smoke billowing over Khan Yunis
A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli bombardment on January 20, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Gaza Strip: Health officials in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on Saturday reported a surging death toll in fighting with Israel, whose leader Benjamin Netanyahu rejected calls for "Palestinian sovereignty" after the war.

As fighting raged across the besieged territory, 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.

An AFP correspondent reported gunfire, air strikes and tank shelling, especially in southern Gaza's Khan Yunis city.

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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, including the north.

'Retain control'

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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden Friday discussed the post-war future of Gaza amid a dire humanitarian situation.

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

But Netanyahu's office in a statement Saturday said he "reiterated his policy that after Hamas is destroyed 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".

Spy chief

The war in Gaza has sent regional tensions soaring, with a surge in violence involving 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".

The Guards later confirmed five fatalities among its ranks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the strike claimed 10 lives.

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.

Torture fears

Thousands of Gazan men may have been detained by Israeli forces, often facing conditions that could amount to torture, said the UN's human rights representative in the Palestinian territories, Ajith Sunghay.

Israel's military said individuals suspected of involvement in "terrorist activities" were being treated in accordance with international law.