JERUSALEM — The Israeli military signaled that it has wrapped up major combat in northern Gaza, saying it has completed dismantling Hamas’ military infrastructure there, as the war against the militant group entered its fourth month Sunday.
The military did not address troop deployments in northern Gaza going forward. Its spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said late Saturday that forces would “continue to deepen the achievement” there, strengthen defenses along the Israel-Gaza border fence and focus on the central and southern parts of the territory.
The announcement came ahead of a visit to Israel by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Biden administration officials, including Blinken, have repeatedly urged Israel to wind down its blistering air and ground offensive in Gaza and shift to more targeted attacks against Hamas leaders to prevent harm to Palestinian civilians.
In recent weeks, Israel had already been scaling back its military assault in northern Gaza and pressing its offensive in the territory’s south, where most of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians are being squeezed into smaller areas in a humanitarian disaster while being pounded by Israeli airstrikes.
The war was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which the militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took some 250 people hostage.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday again insisted the war will not end until the objectives of eliminating Hamas, getting Israel’s hostages returned and ensuring that Gaza won’t be a threat to Israel are met.
“I say this to both our enemies and our friend,” he told his Cabinet. “This is our responsibility and this is the obligation of all of us.”
Israel’s retaliation by air, land and sea has killed more than 22,700 Palestinians and wounded more than 58,000, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. The count of the dead does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Health officials say about two-thirds of those killed have been women and minors. Israel blames Hamas for the heavy civilian casualties because the group operates in heavily populated residential areas.
On Sunday, officials at Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis received the bodies of 18 people, including 12 children, who were killed in an Israeli strike late Saturday. More than 50 people were injured in the strike on a home in the Khan Younis refugee camp, which was set up decades ago to house refugees from the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation and morphed into a neighborhood of the city.
An airstrike near the southern city of Rafah killed two journalists on Sunday, including Hamza Dahdouh, the oldest son of Wael Dahdouh, Al-Jazeera’s well-known chief correspondent in Gaza, the Arabic channel and local medical officials said. Al-Jazeera broadcast footage of Dahdouf, weeping next to his son’s body and holding his hand, before walking away in a daze. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
Dahdouh previously lost four other relatives, including his wife, two children and a grandchild, in an Oct. 26 airstrike, and himself was wounded in an Israeli strike last month that killed a co-worker.
Another airstrike hit a house between Khan Younis and the southern city of Rafah, killing at least seven people whose bodies were taken to the nearby European Hospital, according to an Associated Press journalist at the facility.
Israeli forces were also pushing deeper into the central city of Deir al-Balah, where on Saturday residents in several neighborhoods were warned in flyers dropped over the city that they must evacuate their homes.
The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, known by the acronym MSF, said it was evacuating its medical staff and their families from Deir al-Balah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital because of the growing danger.
“The situation became so dangerous that some staff living in the neighboring areas were not able to leave their houses because of the constant threats of drones and snipers,” said Carolina Lopez, the group’s emergency coordinator at the hospital.
She said a bullet penetrated a wall of the hospital’s intensive care unit on Friday, and that “drone attacks and sniper fire were just a few hundred meters from the hospital” over the past couple of days.
The group had about 50 Palestinian and international medical staff in the hospital. Lopez said the hospital has received between 150 and 200 injured people daily in recent weeks. “On some days, we have received more dead than injured,” she said. “No one and nowhere is safe in Gaza.”
Hagari, the military spokesman, said the scattered fighting in northern Gaza was to be expected, along with rockets sporadically being launched from there toward Israel. He said Hamas no longer operates in an organized manner in the area, but that militants “without a framework and without commanders” are still present. The military has said it has killed more than 8,000 Hamas fighters, without presenting evidence.
Hagari said Israeli forces would act differently in the south than they had in northern Gaza, where heavy bombardment and ground combat leveled entire neighborhoods.
He said the urban refugee camps currently being targeted by the military are packed with gunmen and that “an underground city of sprawling tunnels” was discovered underneath Khan Younis. He said the military is “applying the lessons we learned,” but did not elaborate. Echoing Israeli political leaders, he said the fighting “will continue throughout 2024.”
His comments about changing the way the forces are fighting appeared to be a nod to Blinken, who is on his fourth Mideast trip in three months.
In addition to appeals for scaling back high-intensity combat, Blinken has called for more aid to reach Gaza and urged Israel’s leaders to come up with a vision for post-war Gaza.
Two U.S. senators who inspected aid deliveries over the weekend described a cumbersome process that is slowing relief to the Palestinian population in the besieged territory — largely due to Israeli inspections of cargo trucks, with seemingly arbitrary rejections of vital humanitarian equipment. The system to ensure that aid deliveries within Gaza don’t get hit by Israeli forces is “totally broken,” said Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration and Netanyahu remain far apart on who should run the territory after the war, with the Israeli leader repeatedly rejecting the Washington-floated idea of having a reformed Palestinian Authority, an autonomy government in parts of the occupied West Bank, eventually administer Gaza.
In a further complication of Blinken’s mission, a new escalation of cross-border fighting between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah has put strains on a U.S. push to prevent a regional conflagration. Saturday’s fighting was described by Hezbollah as an “initial response” to the targeted killing of a top Hamas leader in a Hezbollah stronghold of the Lebanese capital of Beirut last week. The strike was presumed to have been carried out by Israel.
Magdy reported from Cairo and Jobain from Rafah, Gaza Strip.
___ Find more of AP’s coverage at: https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war