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Israel signals it has wrapped up major combat in northern Gaza

War now entering its 4th month
Israeli soldiers are seen near the Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, Sunday, Jan.7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The Israeli military signaled that it has wrapped up major combat in northern Gaza, saying it has completed dismantling Hamas’ military infrastructure there, as the war against the militant group entered its fourth month Sunday.

Israel did not address troop deployments in northern Gaza going forward. Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said late Saturday that forces would focus on the central and southern parts of the territory and strengthen defenses along the Israel-Gaza border fence.

The announcement came ahead of a visit to Israel by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who on Sunday was in Qatar, a key mediator. Biden administration officials have urged Israel to wind down its blistering air and ground offensive in Gaza and shift to more targeted attacks against Hamas leaders.

In recent weeks, Israel has scaled back its military assault in northern Gaza and pressed its offensive in the south, where most of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians are squeezed into smaller areas in a humanitarian disaster while being pounded by Israeli airstrikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists the war will not end until the objectives of eliminating Hamas, getting Israel’s hostages returned and ensuring that Gaza won’t be a threat to Israel are met.

The war was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which the militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took some 250 people hostage.

Israel’s retaliation has killed more than 22,800 Palestinians and wounded more than 58,000, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Health officials say about two-thirds of those killed have been women and minors. Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the group operates in heavily populated residential areas.

An airstrike near the southern city of Rafah killed two journalists on Sunday, including Hamza Dahdouh, the oldest son of Wael Dahdouh, Al Jazeera’s chief correspondent in Gaza, the Arabic channel and local medical officials said. Al Jazeera broadcast footage of Dahdouh, weeping and holding his son’s hand, before walking away in a daze. Israel’s military had no immediate comment.

Al Jazeera strongly condemned the killings and other “brutal attacks against journalists and their families” by Israeli forces, and urged the International Criminal Court, governments and human rights groups to hold Israel accountable.

Dahdouh previously lost his wife, two children and a grandchild in an Oct. 26 airstrike, and was wounded in an Israeli strike last month that killed a co-worker.

“The world is blind to what’s happening in Gaza Strip,” Dahdouh said, blinking back tears.

Another airstrike hit a house between Khan Younis and the southern city of Rafah, killing at least seven people whose bodies were taken to the nearby European Hospital, according to an Associated Press journalist at the facility. One man hurried in carrying a baby, and later walked the blanket-wrapped child to the morgue.

“Everything happening here is outside the realms of law, outside the realms of reason. Our brains can’t fully comprehend all this that is happening to us,” said a grieving relative, Inas Abu al-Najja, her wavering voice rising. Men worked the rubble with picks and bare hands.

On Sunday, officials at Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis received the bodies of 18 people, including 12 children, killed in an Israeli strike late Saturday. More than 50 people were injured in the strike on a home in the Khan Younis refugee camp, set up decades ago to house refugees from the 1948 war over Israel’s creation.

Israeli forces pushed deeper into the central city of Deir al-Balah, where residents in several neighborhoods were warned that they must evacuate.

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, known by the acronym MSF, said it was evacuating its medical staff from Deir al-Balah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital.

A bullet penetrated a wall of the hospital’s intensive care unit on Friday, and “drone attacks and sniper fire were just a few hundred meters from the hospital” over the past couple of days, said Carolina Lopez, the group’s emergency coordinator there. She said the hospital received between 150 and 200 injured people daily in recent weeks.

The head of the hospital, hosting a U.N. delegation, warned that “today, we are on the verge of a true catastrophe.” Without health care, residents “will be left in the streets to meet their death,” Dr. Iyad Abu Zaher said. The U.N. urged the protection of health workers across Gaza.

Hagari, the military spokesman, said scattered fighting in northern Gaza was to be expected, along with rockets sporadically being launched from there toward Israel. He said Hamas militants “without a framework and without commanders” were still present. The military has said it has killed more than 8,000 Hamas fighters, without presenting evidence.

Hagari said Israeli forces would act differently in the south than in northern Gaza, where heavy bombardment and ground combat leveled entire neighborhoods.

He said urban refugee camps targeted by the military are packed with gunmen and that “an underground city of sprawling tunnels” was discovered underneath Khan Younis. Echoing Israeli political leaders, he said fighting will continue throughout 2024.

In addition to U.S. appeals for scaling back high-intensity combat, Blinken on his fourth Mideast trip in three months is calling for more aid to reach Gaza and urging Israel’s leaders to come up with a post-war vision for the besieged territory.

Two U.S. senators who inspected aid deliveries over the weekend described a slow and cumbersome process largely due to Israeli inspections of cargo trucks, with seemingly arbitrary rejections of vital humanitarian equipment.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration and Netanyahu remain far apart on who should run the territory after the war, with the Israeli leader rejecting the Washington-floated idea of having a reformed Palestinian Authority, an autonomy government in parts of the occupied West Bank, eventually administer Gaza.

An escalation of cross-border fighting between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah has complicated the U.S. push to prevent a regional conflict. Hezbollah described Saturday’s rockets as an “initial response” to the targeted killing of a top Hamas leader in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut last week, presumed to have been carried out by Israel.


Magdy reported from Cairo and Jobain from Rafah, Gaza Strip.

Julia Frankel, Samy Magdy And Najib Jobainh, The Associated Press