Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Israel claims progress against Hamas as humanitarian crisis worsens

By Steve Hendrix, Hazem Balousha and Miriam Berger Washington Post

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 said it 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 Gaza’s medical systems into a “catastrophe,” according to the World Health Organization.

IDF officials said Hamas was beginning to buckle under the onslaught. Recent leaked videos of captured Gazans - stripped to their underwater, in some cases blindfolded with hands bound - were cited as evidence in Israel that the group’s fighters are beginning to surrender. Gazans, however, described seeing family members and children among the detainees who had no connection to Hamas.

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 appealed directly 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 under international law and that the lineups seemed to include noncombatants.

Israel said forcing captives to undress 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 Washington Post.

The IDF said its attacks have killed about 5,000 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, believed to be hiding out in the south.

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.”

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 is complicated by the presence of an estimated 137 Israeli hostages still held by the group and mounting pressures on Israel to pull back on attacks that have killed more than 18,000 Gazans, including thousands of children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated one of the increasingly pointed warnings from Washington that Israel needs to do more to protect civilians 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 humanitarian misery, which aid groups say is nearly unprecedented and easily preventable, are increasingly likely to overshadow Israel’s military achievement, 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, followed by 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 a complete 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 Ghebreyesus warned Sunday, as supplies and hospital beds dwindle rapidly amid reports of bombardments around medical facilities.

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 that multiple health facilities and personnel were attacked “throughout the Gaza Strip over the weekend and that three medical workers were shot while trying to retrieve medical supplies for hospitals at Gaza Health Ministry warehouses.

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

Israel and the United Nations continued to trade blame for the lack of aid reaching civilians.

Israeli officials said they were expanding a system for inspecting trucks entering from Egypt and were 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, blaming international agencies for “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 told The Post in a text.

The U.N. General Assembly was scheduled to hold an emergency session on the conflict Tuesday, following the U.S. veto of a Security Council cease-fire resolution on Friday. An assembly vote on the measure, which would which require a two-thirds approval, would be nonbinding.

In the West Bank, stores, bakeries and businesses shut down on Monday after Palestinian factions called for a general strike and protests to demand a cease-fire in Gaza, with more demonstrations expected across the globe.

In downtown Amman, shops were also shuttered, while government offices and banks closed in Lebanon.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, demonstrators unfurled a banner with the names of some of those killed in Gaza. Some carried pictures of dead children.

- - -

Balousha reported from Amman. Loveday Morris contributed from Jerusalem.