Israel-Hamas Conflict: Death Toll Surges as Fighting Rages Across Gaza  

Health officials in Hamas-run Gaza on Saturday reported a surging death toll as Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has faced increasing domestic criticism, rejected calls for “Palestinian sovereignty” after the war.

While fighting raged across the besieged Gaza Strip, a strike in Syria blamed on Israel and missiles fired at US-led coalition forces in Iraq raised further fears of a wider conflagration.

Gaza’s health ministry reported at least 165 people killed over the previous 24 hours — more than double Friday’s figure.

Gunfire, air strikes and tank shelling continued, especially in southern Gaza’s Khan Yunis city.

In Rafah, further south near the border with Egypt, at least five people were killed in a strike that “targeted a civilian car”, the health ministry said.

Israel is pressing its push southwards against Hamas, after the army in early January said the militants’ command structure in northern Gaza had been dismantled, leaving only isolated fighters.

But Hamas reported fierce combat in north Gaza as Israel’s military said troops backed by air and naval support were striking militant infrastructure throughout the Palestinian territory.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas in response to the group’s unprecedented October attacks which resulted in the deaths of about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel’s relentless bombardment and ground offensive have killed at least 24,927 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas government’s health ministry.

The United States, which provides Israel with billions of dollars in military aid, has urged it to take more care to protect civilians, and the two sides have disagreed over Gaza’s future governance.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden on Friday discussed the post-war future of Gaza.

Biden said it was still possible Netanyahu could agree to some form of Palestinian state, after the two spoke for the first time in nearly a month.

But Netanyahu’s office in a statement Saturday said “Israel must retain security control over Gaza to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel, a requirement that contradicts the demand for Palestinian sovereignty”.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Uganda, said the Palestinian right to statehood “must be recognised by all”.

“The refusal to accept a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, and the denial of the right to statehood for the Palestinian people, are unacceptable,” he said.

The UN’s UNRWA agency for Palestinian refugees says about 1.7 million people have been displaced in Gaza by the war.

About one million are crowded into the Rafah area.

The war has sent regional tensions soaring, with a surge in violence involving Iran-backed Hamas allies.

Iranian media said an Israeli strike on Damascus killed the Revolutionary Guards’ spy chief for Syria and four other Guards members, with Tehran’s foreign ministry threatening retaliation “at the appropriate time and place”.

Israel, which has declined to comment on the Damascus strike, has intensified attacks on targets in Syria since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7.

In Gaza, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA reported just 15 bakeries operating across the narrow territory.

It said water availability for drinking and domestic use “is shrinking every day”.

UN agencies have warned better aid access is needed urgently as famine and disease loom.

After Friday’s Biden-Netanyahu call, the White House said Israel would allow flour shipments for Palestinians through Israel’s port of Ashdod.

During the October attacks militants seized about 250 hostages, around 132 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza. At least 27 captives are believed to have been killed, according to Israeli figures.

Israelis rallied Saturday in Tel Aviv, Haifa and near Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, demanding action to secure the captives’ release.

Some carried banners calling for “elections now” to replace Netanyahu’s hard-right government which has increasingly come under attack over the war’s handling.

Violence has also surged in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and deadly exchanges have occurred regularly between Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

The official Lebanese National News Agency reported two deaths in an Israeli strike Saturday on a car near the border, and Hezbollah later said one of its fighters had been killed.

In western Iraq, a military base used by US-led coalition forces came under missile attack, a US defence source and an Iraqi police official said.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a Tehran-aligned coalition that opposes US support for Israel, claimed the attack.

The US military said it carried out fresh strikes against Yemen’s Huthi rebels on Saturday, targeting an anti-ship missile that was “prepared to launch”.

The Huthis, who say they are hitting Israel-linked shipping in the Red Sea in solidarity with Gaza, have vowed to keep targeting vessels in the vital maritime route despite several recent US strikes.

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