Israel pummelled southern Gaza on Tuesday, killing dozens, even as authorities announced the winding down of the intense phase of the war that has inflamed tensions across the Middle East.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under mounting international pressure to end its offensive in Gaza launched in response to Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attacks.
But fears are mounting the war could be widening, with Iran and its proxies stepping up attacks across the region in solidarity with Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Palestinian territory.
A wave of Israeli strikes killed at least 78 people in the Gaza Strip overnight, Hamas’s press office said. An AFP correspondent said the southern city of Khan Yunis was hit hard.
A barrage of 50 rockets was fired later toward Netivot in southern Israel, without causing any casualties, the army said. The attack was claimed by Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
Fighting has ravaged Gaza since October 7, when Hamas militants carried out an unparallelled attack on Israel that resulted in about 1140 deaths, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
Militants also dragged about 250 hostages back to Gaza, 132 of whom Israel says are still in the Palestinian territory, including at least 25 believed to have been killed.
At least 24 285 Palestinians, about 70% of them women, children and adolescents, have been killed in Gaza in Israeli bombardments and ground operations since October 7, according to the Hamas government.
Khan Yunis has been the focus of Israeli military operations since the army said on January 6 that it had dismantled Hamas’s military structures in the north and was shifting its focus to the south. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said that intense operations would soon be winding down in the territory’s south.
The army on Tuesday announced the death of two more soldiers in Gaza, bringing the total number killed since its ground invasion began to 190.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has reiterated calls to stop the fighting. Israeli officials have warned that the fighting will go on for months. Violence involving regional allies of Iran-backed Hamas – considered a terrorist group by the US and EU – has surged since the war began.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who say they act in solidarity with Gaza, claimed a missile strike on a US-owned cargo ship on Tuesday, just days after the US and Britain bombed scores of targets inside the country in response to repeated attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.
In another such attack, a missile struck a Greek-owned cargo ship in the Red Sea off Yemen, maritime risk management company Ambrey said on Tuesday. The US military said it had seized Iranian-made missile parts that were en route to the Houthis on a boat in the Arabian Sea.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said it carried out an overnight missile attack that destroyed “the Zionist regime’s (Israel) spy headquarters in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The IRGC said it also struck a “gathering of anti-Iranian terrorist groups” in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital Arbil and hit a number of Islamic State group sites in Syria. Iraq condemned the strikes as an “attack on its sovereignty”.
It dismissed Iran’s claim it had hit an Israeli intelligence base, saying it struck a businessman’s house and he was among four people killed.
Iran defended the strikes, saying they were a “targeted operation” and “just punishment” against those who breach its security. On Tuesday, the Israeli army said it conducted air and artillery strikes on Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed Shiite movement across the border in Lebanon.
The UN says the Israel-Hamas war has displaced roughly 85 percent of Gaza’s 2.4 million people, many of whom have been forced to crowd into shelters and struggle to get food, water, fuel and medical care. As temperatures plunge, families living in makeshift tents in the southern city of Rafah have resorted to burning plastic to ward off the chill, despite the noxious fumes.
The Israeli public, meanwhile, has kept up pressure on the government to secure the return of the hostages seized by Hamas, with the militant group announcing the deaths of two more captives.
The Al-Qassam Brigades released a video showing a woman hostage, speaking under duress, revealing that two men she was held with had been killed in captivity. It blamed “the Zionist army’s bombing” for their deaths.
Israeli army spokesperson Daniel Hagari rejected the cause of death as a “lie”, but added: “We know that we hit targets near the location where they were held”, saying an investigation was under way.