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A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 21, 2023, shows smoke billowing following Israeli bombardment in the Palestinian territory amid ongoing battles with the Palestinian Hamas militant group. Image Credit: AFP

GAZA STRIP: Israel has ordered more evacuations in southern Gaza’s main city as diplomats pressed on with efforts to secure a pause in the war that Hamas says has claimed 20,000 lives.

The United Nations said Israel had issued evacuation orders on Wednesday for large areas of Khan Younis, where more than 140,000 displaced people were sheltering.

Israel told civilians to leave the north of the besieged Palestinian territory at the beginning of the conflict, urging them to seek safety in southern areas.

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But as places for people to go continued to shrink, international outrage has mounted over the rising death toll.

The war began when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing around 1,140 people, mostly civilians, and abducting about 250, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The Hamas government’s media office in the Gaza Strip said on Wednesday at least 20,000 people had been killed in the Palestinian territory since the war with Israel began.

It said 8,000 children and 6,200 women were among the dead.

UN relief chief Martin Griffiths deemed it a “tragic and shameful milestone”.

In the southern city of Rafah, where fireballs and smoke rose after explosions on Wednesday, residents expressed hope that truce talks would succeed.

“I wish for a complete ceasefire, and to put an end to the series of death and suffering. It’s been more than 75 days,” said Kassem Shurrab, 25.

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Relatives of Jehad Arafat, who was killed in Israeli bombardment, mourn at the Najar hospital in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on December 21, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Truce talks

Hopes that Israel and Hamas could be inching towards another truce and hostage release deal have risen this week as the head of the Palestinian militant group visited Egypt and talks were held in Europe.

Qatar-based Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh arrived in Egypt on Wednesday for talks with the country’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

Haniyeh also met Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian but no details were released.

A Hamas official told AFP that “a total ceasefire and a retreat of the Israeli occupation army from the Gaza Strip are a precondition for any serious negotiation” on a hostage-prisoner swap.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there could be no ceasefire in Gaza before the “elimination” of Hamas.

And US President Joe Biden said of a fresh hostage release deal: “There’s no expectation at this point. But we are pushing it.”

Mossad director David Barnea held a “positive meeting” in Warsaw this week with CIA chief Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, a source familiar with the talks told AFP.

Qatar, backed by Egypt and the United States, last month helped broker a first week-long truce that saw 80 Israeli hostages freed in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Tunnel network

Israel said on Wednesday its troops had uncovered a tunnel network used by Hamas leaders including Yahya Sinwar, the Islamist movement’s Gaza leader.

The military released footage it said showed the “large network” around Gaza City’s Palestine Square linking hideouts and residences.

The army reported close-quarter combat and more than 300 strikes over the past day.

Israel’s army said three soldiers were killed on Wednesday, bringing the death toll of its forces to 137 in the Gaza Strip since ground operations began in late October.

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Palestinians evacuate a wounded woman from a site hit by an Israeli bombardment on Rafah, southern Gaza Strip on December20, 2023. Image Credit: AP

The official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported Thursday that Israeli forces carried out operations overnight in the West Bank.

An AFPTV live camera on Wednesday filmed two bombs hitting Rafah, where many of the territory’s estimated 1.9 million displaced have fled.

The Hamas health ministry said Israeli strikes killed at least 12 Palestinians when houses and a mosque in Rafah “were targeted”.

It said later at least 30 more people were killed in an Israeli strike that hit two houses east of Khan Yunis.

Crowds swarmed the rubble, digging with shovels and a backhoe to try to free the victims. One blackened body lay under a blue blanket on the blood-soaked ground.

“Enough, enough of this. We have lost everything and we can’t take it anymore,” Samar Abu Luli, a woman in Rafah, said after Israeli strikes on the city’s Al-Shabura neighbourhood.

UN rights expert Francesca Albanese said Israel was assaulting Gaza’s health system, with their attacks “taking the most sadistic forms”.

UN impasse

The UN Security Council was due to try once again Thursday to pass a resolution calling for a halt in fighting after previous efforts to win Washington’s backing fell short.

Israel has rejected the term “ceasefire”, and the US has used its veto twice to thwart resolutions opposed by Israel since the start of the war.

The United Arab Emirates is sponsoring a draft resolution on the conflict which has already been watered down to secure compromise, according to a draft version seen by AFP.

It calls for “the urgent suspension of hostilities to allow safe and unhindered humanitarian access, and for urgent steps towards a sustainable cessation of hostilities.”

The war has sparked fears of regional escalation, with exchanges of fire over the Lebanon border, and missiles from Iran-backed Yemeni rebels disrupting Red Sea shipping.

Israel said Wednesday it had struck an “operational command centre” used by Iran-backed Hezbollah militants and fired on fighters heading for the Lebanon-Israel border.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who have launched missiles and drones at cargo ships in the Red Sea, warned Wednesday that they would strike back if attacked by US forces.

The warning came after the United States said it was building up a multinational naval task force to protect vessels transiting the Red Sea from the Huthi attacks, which have been carried out in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.