World

Heavy fighting rages in Gaza as US sends more tank ammunition to Israel

Palestinians look at buildings destroyed in the Israeli bombardment (Fatima Shbair/AP)
Palestinians look at buildings destroyed in the Israeli bombardment (Fatima Shbair/AP) Palestinians look at buildings destroyed in the Israeli bombardment (Fatima Shbair/AP)

Heavy fighting has raged in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis as Israel pressed ahead with its offensive after the US blocked the latest international efforts to halt the fighting and rushed more munitions to its ally.

Israel has faced rising international outrage and calls for a ceasefire after the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians and the displacement of nearly 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people within the besieged territory, where UN agencies say there is no safe place to flee.

Israel indicated it was willing to fight for months or longer to defeat the territory’s Hamas rulers.

The UN General Assembly scheduled an emergency meeting for Tuesday to vote on a draft resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, told The Associated Press that it is similar to the Security Council resolution the US vetoed on Friday.

There are no vetoes in the General Assembly but unlike the Security Council its resolutions are not legally binding but are a barometer of global opinion.

The United States has lent vital support to the offensive once again in recent days by vetoing United Nations Security Council efforts to end the fighting that enjoyed wide international support, and by pushing through an emergency sale of over 100 million dollars worth of tank ammunition to Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked US President Joe Biden for the “important ammunition for the continuation of the war” and for supporting Israel at the Security Council.

Russia backed the resolution. Mr Netanyahu spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday and expressed dissatisfaction with “anti-Israel positions” taken by Moscow’s envoys at the UN and elsewhere, an Israeli statement said.

Mr Netanyahu told Mr Putin that any country assaulted the way Israel was “would have reacted with no less force than Israel is using”. the statement added.

The US has pledged unwavering support for Israel’s goal of crushing Hamas’s military and governing abilities in order to prevent any repeat of the October 7 attack that triggered the war.

Hamas and other Palestinian militants stormed into southern Israel that day, killing 1,200 people and capturing 240, more than 100 of whom were released during a week-long ceasefire late last month.

In response to the attack, Israel launched a devastating air and ground war that has killed thousands of Palestinians, mostly civilians, and forced some 1.9 million people to flee their homes, according to UN agencies.

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Israel Palestinians Israeli soldiers patrol as smoke rises from the Gaza Strip (Leo Correa/AP)

Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Israel’s Channel 12 TV that the US has set no deadline for Israel to achieve its goals of dismantling Hamas and returning all the hostages.

“The evaluation that this can’t be measured in weeks is correct, and I’m not sure it can be measured in months,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN that “we have these discussions with Israel including about the duration as well as how it’s prosecuting this campaign against Hamas. These are decisions for Israel to make”.

Mr Blinken later defended the emergency sale to Israel of nearly 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition and also called for quick congressional approval of more than 100 billion dollars (£80 billion) in aid for Israel, Ukraine and other national security priorities.

Mr Blinken said the needs of Israel’s military operations in Gaza justify the rare decision to bypass Congress.

“Israel is in combat right now with Hamas,” he said during television interviews. “And we want to make sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against Hamas.”

The tank ammunition and related support constitute only a small portion of military sales to Israel, Mr Blinken said, and that the rest remains subject to congressional review. “It’s very important that Congress’s voice be heard in this,” he said.

The decision to proceed with the sale of more than 106 million dollars (£85 billion) for tank shells came as the Biden administration’s larger aid package is caught up in a debate over US immigration policy and border security.

Mr Blinken noted that President Joe Biden has said he is willing to make significant compromises to get the aid package moving.

“It’s something the president is fully prepared to engage on,” Mr Blinken said.

The stakes are especially high for Ukraine, Mr Blinken said, given that “we are running out of funding ” for the Ukrainians.

“This is a time to really step up because if we don’t, we know what happens. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin will be able to move forward with impunity and we know he won’t stop in Ukraine,” he said.

Congress already has allocated 111 billion dollars (£88 billion) to assist Ukraine, and Mr Biden’s budget director, Shalanda Young, said in a letter this week to House and Senate leaders that the US will run out of funding to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine by the end of the year, which would “kneecap” Ukraine on the battlefield.

Commenting on Gaza, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres told a forum in Qatar, a key intermediary: “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.”

With only a trickle of aid allowed in, and delivery rendered impossible in much of the territory, Palestinians face severe shortages of food, water and other basic goods.

Israeli forces continue to face heavy resistance, even in northern Gaza, where entire neighbourhoods have been flattened by air strikes and where troops have been operating for over six weeks.

In Khan Younis, where ground forces moved in earlier this month, residents said they heard constant gunfire and explosions through the night as warplanes bombarded areas in and around the southern city, Gaza’s second largest.

“It doesn’t stop,” said Radwa Abu Frayeh, who lives close to the European Hospital in Khan Younis. “There’s bombing, and then the ambulances head out to bring back victims.”

Israel ordered the evacuation of the northern third of the territory, including Gaza City, early in the war, but tens of thousands of people are believed to have remained there, fearing that the south would be no safer or that they would never be allowed to return to their homes.

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Israel Palestinians An Israeli fighter jet releases flares as it flies over the Gaza Strip (Leo Correa/AP)

In recent days, videos and photos have emerged showing the detention of dozens of men who were stripped to their underwear, bound and blindfolded. The Israeli military says it is detaining people as it searches for remaining pockets of Hamas fighters.

Israel’s Channel 13 TV broadcast footage showing dozens of detainees stripped to their underwear with their hands in the air.

Several held assault rifles above their heads, and one man could be seen slowly walking forward and placing a gun on the ground before returning to the group. Israeli media pointed to such scenes as evidence that Hamas was collapsing in the north.

Men from a separate group of detainees who were released on Saturday told The Associated Press they had been beaten and denied food and water.

Osama Oula said Israeli troops had ordered him and others out of a building in Gaza City before bounding their hands with zip ties, beating them for several days and giving them little water to drink. Ahmad Nimr Salman showed his hands, marked and swollen from the zip ties.

He said the troops asked if they were with Hamas. “We say ‘no,’ then they would slap us or kick us,” he said. He added that his 17-year-old son Amjad is still held by the troops.

The group was released after five days and told to walk south. Ten freed detainees arrived at a hospital in Deir al-Balah on Saturday after flagging down an ambulance. The Israeli military had no comment when asked about the alleged abuse.

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Israel Palestinians Palestinians look at buildings destroyed in the Israeli bombardment (Fatima Shbair/AP)

With the war in its third month, the Palestinian death toll in Gaza has surpassed 17,700, the majority women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for civilian casualties, saying it uses civilians as human shields in dense residential areas. The military says 97 Israeli soldiers have died in the ground offensive. Palestinians militants have also continued firing rockets into Israel.

Israel says it has provided detailed instructions for civilians to evacuate to safer areas, even as it continues to strike what it says are militant targets in all parts of the territory.

Thousands have fled to the southern town of Rafah and other areas along the border with Egypt in recent days — one of the last areas where aid agencies are able to deliver food and water.

Israel has designated a narrow patch of barren southern coastline, Muwasi, as a safe zone but Palestinians described desperately overcrowded conditions with scant shelter and no toilets. They faced an overnight temperature of around 11C.

“I am sleeping on the sand. It’s freezing,” said Soad Qarmoot, who described herself as a cancer patient forced to leave her home in the northern town of Beit Lahiya.

Eylon Levy, an Israeli government spokesman, called allegations of mass displacement from Gaza “outrageous and false”.