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Israel bombs Gaza as oldest woman held hostage confirmed dead

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES  — Israeli forces yesterday battled Hamas in Gaza where air strikes and urban combat rocked the southern city of Khan Yunis, near where many hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought refuge.

UN World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for “urgent steps to alleviate the grave peril” facing besieged Gaza’s people, including “terrible injuries, acute hunger and… severe risk of disease”.

In Jerusalem, families of hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza again rallied for their release, and a kibbutz announced that a 70-year-old US-Israeli thought to be the oldest woman held captive had died in the October 7 attacks.

US President Joe Biden said he was “devastated” by the news Judith Weinstein Haggai was dead, and pledged that Washington will “not stop working” with its ally Israel to bring the remaining hostages home.

The war, which started with Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, has left much of northern Gaza in ruins while the battlefront has shifted ever further to the south of the besieged territory.

The Israeli army said it had deployed an additional brigade to Khan Yunis, hometown of Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, where AFP correspondents reported sustained air and artillery strikes.

The Palestinian Red Crescent society reported that shelling had killed at least 10 people near the city’s Al-Amal hospital, an area where it said about 14,000 people are sheltering.

Later yesterday, Hamas-run Gaza’s health ministry said 20 people were killed, most of them women and children, and dozens wounded in shelling of the Shaboura camp in the southern city of Rafah.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas in retaliation for the October 7 attack which left about 1,140 people dead, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Hamas on October 7 also took 250 hostages, more than half of whom remain captive — a source of intense anxiety for their families who protested in Jerusalem with the demand to “bring them home”.

Israel’s relentless aerial bombardment and ground invasion have killed at least 21,320 people, mostly women and children, according to Hamas-run Gaza’s health ministry.

Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for the ministry, yesterday reported an additional 200 deaths, “including entire families”, over the past 24 hours in strikes.

The Israeli army says 167 of its soldiers have been killed inside Gaza in its fight against Hamas which Israel, the United States and European Union consider a “terrorist” group.

In total, the army said, more than 500 soldiers had been killed since October 7, including in the Hamas attack and the battle to retake control of southern Israel, inside Gaza, and in cross-border hostilities with Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Quadruplets born in war

More than 80 per cent of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have been driven from their homes, the UN says, and many now live in cramped shelters or makeshift tents in the far south, around the city of Rafah near Egypt.

In the central al-Maghazi refugee camp, which was targeted on Sunday by a strike that killed at least 70 people, resident Waleed Mohammed Aeid voiced his pain and frustration.

“They told us to go to Rafah, but we don’t want to,” he said. “Why? To go live in the streets there?

“All the neighbourhood here was evacuated. They bombed the school, but we didn’t leave because we don’t have anywhere else to go.”

An Israeli siege imposed after October 7, following years of crippling blockade, has deprived Gazans of food, water, fuel and medicine.

The severe shortages have been only sporadically eased by humanitarian aid convoys entering primarily via Egypt.

Israel said yesterday it had given preliminary approval to the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus for a “maritime lifeline” to ship aid to Gaza.

“There’s a basic authorisation to use this route, but there are still some logistical problems that are waiting to be solved,” said Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat.

One of the many Palestinians displaced, 28-year-old Iman al-Masry, recently gave birth to quadruplets in southern Gaza after fleeing her home in the devastated north.

The arduous journey “affected my pregnancy”, she said, recounting that she gave birth by C-section on December 18 to two girls and two boys, one of whom was too fragile to leave hospital.

“They are very slim,” she said, speaking in a schoolroom turned shelter in Deir al-Balah. “It’s cold and windy and there’s no bathtub… I just use wipes.”

Mideast tensions flare

Violence has also flared across the Israel-occupied West Bank, with at least 314 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces or settlers since October 7, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Israeli forces overnight raided money exchange shops across the West Bank which the military said had provided funds for armed groups.

In Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority, one man was killed by the troops, according to the health ministry, and another was later shot near Bethlehem.

A UN report said the human rights situation in the West Bank was rapidly deteriorating and urged Israel to “end unlawful killings” against the Palestinian population.

The bloodiest ever Gaza war has also sharply heightened tensions between Israel and its long-time arch foe Iran, which supports armed groups across the Middle East.

Iran blamed Israel for a missile strike in Syria on Monday that killed the senior Iranian military commander Razi Moussavi, whose mass funeral took place in Tehran yesterday.

The crowd chanted “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led a prayer over the body of Moussavi, a top commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations arms the Quds Force.

Tehran has vowed to avenge the death of the most senior Guards general killed since the US assassination of Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani in 2020.

Israel has traded heavy cross-border fire with Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon since the Gaza war erupted, and warned it will step up military action unless Hezbollah militants withdraw further from the border.

Hezbollah accused Israel of hacking into CCTV camera systems installed outside homes and shops in southern Lebanon and urged residents there to take the devices offline.

Another Iran ally, Yemen’s Huthi rebel group, has launched repeated drone and missile attacks at Israel, which have been intercepted. It has also targeted ships in the Red Sea, disrupting international trade. — AFP

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