Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to keep fighting in Gaza until Hamas is destroyed, defying global calls for a ceasefire amid concerns the conflict could spread with US and Iran-aligned forces again attacking each other.
Mr Netanyahu, who visited Israeli troops in northern Gaza yesterday, told MPs from his Likud Party that the war was far from over and dismissed what he cast as media speculation his government might call a halt to the fighting.
He said Israel would not succeed in freeing its remaining hostages held by Hamas without applying military pressure.
“We are not stopping. The war will continue until the end, until we finish it, no less,” said Mr Netanyahu.
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he reiterated three prerequisites for peace: Hamas must be destroyed, Gaza must be demilitarised, and Palestinian society must be deradicalised.
Retaliating against Hamas for its deadly 7 October cross-border attack, Israel has been under pressure from its closest ally the United States to shift operations in Gaza to a lower-intensity phase and reduce civilian deaths.
Nearly 20,700 Gazans have been killed, including 250 in the last 24 hours, according to authorities in Hamas-ruled Gaza.
US forces have come under attack by Iran-backed militants in Iraq and Syria over Washington’s backing of Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza.
In the latest tit-for-tat clash, the US military carried out retaliatory air strikes yesterday in Iraq after a drone attack by Iran-aligned militants on a US base in Erbil left one US service member in critical condition and wounded two other US personnel, officials said.
The air strikes killed “a number of Kataib Hezbollah militants” and destroyed multiple facilities used by the group, the US military said.
Hezbollah has deep ties to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian faction backed by Iran.
“These strikes are intended to hold accountable those elements directly responsible for attacks on coalition forces in Iraq and Syria and degrade their ability to continue attacks. We will always protect our forces,” said General Michael Erik Kurilla, head of US Central Command, in a statement.
The US military has come under attack at least 100 times in Iraq and Syria since the Israel-Hamas war began in October, usually with a mix of rockets and one-way attack drones.
Washington has for weeks pressured Israel to take further steps to minimise civilian harm by designating safe areas and clearing humanitarian routes for people to escape. But the death toll keeps rising and Israeli operations have intensified.
Gemma Connell, a UN team leader deployed in Gaza for several weeks now, described what she called a “human chessboard” in which thousands of people, displaced many times already, are on the run again and there is no guarantee a destination will be safe.
“There’s so little space left here in Rafah that people just don’t know where they will go and it really feels like people being moved around a human chessboard because there’s an evacuation order somewhere,” Ms Connell, who yesterday visited the Deir al-Balah neighborhood in central Gaza.
“People flee that area into another area. But they’re not safe there,” she told Reuters.
A spokesperson for the Israeli military said the army takes all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians, but that Palestinian militants use civilians as human shields, an accusation Hamas denies.
Early this morning, Palestinian residents reported several airstrikes near Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, the largest medical facility in southern Gaza.
Palestinian health officials said seven people were killed in an Israeli airstrike on a house in Al-Amal neighbourhood in Khan Younis.
Palestinians mourned more than 100 people who Gaza health officials said were killed in Israeli airstrikes on Sunday night, one of the deadliest nights in the 11-week-old battle between Israel and Hamas.
Pope Francis issued a strongly worded message on Christmas Day saying that children dying in wars, including in Gaza, were the “little Jesuses of today’. He said Israeli strikes were reaping an “appalling harvest” of innocent civilians.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts did not offer much relief.
Hamas and the allied Islamic Jihad rejected an Egyptian proposal that they relinquish power in Gaza in return for a permanent ceasefire, two Egyptian security sources told Reuters. The sources said the groups rejected offering any concessions beyond the possible release of more hostages.
Hamas and smaller militant ally Islamic Jihad, both sworn to Israel’s destruction, are believed to be holding more than 100 hostages from among 240 they captured on 7 October, when they killed 1,200 people.
Since then, Israel has laid much of the narrow strip to waste. The vast majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million population have been driven from their homes, and the United Nations says humanitarian conditions are catastrophic.