Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Israel pushes for control in northern Gaza; Biden, Netanyahu discuss outlook

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Israeli army tanks are deployed in southern Israel bordering the Gaza Strip on Dec. 22, 2023.

Jack Guez | Afp | Getty Images

Israel fought to wrest full control of northern Gaza from Hamas militants as the U.S. and Israeli leaders discussed the outlook for the 11-week-old war, after the U.N. Security Council appealed for more aid for the Palestinian enclave.

Thick smoke hung over the northern town of Jabalia on Saturday and residents reported persistent aerial bombardment and shelling from Israeli tanks, which they said had moved further into the town.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the “objectives and phasing” of Israel’s military operations, the need to protect civilian lives and securing the release of hostages from the Palestinian militant group, the White House said.

Netanyahu “made clear that Israel will pursue the war until all of its objectives are fully met”, his office said.

Israel’s main ally has maintained its support while expressing concern over the growing casualty toll and humanitarian crisis in densely populated Gaza.

U.S. officials have said they expect Israel to shift soon to a lower-intensity phase, with operations targeting the Hamas leadership and its infrastructure.

Biden told reporters he “did not ask for a ceasefire”, while Netanyahu’s office said he thanked Biden for the U.S. stand at the U.N. Security Council.

The council averted a threatened U.S. veto on Friday after days of wrangling by removing from a draft resolution a call for an immediate end to the war and diluting Israeli control over aid deliveries. The U.S. and Israel oppose a ceasefire, contending it would let Iran-backed Hamas regroup and rearm.

Washington abstained from the final statement, which urges steps to allow “safe, unhindered, and expanded humanitarian access” to Gaza and “conditions for a sustainable cessation” of fighting.

The Palestinian death toll reached 20,258, the Palestinian health ministry said on Saturday, with thousands more bodies believed trapped under rubble.

Almost all of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced.

Israel said on Sunday 154 of its soldiers have been killed since it launched its ground incursion in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage into Israel, in which militants killed 1,200 and took 240 hostages.

‘They bomb day and night’

Israel has achieved almost complete operational control of northern Gaza and is preparing to expand the ground offensive to other areas in the Strip, with a focus on the south, the chief military spokesperson said.

“We shall press ahead, for every fallen soldier, too. Until Hamas is eliminated. Until the hostages are returned,” Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz, a member of the security cabinet, posted on X.

Israel has long urged residents to leave northern areas of Gaza, but its forces have been bombarding targets in central and southern parts of the tiny coastal enclave.

“They ask people to head to Deir al-Balah (in central Gaza), where they bomb day and night,” Ziad, a medic and father of six, told Reuters by phone.

“International law has collapsed,” said Ramzy Aidy, a Gaza resident with a doctorate in law. “If Israel were in the Palestinians’ position, the world would not stand still and would act.”

Hamas’ armed wing Al Qassam Brigades said on Saturday it destroyed five Israeli tanks around Jabalia, killing and injuring their crews after reusing two undetonated missiles launched by Israel. Reuters could not independently verify the report.

The Israeli Defence Forces said they had fired decoy shots in the area of Issa in Gaza City that lured dozens of militants from a building that served as a Hamas headquarters in the north of the enclave, “eliminating the terrorists”.

The army released a video it said showed Hamas tunnels in the Issa area. Reuters could not independently verify the location or the date. Israel accuses the militant group of placing tunnels and other military infrastructure among civilians to use them as human shields, something Hamas denies.

Hamas said it had lost contact with a group it said was responsible for five of the Israeli hostages due to Israeli bombardment. An Israeli military spokesperson described the statement as “psychological terrorism” from Hamas.

The conflict has spread, as Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi forces disrupt global trade with missile and drone attacks on vessels in the Red Sea in retaliation for Israel’s assault on Gaza.

The United States shot down four drones launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen towards a U.S. destroyer in the southern Red Sea on Saturday, bringing to 15 the number of such attacks on commercial shipping, U.S. Central Command said.

A drone launched from Iran struck a chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean on Saturday, the U.S. Defense Department said.

An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said the Mediterranean Sea could be closed if the United States and its allies kept committing “crimes” in Gaza, Iranian media reported, without elaborating.

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