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The mother of Palestinian Khalil Abu Shamala, who was killed in an Israeli strike, mourns with her face stained with his blood as Khalil's brother reacts at Al Aqsa hospital in Deir Al Balah in the central Gaza Strip, March 27, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

GAZA STRIP: Israeli forces pounded besieged Gaza on Wednesday in the war sparked by the October 7 attack and fought Hamas around several hospitals despite a UN Security Council demand for a ceasefire.

Talks in Qatar towards a truce and hostage release deal, involving US and Egyptian mediators, have brought no result so far, with Israel and the Palestinian militant group blaming each other.

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Tensions have risen between Israel and its top ally the United States over the soaring civilian death toll and dire food shortages in Gaza, and Israeli plans to push its ground offensive into the far-southern city of Rafah, which is packed with displaced civilians.

In heavy overnight bombardment, Israeli strikes again hit Gaza City and Rafah, where a fireball lit up the sky over the city crowded with up to 1.5 million people, most of them displaced by the war.

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The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said 66 people were killed in overnight bombardment and combat.

Israeli forces have battled militants in and around three Gaza hospitals, raising fears for patients, medical staff and displaced people inside them.

Fighting has raged since last week around Gaza City’s Al-Shifa Hospital, the territory’s largest, and more recently near two hospitals in the main southern city of Khan Younis, Al Amal and Nasser.

The army and Shin Bet security service said they were “continuing to conduct precise operational activities” in both cities “while preventing harm to civilians, patients, medical teams and medical equipment”.

The army said dozens of militants have been killed “in the area” of Al Shifa and “hundreds of terrorists have been apprehended”.

Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles have also massed around the Nasser Hospital, the Gaza health ministry said, adding that shots were fired but no raid had yet been launched.

A military spokesperson told AFP “we’re operating in the area, but we haven’t been inside the hospital”.

The Palestinian Red Crescent warned that thousands were trapped inside and “their lives are in danger”.

UN warns of ‘man-made famine’

Gaza has endured almost six months of war and a siege that has cut off most food, water, fuel and other supplies, and the UN has warned that its 2.4 million people are on the brink of a “man-made famine”.

The flow of aid trucks from Egypt has slowed amid the war and due to lengthy Israeli cargo inspections.

Donor governments have airdropped food into Gaza where desperate crowds have rushed towards aid packages drifting down on parachutes. At least 18 people have been reported killed Tuesday in stampedes or drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

Hamas has urged an end to the airdrops and called for stepped-up road deliveries instead.

AFP images on Wednesday showed a military aircraft again parachuting aid packages into Gaza, and the Jordanian military announced “five airdrops” over the territory’s north with Egyptian, Emirati, German and Spanish planes.

The war broke out when Hamas launched its unprecedented October 7 attack that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Pope Francis meeting with Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan (second left), who both lost their daughters in violence between Gaza and Israel. Image Credit: AFP

The militants also took about 250 hostages. Israel says that, after an earlier truce and hostage deal, about 130 captives remain in Gaza, including 34 who are presumed dead.

Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed at least 32,490 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry.

Israel also charges that Palestinian militants sexually assaulted October 7 victims and hostages.

The New York Times published the account of the first Israeli woman to speak publicly about having been sexually abused, 40-year-old lawyer Amit Soussana.

Soussana, who was abducted from her home near the Gaza border and released in November, said she was repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted at gunpoint by her guard inside Gaza.

The non-governmental Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel said on social media platform X that Soussana’s “heart-wrenching testimony compels the world to act”.

“The Israeli government and world governments must do whatever it takes to bring home” the remaining hostages, it said.

Death toll ‘far too high’

The UN Security Council on Monday passed its first resolution demanding an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza and the release of the captives.

The United States, which had blocked previous resolutions, abstained, drawing an angry rebuke from Israel as Defence Minister Yoav Gallant was in Washington.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin stressed, before meeting Gallant, that “the number of civilian casualties is far too high, and the amount of humanitarian aid is far too low” in Gaza.

Israeli and Hamas envoys have engaged in weeks of indirect talks aimed at halting the fighting, but both sides said this week the talks were failing.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari has said that, although the CIA and Mossad chiefs had left Doha, the talks were “ongoing” at a technical level.

Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad charged that Israel “is being intransigent and wants to keep the war going”.

“There hasn’t been any progress in ceasefire talks or negotiations for prisoners’ exchange,” he said.

Amid the bloodiest ever Gaza conflict, violence has also surged in the occupied West Bank, where an Israeli raid Wednesday on the northern city of Jenin killed three people.

Israel has also exchanged daily cross-border fire with Hamas ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The hostilities, in which Israel has also targeted Hamas militants, have raised fears of all-out conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, which fought a devastating war in 2006.

Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets into northern Israel Wednesday killing a civilian, after Israel carried out a deadly pre-dawn strike in south Lebanon.