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Men walk through rubble past damaged buildings with humanitarian aid packages collected from a drop over the northern Gaza Strip on April 23, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. Image Credit: AFP

Palestinian Territories: The Israel-Hamas war entered its 200th day on Tuesday with fears mounting of an Israeli invasion in the overcrowded south of Gaza amid calls for hostages to be freed.

The Israeli army carried out intense shelling overnight of the Gaza neighbourhoods of Al Tuffah, Shujaiya and Zeitun, AFP correspondents and witnesses said.

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Shelling and loud explosions were heard in southwest Gaza and Khan Younis in the south, while air strikes struck near the Bureij refugee camp and artillery fire hit the Nuseirat refugee camp.

The military said it struck several Hamas positions in south Gaza at night, with its warplanes hitting about 25 targets including military observation and launch posts.

The war erupted when Hamas and other Palestinian militants poured across the border with Israel on October 7 in an unprecedented attack that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

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A UAE Air Force C-17 Globemaster III military transport aircraft drops aid packages on the northern Gaza Strip on April 23, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

About 250 people were abducted to Gaza during the attack, of whom 129 remain in the Palestinian territory. Israel says 34 of them are dead.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Tuesday called for the release of the hostages in a post on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

“For 200 days, the world has stood still for their families, they have missed their laughter, their hugs, the jingling of keys in the opening door,” she said.

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“As long as the hostages are not free, we will not let up. Only when they are home will peace have a chance.”

In retaliation for the Hamas attack, Israel launched a military offensive that has so far killed at least 34,183 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

The latest ministry toll issued on Tuesday included least 32 deaths in the past 24 hours.

For Palestinians in Gaza, Monday was a day of fresh horror, with the territory’s Civil Defence agency saying about 200 bodies were uncovered in the past three days of people killed and buried by Israeli forces at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis.

People rush to collect aid. Image Credit: AFP

The Israeli military has yet to respond to an AFP request for comment on the matter.

On Monday, Israel’s military intelligence chief, Major General Aharon Haliva, resigned after taking responsibility for failures leading to the October 7 attack.

Public pressure has mounted on the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strike a deal that would secure the release of the remaining hostages.

In Israel, many seder tables will have an empty chair during celebrations of Passover, which is also known in Hebrew as the “holiday of freedom”.

Passover ‘pain’

Dalit Shtivi, the mother of Idan Shtivi, who was kidnapped from a music festival near Gaza on October 7, said she was struggling to cope without her son during Passover.

“It’s so hard. I cannot explain the pain. I cannot explain and think of celebrating without him,” she said in a statement issued by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.

“I’m begging that there’ll be a deal and he’ll be back tonight, and he will celebrate with us... the freedom and the Pesach holiday.”

In a message marking the start of Passover, Netanyahu had said Israel’s “resolve remains unyielding to see all hostages back with their families”.

Global opposition has mounted over the civilian toll of Israel’s Gaza offensive which has turned vast areas into rubble and sparked fears of famine.

The United Nations says “multiple obstacles” continue to impede delivery of urgently needed aid for Gazans desperate for food, water, shelter and medicine.

But Netanyahu has vowed to press on with a planned offensive on Rafah, the town on the border with Egypt where most of Gaza’s 2.4 million population is now sheltering.

Citing Egyptian officials briefed on the Israeli plans, the Wall Street Journal said Israel was planning to move civilians from Rafah to nearby Khan Younis.

The operation would last two to three weeks and be done in coordination with the United States, Egypt and other Arab countries, the Journal reported.

Israel would then send troops into Rafah gradually, targeting areas where Hamas’s leaders are thought to be hiding, in a military operation that would last six weeks, it added.

US aid

Foreign ministers of the G7 group of developed economies have said they oppose a “full-scale military operation in Rafah” because of the “catastrophic consequences” for civilians.

World leaders called for restraint after Israel reportedly carried out a strike on Iran in response to an unprecedented drone and missile attack by the Islamic republic on its arch-enemy.

The apparent tit-for-tat exchange sent jitters around international financial markets, amid fears that it could spark a wider conflict in the Middle East.

But analysts said Israel’s strike was deliberately limited in scope but designed to send a clear warning to Iran’s leadership about its ability to hit sensitive targets.

The US Senate is set to vote Tuesday on an aid package for its allies, including Israel, that is expected to land on President Joe Biden’s desk for his approval by the end of the week.

It earmarks $13 billion for Israel in its war with Hamas and more than $9 billion for humanitarian assistance in Gaza.