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Deadly assault grinds on in Gaza's Khan Yunis

Blinken again asks Israel to protect civilians after UN shelter attack

By AFP - Jan 26,2024 - Last updated at Jan 26,2024

Palestinian families fleeing Khan Yunis on the coastal road leading to Rafah further south drive along the sea with their belongings on their cars on Thursday (AFP photo)

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories — Israel pressed its blistering assault on the Gazan city of Khan Yunis on Thursday, with the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas saying dozens were killed in heavy bombardment and urban combat.

The Israeli army says it has "encircled" Khan Yunis, the hometown of Hamas's Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, accused of being the mastermind of the October 7 surprise attacks that sparked the war.

An AFP journalist said the bombardment of Khan Yunis was relentless, with strikes hitting every few minutes.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, reported fierce clashes in the centre and west of the city, where fighting has been inching closer to hospitals sheltering thousands of displaced people.


Gaza’s health ministry said at least 50 people were killed in Khan Yunis over the past 24 hours. The army said several militants were killed in “close-quarters combat” in the city, and that strikes also targeted militants in central and northern Gaza.

At Deir Al Balah in central Gaza, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting, AFPTV footage showed graves with the names of those buried scrawled on them in crayon amid debris-strewn streets and pockmarked buildings.

“Those look like graves, but they are not proper ones,” said Ahmad Abdul Salam, a resident of the city’s Al Maghazi refugee camp. “We buried whole families, who were wiped out, inside these mass graves.”


‘Terrified’ hospital staff 


Another 12 people were killed on Wednesday when two tank shells struck a UN building sheltering 800 people in Khan Yunis, the United Nations said, updating its previous toll of nine dead.

Thomas White, the Gaza director of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), denounced “persistent attacks on civilian sites” in Khan Yunis as “utterly unacceptable”.

Intense fighting near hospitals in Khan Yunis had “effectively encircled these facilities, leaving terrified staff, patients and displaced people trapped inside”, he said in a statement.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday renewed calls for Israel to protect civilians after a deadly strike on a UN shelter in Gaza that brought rare US condemnation.

On a visit to Angola, Blinken told reporters that the UN shelter “is essential and it has to be protected”.

“We have reaffirmed this with the government of Israel and it is my understanding that they are, as is necessary and appropriate, looking into this incident,” Blinken said, without saying at what level discussions took place.

The Israeli army is the only force known to have tanks operating in the Gaza Strip. It said it would conduct a “thorough review” and held out the possibility that the strike was a “result of Hamas fire”.

In contrast with Israel’s frequent criticism of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, Blinken credited the agency for its efforts “to help people who are in desperate need”.

“The work that the UN is performing in Gaza is quite literally life-saving and no one else can do it, and no one else is doing it,” he said.


Israeli protests 


The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced mounting calls for a ceasefire, with domestic pressure intensifying after 24 soldiers were killed Monday in the army’s deadliest single day since it launched its Gaza ground operations.

In Tel Aviv, Israeli protesters carried a banner saying: “Stop the bloodshed”, and blocked a road during a demonstration to demand a deal for the release of the hostages held by Hamas.

“We came to say to the government: ‘It’s enough.’ We want all the hostages back home, we want a ceasefire now,” said protester Sapir Sluzker Amran.

“There is no military solution, only a diplomatic solution, only agreements will bring the hostages back.”

Netanyahu, however, has been adamant the war will continue, telling parliament on Wednesday that the fighting would persist until the “aggression and evil” of Hamas were destroyed.

“This is a war for our home,” he said.

US President Joe Biden’s Middle East envoy Brett McGurk was in the region for talks aimed at brokering a new deal to free the remaining captives in exchange for a pause in fighting.

A Palestinian source familiar with the talks said a Hamas delegation had travelled to Cairo this week to meet Egypt’s intelligence chief and discuss new ceasefire proposals.


Kamikaze drones 


Egypt and Qatar have acted as mediators in the conflict, including in November, when a brief truce agreement led to the release of 105 hostages.

But Netanyahu was allegedly caught on tape telling hostages’ families this week that Qatar’s mediation was “problematic”, blaming it for funding Hamas.

The Gulf state said it was “appalled” at the remarks, which “if validated, are irresponsible and destructive to the efforts to save innocent lives”.

The Gaza war has sparked fears of a wider escalation, with a surge in violence involving Iran-aligned Hamas allies across the Middle East.

On Thursday, Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hizbollah movement said it attacked Israeli air defence systems across the border with one-way drones.

Lebanon’s National News Agency said Israeli shelling and air strikes targeted villages in the border area.

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