Israel soldiers Gaza
Israeli soldiers fire a 155mm self-propelled howitzer towards targets in the Gaza Strip from their position near the southern Israeli city of Sderot. Image Credit: AFP

Gaza: Diplomatic efforts towards a ceasefire in Gaza gathered pace on Thursday amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territory, but Israeli air strikes again pulverised the enclave and Hamas rockets targetted towns in Israel.

International agencies appealed for a halt in the violence to allow medical and other supplies into Hamas-run Gaza.

“The severity of injuries is straining an already overwhelmed health system,” WHO regional director Ahmed Al-Mandhari said in Cairo.

A senior official in the Hamas militant group said on Wednesday a ceasefire could take hold within days. Rocket attacks on Israel stopped for eight hours early on Thursday but then resumed against communities near the Israel-Gaza border.

An Israeli minister said Israel would halt its offensive only when it had achieved its goals, and Israeli warplanes unleashed more air strikes on the densely-populated enclave on an 11th day of hostilities.

Aerial bombardments

Since the fighting erupted on May 10, health officials in Gaza say 230 Palestinians, including 65 children and 39 women, have been killed and more than 1,700 wounded in aerial bombardments.

Israeli authorities put the death toll to date at 12 in Israel, with 336 people treated for injuries in rocket attacks that have caused panic and sent people rushing into shelters.

Israel carried out more than a dozen air strikes on Gaza after midnight, targeting what it said was a weapons storage unit in the home of a Hamas official, and military infrastructure in the homes of other commanders.

Hamas-run radio said a woman was killed and four children were wounded in one attack on the town of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. Witnesses said several main roads were also damaged in the air strikes.

In the Gaza City suburb of Sabra, Amira Esleem, 14, and three family members were wounded in one Israeli attack, which she said caused parts of their house to collapse.

“We were sitting on the sofa when a missile landed. There was heavy smoke and we couldn’t see anything,” she said from her hospital bed.

Nearly 450 buildings in Gaza have been destroyed or badly damaged, including six hospitals and nine primary care health centres, the United Nations humanitarian agency has said. More than 52,000 people have fled their homes in Gaza, which is blockaded by Israel and Egypt.

Israelis living in areas frequently targeted by rocket fire began their workday on Thursday without the usual sound of warning sirens. But after an eight-hour break, the sirens blared again. No casualties or damage were reported.

Israel said some 4,000 rockets have been launched at it from Gaza, some falling short and others shot down by its Iron Dome air defences.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek a “de-escalation”. An Egyptian security source said the sides had agreed in principle to a ceasefire but details needed to be worked out.

A Hamas political official, Moussa Abu Marzouk, said he believed the efforts to reach a ceasefire would succeed.

“I expect a ceasefire to be reached within a day or two, and the ceasefire will be on the basis of mutual agreement.” Asked if a truce would begin on Friday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen told Kan public radio: “No. We are definitely seeing very significant international pressure... we will finish the operation when we decide we have attained our goals.” Qatar-based Al Jazeera television said U.N. Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland was meeting Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar.

Fear and grief

Civilians on both sides are exhausted by fear and grief, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

“People in Gaza and Israel urgently need respite from non-stop hostilities,” said Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Middle East, said in a statement.

The WHO’s Mandhari said the closure of Gaza crossing points for patients and health teams, and restrictions on the entry of medical supplies were making the crisis worse.

A U.N. convoy to bring humanitarian aid, including 10,000 coronavirus vaccines, into Gaza and to bring wounded people out was ready to enter as soon as it could get access, WHO head for the West Bank and Gaza Rik Peeperkorn said.

“Until there is ceasefire agreed, all parties to the conflict must agree to a humanitarian pause to ensure access into and out of Gaza,” Peeperkorn said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenzi, touring rocket impact sites, said Hamas was deliberately preventing the entry of aid into Gaza from Israel.

Any ceasefire is unlikely to address the fundamental issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An international peace process aimed at creating a Palestinian state free of Israeli occupation and guaranteeing Israel’s security has been frozen since 2014.

Peace deals

Hamas, regarded by the West as a terrorist organisation, has not been part of the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization’s engagement with Israel, which led to interim peace deals in the 1990s and the establishment of limited Palestinian self-rule in the occupied West Bank.

The United Nations General Assembly was due to meet on the conflict on Thursday but it was not expected to take action.

The U.N. Human Rights Council said it will hold a special session on May 27 to address “the grave human rights situation” in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem.

Hamas began firing rockets on May 10 in retaliation for what it called Israeli rights abuses against Palestinians in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The rocket attacks followed Israeli police clashes with worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and efforts by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from a neighbourhood in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

The hostilities are the most serious between Hamas and Israel in years, and, in a departure from previous Gaza conflicts, have helped fuel street violence in Israeli cities between Jews and Arabs.

The conflict has also stoked violence in the West Bank, where Palestinian officials said at least 21 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli troops or other incidents since May 10.