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Street battles rage in Gaza City ruins as residents flee on foot

An Israeli missile launched from the Iron Dome defense missile system attempts to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, over the city of Netivot in southern Israel, on Wednesday.  (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP)
By Matthew Rosenberg and Thomas Fuller New York Times

Israeli soldiers and armored vehicles have engaged Hamas fighters in days of running gun battles in Gaza City, fighting through rubble-filled streets and blasted-out buildings for control of the Gaza Strip’s largest urban center and the militants’ main stronghold.

As video trickled out showing striking images of urban combat that are reminiscent of the 20th century’s most brutal battles, the White House said on Thursday that Israel had agreed to daily four-hour pauses in the fighting in parts of the northern Gaza Strip to allow civilians to flee and allow aid to reach them.

Israel also agreed to open a second corridor for people to escape northern Gaza, a White House statement said, and to give three hours’ advance notice of each pause, going beyond the pauses it has already observed this week to allow civilians to move southward along a single corridor.

After more than a month of aerial and ground combat, the Gaza Strip is embroiled in a split-screen war that pairs intense scenes of fighting with a dramatically deteriorating humanitarian crisis. In addition to the critical shortages of food, water and medicines plaguing the territory, a lack of hygiene, sanitation and health care is putting Gaza’s more than 2 million residents – most of whom have fled their homes and crowded into the southern part of the territory – at risk of a rapid spread of infectious diseases.

Well over 10,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-controlled government; President Joe Biden has cautioned against accepting its figures, but a top administration official said Wednesday that the numbers given so far could be an undercount. Testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said that the Palestinian death toll, while hard to assess accurately, was “very high, frankly – and it could be that they’re even higher than are being cited.”

Western and Arab leaders have repeatedly urged longer respites in the fighting, an issue that has been entangled with the question of the release of the more than 240 hostages believed to be held by Hamas and other militants.

On Thursday, William Burns, the CIA director, and David Barnea, the chief of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, met with Qatari officials in Doha for discussions on a deal to release some hostages held by Hamas in exchange for an extended pause in fighting.

Israel has distinguished between brief, localized pauses in fighting and a longer cease-fire. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office reiterated Thursday that there would be “no cease-fire until our hostages are released.”

Biden said earlier this week that he had asked Netanyahu for a lull in the fighting measured in days, not hours. “I’ve asked for a pause longer than three days,” he told reporters Thursday before a trip to Illinois, and hinted at some impatience with the Israeli leader.

“It’s taken a little longer than I hoped,” he said. As for the fate of the hostages, he said, “We’re still optimistic.”

Israeli ground forces moved into Gaza late last month after weeks of airstrikes launched in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attack led by Hamas that killed more than 1,400 people in Israel and seized the hostages. Armored columns and infantry have since advanced deep into the enclave, bisecting the strip and penetrating the heart of Gaza City.

In what Israel says is a campaign to destroy Hamas and its sprawling network of tunnels, the battles evoked the savagery of warfare like the U.S.-led fight to retake Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.

In a video released Wednesday by Hamas of what it claims is fighting with the Israeli military in Gaza City, young men can be seen firing rocket-propelled grenades and guns while scrambling for cover in piles of debris between ruined buildings.

Hamas also released a compilation video on Tuesday showing its fighters targeting Israeli forces. One clip, which has been geolocated by The New York Times, shows Hamas fighters engaging in a gunfight in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza. It is not clear exactly when the video was filmed, but satellite imagery taken on Oct. 30 by Planet Labs, a commercial satellite company, showed dozens of Israeli tanks or armored vehicles in the area where the video was filmed.

In a video posted Thursday by the Israeli military on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, Israeli soldiers could be seen bulldozing and blowing up tunnel entrances. The video also showed the interior of a tunnel with concrete walls, and at one point a soldier points out a bank of car batteries connected to an electric current inverter that he says are used to help power air-filtration systems.

The Israeli military said that water and oxygen storage discovered inside the tunnels indicates Hamas’ preparations for “prolonged stays underground.” It said 130 tunnel entrances had been destroyed since the beginning of the war.

Israel was also striking targets in the enclave’s south, according to officials in Gaza. The health ministry said Thursday morning that 241 people had been killed throughout Gaza “during the past hours,” nearly half of them in the southern part of the territory.

There were also continued fears that another front could open in the war, with the killing of at least 18 Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Thursday, most of them in Israeli military raids in the city of Jenin.

Over the past month, more than 150 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, according to the United Nations, making it the deadliest period there in years. The Israeli military said many were killed in gunbattles, violent clashes or attempted attacks on Israelis. Others were killed during Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians, U.N. officials said.

Reports of the death toll both in the West Bank and Gaza have been accompanied by the United Nations’ dire assessment of humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories, particularly Gaza.

The fighting has sent tens of thousands of desperate men, women and children – some waving white flags – streaming south this week in search of a safe haven, following hundreds of thousands who fled northern Gaza in October. The U.N. humanitarian affairs office said the numbers had soared, from about 5,000 people on Monday, to 15,000 on Tuesday, to 50,000 on Wednesday.

They pack whatever they can carry and set off down Salah al-Din Road, the Gaza Strip’s main north-south route, after Israel announces pauses in fighting along the road. Some of those fleeing said they had begged Israeli soldiers to allow them to take their vehicles but were told they had to walk.

“Nonstop bombing all the time. Today many left because of the bombing. There are many tanks on the roads,” said Mansour Shatatez, who spent hours on Wednesday walking from Beit Hanoun in the strip’s far north.

“There are bodies, decomposed bodies dumped in the middle of the road,” he said in an interview. “People stepped over the bodies and kept walking.”

Diarrhea, chickenpox, scabies and upper respiratory infections are rampant in a “very concerning” emergence of disease, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, adding that younger children and immunocompromised people were at particular risk.

Since mid-October, more than 33,500 cases of diarrhea have been reported, more than half of them among children younger than 5, the group said. Before the war, there were on average 2,000 monthly cases of diarrhea among children of that age, according to the organization.

In recent weeks, nearly 9,000 cases of scabies and lice, more than 12,600 cases of skin rash and nearly 55,000 cases of upper respiratory infections have proliferated in the densely packed territory, where hundreds of thousands of displaced people have crammed into U.N.-run shelters, the WHO said.

Aid agencies estimate that 1.5 million people have been displaced from their homes in Gaza. How many will have homes to return to is unclear; the United Nations estimates that almost half the housing in the territory has been damaged or destroyed.

With fuel and medicine running dry, Gaza’s health care system is collapsing. Doctors are being forced to stretch paltry resources to treat the sick and injured and make impossible choices on who lives and who dies.

The U.N. office on humanitarian affairs said that by Thursday, all of the Gaza Strip’s 120 municipal water wells were expected to shut down as fuel depleted. Water entering through the border with Egypt on aid convoys is only 4% of what is needed, the office said in its daily update.

Shelters run by UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees, are so overcrowded that an average of 160 people are sharing a toilet and there is one shower for every 700 people, according to the United Nations.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.