Israel said on Tuesday its forces were operating deep in Gaza City in their battle to wipe out Hamas in the Palestinian enclave and said the Islamist militant group’s leader was trapped inside a bunker there.
Retaliating for a deadly 7 October attack by Hamas gunmen, the Israeli military is focused on Gaza City, Hamas’ stronghold in the north of the territory.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told a televised news conference that Israeli soldiers had advanced to the heart of Gaza City and “were tightening the noose”.
Troops on foot and in armoured vehicles and tanks “have one target - Hamas terrorists in Gaza, their infrastructure, their commanders, bunkers, communications rooms,” Gallant said.
Hamas’ most senior leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, was isolated in his bunker, Gallant said, adding it was Sinwar “who a month ago made the murderous decision to attack Israeli civilians, women, and children.”
And now, he is “cut off from his surroundings, his chain of command is weakening,” Gallant said.
Hamas’ military wing had no immediate comment on the possible fate of Sinwar.
We are increasing pressure on Hamas every hour, every day. So far, we have killed thousands of terrorists, above ground and below ground,
Below the city, Gallant said, there were kilometres (miles) of tunnels that ran under schools and hospitals and that housed weapons depots, communication rooms and hideouts for militants.
Security sources told Reuters Israel’s military was starting the next phase of its war, focused on locating and disabling Hamas’ labyrinth of tunnels, and it may take months to complete.
“We are increasing pressure on Hamas every hour, every day. So far, we have killed thousands of terrorists, above ground and below ground,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised statement.
The Israeli military said Hamas militants fired anti-tank missiles at Israeli forces from nearby hospitals and soldiers found weapons hidden in a school in northern Gaza.
The military wing of Hamas, which has ruled the small, densely populated enclave for 16 years, said its fighters were inflicting heavy losses and damage on advancing Israeli forces.
It was not possible to verify the battlefield claims of either side.
The war broke out when Hamas fighters burst across the fence enclosing Gaza and killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and abducted more than 240, according to Israeli tallies.
Since then, Israel has bombarded the coastal territory relentlessly, killing more than 10,000 people, around 40 per cent of them children, according to counts by health officials there.
Month of carnage
“It has been one full month of carnage, of incessant suffering, bloodshed, destruction, outrage and despair,” UN Human Rights Commissioner Volker Turk said in a statement at the start of a trip to the region.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said a humanitarian convoy came under fire in Gaza City on Tuesday. After rerouting, the convoy delivered medical supplies to Al Shifa hospital. Calling the incident “deeply troubling,” the organisation said two trucks were damaged and a driver was lightly wounded. It did not identify the source of the firing.
Israel gave residents of Gaza City a window from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm to leave for the southern part of the 45-km-long (28-mile-long) Gaza Strip. Gaza’s interior ministry said 900,000 Palestinians were still sheltering in northern Gaza including Gaza City.
“The most dangerous trip in my life. We saw the tanks from point blank (range). We saw decomposed body parts. We saw death,” resident Adam Fayez Zeyara said in a social media post with a selfie on the road out of Gaza City.
While Israel’s military operation is focused on the northern half of Gaza, the south has also come under attack. Palestinian health officials said at least 23 people were killed in two Israeli airstrikes on Tuesday in the southern Gaza cities of Khan Younis and Rafah.
“This is the bravery of the so-called Israel - they show their might and power against civilians, babies inside, kids inside, and elderly,” said Ahmed Ayesh, who was rescued from the rubble of a house in Khan Younis where health officials said 11 people had been killed.
As he spoke, rescuers used their hands to try to free a girl buried up to her waist in debris.
Israel seeks ‘indefinite period’ of control
Hamas’ armed wing said on Telegram late on Tuesday it fired missiles at Tel Aviv, and rocket sirens sounded in the Israeli city and other cities in central Israel.
Israelis in Tel Aviv marked one month since the Hamas attack with a candlelight vigil around photos of the hostages at Habima Square. Some people wept, some sang or prayed.
“I came to look at the faces of the hostages, to feel part of it. ... I want to be by the sides of the families whose loved ones are” in Gaza, said Valeria Nesterov, 24, a make-up artist.
Both Israel and Hamas have rebuffed calls for a halt in fighting. Hamas says it will not free hostages as Israel has demanded nor stop fighting while Gaza is under attack.
Washington has backed Israel’s position that a ceasefire would help Hamas militarily. But US President Joe Biden told Netanyahu that a three-day fighting pause could help secure the release of some hostages, Axios reported on Tuesday, citing two U.S. and Israeli officials.
Israel has so far been vague about its long-term plans for Gaza if it vanquishes Hamas. In some of the first direct comments on the subject, Netanyahu said Israel would seek to have security responsibility for Gaza “for an indefinite period”.
But officials said Israel is not interested in governing the enclave. Gallant said that after the war was finished, neither Israel nor Hamas would rule Gaza.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told the Wall Street Journal that Israel wants the territory to be under an international coalition, including the US, European Union and Muslim-majority countries, or administered by local Gaza political leaders.
Those ideas have been part of diplomatic discussions.
Israel pulled its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and two years later Hamas took power there. Simcha Rothman, a lawmaker in Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition, in a social media post called for “full Israeli control” of the strip.
But White House spokesman John Kirby said Biden would oppose Israeli military occupation in post-conflict Gaza.