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Israel optimistic in battle against Hamas as Gaza suffering soars



Israel optimistic in battle against Hamas as Gaza suffering soars

JERUSALEM — Israel said it had tightened its grip on Hamas strongholds across Gaza with heavy airstrikes and ground fighting overnight Sunday, as its forces race 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 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 Gazan medical systems into a “catastrophe,” according to the World Health Organization.

But IDF officials said Hamas was beginning to buckle under the onslaught. Recent leaked videos of captured Gazans purported by officials to be surrendered Hamas fighters were seen in Israel as evidence that the group’s forces are beginning to throw down their weapons. Several Gazans, however, described seeing family members and children being held who had no connection to Hamas.

Israel is detaining civilians in Gaza. Many have disappeared, families say.

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 directly appealed to Hamas 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, who said parading stripped prisoners could amount to mistreatment and that the lineups seemed to include noncombatants.

Israel said forcing captives to strip was a standard security precaution to detect concealed weapons and explosives. Troops were rounding up fighting-age men from combat areas and those determined not to be fighters would be released, officials said.

In recent weeks, Israel has detained an unknown number of Gazan civilians without charge. While some are released within hours, others have disappeared, families told The Post.

The IDF said its attacks have killed about 7,000 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 top leaders are still in charge. As ground operations accelerated in the south, Israeli planes have dropped seven tons of combat material to troops in Khan Younis in recent days, the IDF said Monday.

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” with the group.

Critics have cautioned that Israel will find it difficult to fulfill its stated goal of “eliminating” Hamas as a fighting force, given that the bulk of fighters are reportedly sheltering in tunnels and subterranean chambers. The task of clearing the network is complicated by the presence of an estimated 137 Israeli hostages and mounting pressures for Israel to pull back on attacks that have killed almost 18,000Gazans, including thousands of children, according to Gaza health authorities.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the weekend repeated one of the increasingly pointed warnings from Washington that Israel needs to do more for civilian safety 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 take steps to facilitate aid delivery and provide clarity over safe areas as its forces press south.

The death toll and the wave of humanitarian misery, which aid groups say is nearly unprecedented and easily preventable, are increasingly likely to overshadow Israel’s achievement even if it does purge Hamas, according to regional leaders.

“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 needed six to eight weeks of hard fighting to gain enough control over Gaza that they could pull significant forces from the enclave. The next phase of Israel’s war plan — which comes after two months of air attacks and the massive ground operations — is expected to center 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 timeline contrasts sharply with dire warning from allies and aid agencies that the situation for displaced civilians was nearing total breakdown.

“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 Ghebreyesuswarned Sunday, as supplies and hospital beds dwindle rapidly amid reports of bombardments around medical facilities.

In a social media post on Sunday, Tedros described “active shelling and artillery fire” nearby as 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.

An Israeli rights group, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, said that fewer than 1 percent of an estimated 49,000 injured Palestinians have been able to leave Gaza for treatment in Egypt.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said multiple health facilities and personnel were attacked “throughout the Gaza Strip over the weekend and three medical workers were shot while trying to retrieve medical supplies for hospitals at Gaza Health Ministry warehouses.

The European Gaza Hospital was “repeatedly bombed” for a third consecutive day, OCHA said, and two paramedics were injured when an ambulance near the hospital was fired upon. The Washington Post could not independently verify the attacks.

Israel and the U.N. continued to trade blame for the lack of aid reaching civilians.

Israeli officials said they were expanding its system for inspecting trucks entering from Egypt and prepared to open a second cargo crossing, Kerem Shalom, for inspections.

“There is no holdup on the Israeli side,” Eyon Levy of Netanyahu’s office told reporters Monday. “The problem is … international agencies not keeping pace to deliver the aid at the same pace that Israel is able to inspect it.”

But a U.N. spokesperson said their efforts to ramp up aid 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. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees said The Post in a text. “It is extremely difficult to transport aid or deliver aid under a sky full of airstrikes and during bombardments.”

Balousha reported from Amman, Jordan.

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