Palestinians inspect the damage following Israeli strikes on the Zawayda area of the central Gaza Strip on December 30, 2023.
Palestinians inspect the damage following Israeli strikes on the Zawayda area of the central Gaza Strip on December 30, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Cairo/Gaza: Israeli tanks pushed deeper into central and southern Gaza on Saturday under heavy air and artillery fire, residents said, pressing a deadly offensive that has razed much of the enclave and that Israel has said may last months more.

Fighting was focused in Al Bureij, Nuseirat, Maghazi and Khan Younis, backed by intensive air strikes that filled hospitals with injured Palestinians.

The bombardment has killed 165 people and wounded 250 others in Gaza over the past 24 hours, health authorities in the Hamas-run territory said.

Smoke billowed over the Gaza Strip's southern city of Khan Yunis, the focus of recent fighting in the grinding war, which was triggered on October 7 by Hamas attacks on Israel.

'Enough with this war! We are totally exhausted'

Further south, the border city of Rafah near Egypt was teeming with Gazans seeking safety from Israel's relentless bombardment in its fight against Palestinian militants.

"Enough with this war! We are totally exhausted," said Umm Louay Abu Khater, a 49-year-old woman who had fled her home in Khan Yunis, taking refuge in Rafah.

"We are constantly displaced from one place to another in cold weather," she said. "The bombs keep falling on us day and night."

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Almost all of Gaza's 2.3 million residents have been forced from their homes by Israel's 12-week assault, triggered by the Hamas attack on October 7 that killed 1,200 people and brought 240 hostages into the group's grasp.

The offensive has killed at least 21,672 Palestinians, according to health authorities in Gaza, with more than 56,000 injured and thousands more feared dead under the rubble.

The conflict risks spreading across the region, drawing in groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, that have exchanged fire with Israel and its US ally, or targeted merchant shipping.

Houses, apartment blocks smashed

Bombardment has smashed houses, apartment blocks and businesses and put hospitals out of action. On Saturday the Palestinian Culture Ministry said Israeli strikes had struck a medieval bathhouse. The old Great Mosque was hit earlier in the war.

Ziad, a medic in Maghazi in central Gaza, was planning to flee with his family of three children. The only road still open for them was the coastal route running past Deir Al Balah, already crammed with the displaced.

But he said they would press on straight to Rafah, on the border with Egypt, fearing a new Israeli assault on Deir Al Balah. "We want a ceasefire now. Not tomorrow even. Enough, more than enough, already," he said.

Troops reaching Hamas command centres, arms depots

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on Friday troops were reaching Hamas command centres and arms depots. Pictures the military released showed soldiers moving across churned-up earth among ruins of destroyed buildings.

The Israeli military said it had destroyed a tunnel complex in the basement of one of the houses of the Hamas leader for Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, in Gaza City.

The Israeli army kept up its campaign in the face of mounting international pushback, reporting "fierce battles" and air strikes across the narrow Palestinian territory.

In Beit Lahia in north Gaza, "two Hamas military compounds were dismantled by the troops," a military statement on Saturday said, and dozens of "terrorists" were killed in Gaza City.

The US has called for Israel to scale down the war in coming weeks and move to targeted operations against Hamas leaders, although so far it shows no sign of doing so.

On Friday US Secretary of State Antony Blinken approved the sale of more artillery shells and other equipment to Israel without congressional review, the Pentagon said.

Mediation efforts
International mediators - who last month brokered a one-week truce that saw more than 100 hostages released and some aid enter Gaza - continue in their efforts to secure a new pause in fighting.

US news outlet Axios and Israeli website Ynet, both citing unnamed Israeli officials, reported that Qatari mediators had told Israel that Hamas was prepared to resume talks on new hostage releases in exchange for a ceasefire.

And a Hamas delegation was in Cairo on Friday to discuss an Egyptian plan proposing renewable ceasefires, a staggered release of hostages for Palestinian prisoners, and ultimately an end to the war, sources close to Hamas say.

Israel has yet to formally comment on the Cairo plan, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told families of hostages on Thursday that "we are in contact" with the Egyptian mediators.

Netanyahu told the families of captives that "we are working to bring them all back".

Little aid reaching the enclave

AID Israel said on Friday it had facilitated the entry of vaccines into Gaza in coordination with UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency, to help prevent the spread of disease.

The little aid reaching the enclave since the start of the war, when Israel imposed a near total blockade on all food, medicine and fuel, has come across the border with Egypt.

Israel has only allowed access to the south of the enclave, where it started ordering all Gaza civilians to move from October, and aid agencies have said Israeli inspections have stopped all but a small fraction of needed supplies getting in.

An Israeli government spokesman said on Friday it does not limit humanitarian aid and the problem was with its distribution inside Gaza.

Al Bureij, Nuseirat and Khan Younis are three out of eight Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza that in normal times receive services from the UN Relief and Works Agency. The agency cares for Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during Israel's creation in 1948 and live in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.