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Israeli Forces Launch Ground Offensive In Jabalia As Death Toll Tops 35,000

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Israel struck Gaza on Sunday and troops battled militants in several areas of the Hamas-run territory, where the health ministry said the death toll in the war had exceeded 35,000 people. More than seven months into the Israel-Hamas war, UN chief Antonio Guterres urged "an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the unconditional release of all hostages and an immediate surge in humanitarian aid" into the besieged Gaza Strip.

"But a ceasefire will only be the start," Guterres told a donor conference in Kuwait, where countries pledged over $2 billion to aid the devastated Palestinian territory.

As Egyptian, Qatari and American mediation efforts towards a truce appeared to stall, US President Joe Biden said Saturday a ceasefire could be achieved "tomorrow" if Hamas released the hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attack that sparked the conflict.

The militant group on Sunday called Biden's statement a "setback" to the negotiations, and said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had "rushed to overturn" the talks by launching the Rafah offensive.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday an all-out Israeli offensive on Rafah would provoke "anarchy" without eliminating Hamas.

"Israel's on the trajectory, potentially, to inherit an insurgency with many armed Hamas left or, if it leaves, a vacuum filled by chaos, filled by anarchy and probably refilled by Hamas," he told NBC.

He said he also agreed with a statement by Netanyahu that Israeli forces had killed more civilians than Hamas militants.

AFP correspondents, witnesses and medics said Israeli strikes pounded several areas of Gaza overnight.

Israel said its jets had hit "over 150 terror targets" over the past day.

The territory's health ministry said at least 63 people were killed over the previous 24 hours, bringing the overall death toll from Israel's bombardment and offensive in Gaza to at least 35,034 people, mostly women and children.

Fighting in northern Gaza

The war began with Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized hostages, scores of whom were freed during a week-long truce in November. Israel estimates 128 captives remain in Gaza, including 36 who the military says are dead.

Israel's military says 272 soldiers have been killed since the start of the ground offensive in Gaza on October 27.

Months after Israel said it had dismantled Hamas's command structure in northern Gaza, fighting has resumed in Jabalia refugee camp and Gaza City's Zeitoun neighbourhood.

Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Saturday that "in recent weeks we have identified attempts by Hamas to rebuild its military capabilities in Jabalia, and we are acting to destroy these attempts". He also said there was an operation in Zeitoun.

AFP correspondents reported intense clashes and heavy gunfire from Israeli helicopters in the Zeitoun area.

Israel defied international opposition this week and sent tanks and soldiers into eastern Rafah, effectively shutting a key aid crossing.

On Saturday, the Israeli military expanded an evacuation order for eastern Rafah and said 300,000 Palestinians had left the area.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said in a post on X Sunday Israel's evacuation orders were "forcing people in Rafah to flee anywhere and everywhere".

"No place is safe in Gaza," he said.

"We have reached a point where we wish for death," said Umm Mohammed Al-Mughayyir, adding that she has had to move her family seven times to escape the fighting.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk warned Sunday that the evacuation orders, "much less a full assault", could not be "reconciled with the binding requirements of international law" or two recent International Court of Justice rulings on Israel's conduct of the war.

And in a sign of surging regional tensions, Egypt on Sunday said it would formally support a case brought by South Africa at the ICJ, accusing Israel of committing genocidal acts in the war.

'No safe place'

Palestinians in Rafah, many already displaced by fighting elsewhere in the territory, piled water tanks, mattresses and other belongings onto vehicles and prepared to flee again.

"The artillery shelling didn't stop at all" for several days, said Mohammed Hamad, 24, who has left eastern Rafah for the city's west.

"We will not move until we feel that the danger is advancing to the west," he told AFP.

"There is no safe place in Gaza where we can take refuge."

Residents were told to go to the Al-Mawasi "humanitarian zone" on the coast northwest of Rafah, though aid groups have warned it was not ready for an influx of people. Hisham Adwan, spokesman for the Gaza crossings authority, told AFP on Sunday the Rafah crossing has remained closed since Israeli troops seized its Palestinian side on Tuesday, "preventing the entry of humanitarian aid" and the departure of patients needing medical care.

He said Israeli forces "have advanced from the eastern border" about 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles) into Rafah.

On Sunday, Israel's military said it had opened a new border crossing into northern Gaza as "part of the effort to increase aid routes to the Gaza Strip, and to the northern Gaza Strip in particular".

Meanwhile, inside Israel sirens sounded at 8:00 pm local time (1700 GMT) to mark the start of Memorial Day, in honour of the country's fallen soldiers and civilian victims of attacks.

"Tonight, we have no peace, and there is no silence," President Isaac Herzog said at a ceremony at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

At the same ceremony, Israeli army chief Herzi Halevi said he was "fully responsible" for what happened on October 7.

Israeli forces have launched a ground offensive on the northern Gaza city of Jabalia, while continuing attacks in the southern city of Rafah. Israel's military says the Islamic group Hamas is trying to regroup in Jabalia.

More than one million displaced people are sheltering in Rafah.

The United Nations estimates that about 300,000 people have evacuated from Rafah. The UN is calling for a halt to the fighting, saying that there is no safe place in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military earlier said it had seized control of Jabalia. But it has announced the launch of a ground operation there following airstrikes. The military stressed that it had urged residents in the area to evacuate.

Qatar-based satellite news network Al Jazeera has broadcast images of people fleeing from bombardments, including elderly citizens and children, and injured people being transferred for medical treatment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met people who are expected to take part in a ceremony scheduled for Tuesday to commemorate the country's independence.

He said, "We will defeat our enemies; we have no other choices."_AFP, NHK

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