Sunday as Israel has vowed to push on with its ground war in the territory’s far south despite US objections and truce talks.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said “horror and starvation stalk the people of Gaza” and urged an immediate ceasefire and the release of all hostages held since October 7.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip said another 84 people had been killed over the past 24 hours, raising the total death toll in the nearly six-month-old war to 32,226.

Combat has flared for almost a week in and around Gaza’s biggest hospital complex, Al-Shifa, which has been a refuge for patients and displaced people and where Israel says Hamas and Islamic Jihad group fighters have been hiding out.

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Hamas also said Israel had launched more than 60 airstrikes as well as artillery bombardment on Gaza City, the southern urban centre of Khan Yunis and other areas.

Israel’s military said fighter jets had struck about 65 targets “including a terror tunnel used to carry out attacks, military compounds where armed terrorists operated and additional military infrastructure”.

In Gaza’s far-southern Rafah city, local resident Hassan Zanoun looked sadly at the remains of his building, reduced to a jumble of broken concrete and rubble by an airstrike.

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“My children and I were sleeping here,” he told AFP. “I was surprised, we didn’t hear the sound of a rocket and suddenly everything was unleashed over our heads… strikes, screams.

“I got out from under the rubble, and my daughters got out from under the rubble too. What more can I say? Our neighbours are injured, we too are injured, the houses have collapsed over our heads.”

Israel has faced ever greater global scrutiny and opposition to its military campaign as Palestinian civilian deaths have soared and its siege has brought widespread malnutrition and hunger.

Guterres urged an end to the “non-stop nightmare” endured by Gaza’s 2.4 million people in a visit on Saturday to the Egyptian border with the coastal territory.

He said “nothing justifies” either the October 7 attack or the “collective punishment” of Palestinians, and demanded Israel allow vastly more aid into Gaza.

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Writing on social media platform X, he said “horror and starvation stalk the people of Gaza. Any further onslaught will make everything worse. Worse for Palestinian civilians, for the hostages, for all people of the region.

“It’s more than time for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire & the immediate release of all hostages.”

US-Israel tensions

The bloodiest ever Gaza war was sparked by the unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel has vowed to destroy the Palestinian group, who also seized about 250 hostages, of whom Israel believes around 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 presumed dead.

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Relatives and supporters of the hostages, demanding greater efforts to bring them home, rallied Saturday outside the defence ministry in Tel Aviv in a protest that saw scuffles between demonstrators and police.

Tensions have grown between Israel and its traditional top ally the United States, which has called for greater efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

The main flashpoint is Israel’s plan to push its ground invasion into Rafah city on the Egyptian border, where some 1.5 million Palestinians are living, mostly in overcrowded shelters.

Washington has made clear it would not support an Israeli attack on Rafah without a plan to protect civilians there.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that “a major ground operation there would mean more civilian deaths, it would worsen the humanitarian crisis”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that “we have no way to defeat Hamas without getting into Rafah and eliminating the battalions that are left there”.

Netanyahu added he had told Blinken that “I hope to do that with the support of the United States, but if we need to, we will do it alone”.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant was to head to Washington Sunday to discuss the war with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and other senior US defence officials.

Hospital battle

US intelligence chief Bill Burns and his Israeli counterpart David Barnea departed Doha late Saturday following talks on a temporary truce in Gaza and a hostage exchange, a source briefed on the talks told AFP.

The latest negotiations “focused on details and a ratio for the exchange of hostages and prisoners”, the source said, adding that technical teams remained in Qatar.

A major sticking point has been Hamas’s position that a temporary truce must lead to a permanent Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a demand Israel has rejected.

A Hamas official with knowledge of the talks said on Saturday that “there is a deep divergence in positions in the negotiations” in Doha.

The official said Israel “refuses to agree on a comprehensive ceasefire and refuses the complete withdrawal of its forces from Gaza”.

Deadly fighting meanwhile rocked Gaza, where Hamas reported 21 deaths on Saturday at an aid distribution point on the outskirts of Gaza City.

Hamas said they were killed by Israeli “tank fire and shells”, while the Israeli army denied it had fired on the crowd.

Israeli forces also pressed on with their offensive in and around the Al-Shifa hospital complex.

The army said it had avoided harm to civilians and medics, but the UN humanitarian office OCHA said “health workers have been among those reported arrested and detained”.

The Hamas government media office said 190 people had been killed in the operation, and 30 nearby buildings destroyed.

The army said more than 170 fighters had been killed.

It also said troops had “apprehended approximately 480 terrorists affiliated with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organisations, and have located weapons and terrorist infrastructure in the hospital”.

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