Israel said on Tuesday that 24 soldiers were killed in the biggest single-day losses since the start of its ground war in Gaza amid growing pressure on the government to find a way to end the conflict.
The heavy clashes came as a White House official was due in the region for talks to secure more hostage releases, and as US media reported a new Israeli proposal for a deal that would involve a two-month pause in fighting.
Twenty-four soldiers were killed on Monday, with the army saying 21 of them were reservists slain when rocket propelled grenade fire hit a tank and two buildings.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said an investigation was launched into the “disaster” and that Israel “must learn the necessary lessons”.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the “deaths of 24 of our fighters, our best sons... is a heavy blow”.
More than 200 people attended the funeral of one of the reservists, Hadar Kapeluk, whose coffin was draped with an Israeli flag, at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
An analyst said the mounting toll of soldiers killed, now 221, since Israel launched its ground offensive in Gaza would heap pressure on the government. On the ground, fighting raged in Khan Yunis, the biggest city in southern Gaza, which the army said it had “encircled”.
Witnesses said powerful explosions rocked Khan Yunis, as well as Deir al-Balah in north Gaza and Rafah in the south.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said its staff at Khan Yunis’s Nasser Hospital felt the “ground shaking”.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli forces had hit its headquarters in Khan Yunis “resulting in injuries among internally displaced individuals who sought safety on our premises”.
UN agencies and aid groups have sounded the alarm about the growing threat of disease and famine in Gaza, where 1.7 million people are estimated to have been uprooted.
“The situation in Gaza is of course slipping every day into a much more catastrophic situation,” with “a looming threat of famine”, said Abeer Etefa, the World Food Programme’s senior spokesperson for the Middle East.
The Gaza war broke out with Hamas’s October 7 attacks, which resulted in the deaths of about 1 140 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
In response, Israel has carried out a relentless offensive that has killed at least 25490 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.
The Hamas attack also saw about 250 hostages seized, and Israel says about 132 remain in Gaza. That number includes the bodies of at least 28 dead hostages, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
A week-long truce in November saw 105 hostages released, the Israelis among them in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Relatives of those still held captive stormed a parliamentary committee meeting demanding urgent action.
US news outlet Axios reported that Israel had proposed to Hamas, through Qatari and Egyptian mediators, a new deal to free all the hostages.
The report, citing Israeli officials, said the proposed deal would be carried out in multiple stages, and would also involve the release of an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners. The plan was expected to take about two months to complete.
The proposal would involve Israeli troops reducing their presence in major cities in Gaza and gradually allowing residents to return to the territory’s devastated north, Axios said.
News of the proposal comes as US media said the White House’s co-ordinator for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, was expected in Egypt and Qatar for meetings aimed at securing a new hostage exchange deal.
State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel, however, said Washington still believed “a two-state solution, a creation of a Palestinian state, is the only path that gets us out of this endless cycle of violence”.
Netanyahu has rejected calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, saying Israel must maintain “security control over all the territory west of the Jordan” River, an area that includes all of the Palestinian territories.
European Union foreign ministers pressed Israel to change its mind at meetings in Brussels with the top diplomats from the two warring parties and key Arab states.
Lebanon’s Shia movement Hezbollah said on Tuesday that it struck the Israeli air control base of Meron for a second time in recent weeks, in response to Israeli “assassinations” and attacks on civilians.
Meanwhile, the US and Britain launched a new wave of air strikes against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels on Tuesday in response to their attacks on Red Sea shipping. The Houthis warned that “these attacks will not go unanswered and unpunished”.