Clashes rage around two Gaza hospitals as pressure mounts on Israel

Israeli troops and Hamas fighters waged deadly battles in and around two of the Gaza Strip's main hospitals on Thursday, as the Israeli government came under growing pressure at home and abroad to moderate its approach to the war that has the enclave was devastated.

Fighting has raged for an 11th day at Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital, in an area first seized by Israeli forces in November. The clashes highlighted the difficulty the Israelis are having in maintaining control of places they had already captured as Palestinian militants disperse and then return.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, increasingly unpopular and criticized on multiple fronts, met for the first time with the families of the soldiers kidnapped and detained in Gaza, who had accused him before the meeting of having ignored their situation for almost six months. Relatives of the soldiers remained largely silent in public while other families of prisoners spoke out, many of them saying the prime minister should agree to a truce with Hamas if that was what it took to free their relatives.

But there has been no apparent change in Israel's determination to press ahead with its offensive in Gaza, despite pressure from, among others, families of hostages, the Biden administration and the United Nations, where the Council of Security passed a resolution calling for the cessation of the war. fire. After vetoing previous ceasefire resolutions, the United States abstained on Monday, allowing the measure to pass and signaling American displeasure with Israel's conduct of the war.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague on Thursday ordered Israel to take concrete steps to stop impeding humanitarian aid to Gaza as hunger spreads in the area, calling on Israel to increase the number of land crossings for supplies and to provide “ full cooperation” with the United States. Nations. The ruling contained the strongest language the court has used so far in considering a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide, which Israel denies.

“The catastrophic living conditions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have further worsened,” the court said.

Netanyahu and far-right members of his coalition insist that Israel must continue its brutal air bombardment and ground offensive – including a planned invasion in Rafah, the southern city where most of Gaza's population has sought refuge – to destroy Hamas as a fighting force. force and win the freedom of the hostages.

“Only the continuation of the vigorous military pressure that we have exerted and will continue to exert” will free the prisoners, Netanyahu told relatives of the captive soldiers at the start of their meeting. He added: “We are preparing to enter Rafah.”

Some family members asked, in a press conference before the meeting, why the prime minister had met several times with the families of the other hostages but not with those of the soldiers. Nearly half of the more than 250 people seized during the Hamas-led assault on Israel on October 7 have been released, and many of those who remain – how many is unclear – are soldiers.

“Our children were abandoned,” said Anat Engerst, whose son Matan is one of the abducted soldiers. Five female soldiers are also detained by Hamas.

Netanyahu, angered by the passage of the UN resolution, responded by canceling a planned trip to Washington by senior Israeli officials that President Biden had requested to discuss alternatives to an incursion into Rafah. On Thursday, a White House spokesman, John F. Kirby, told reporters that the administration was working with the Israeli government to reschedule the meeting, which Israel did not confirm.

On Thursday, Netanyahu told the families of the captive soldiers: “We have conquered the north of the Strip and Khan Younis,” but even as he spoke, fierce fighting was taking place in both areas.

Western military strategists and officials have not only called Israel's conduct of the war unjustifiably destructive and deadly, but have also questioned its effectiveness. According to an analysis by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research group, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have conducted more than 70 attacks against Israeli forces in and around Al-Shifa hospital since the outbreak began. The last Israeli raid was on March 18. .

“This high rate of attacks indicates that Palestinian militias maintain a significant degree of combat effectiveness in the area, despite continued Israeli clearance efforts around Gaza City,” according to the analysis, which did not elaborate on the nature of each attack .

Israel has withdrawn most of its forces from the north and is relying on periodic raids that will go on for months, said Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general who served as Netanyahu's national security adviser in a previous government. He described the operations as “mopping up” and “cleaning up the area”.

Israel's war effort in Gaza has faced growing condemnation around the world; US public opinion, mostly supportive of Israel's actions after the October 7 attack, has turned sharply against it.

According to Gaza's Ministry of Health, the war has killed more than 32,000 people, and many more are missing and feared dead under the rubble. It has displaced most of the enclave's 2.2 million people from their homes and destroyed or damaged much of its infrastructure. Too little food and other basic necessities reach the inhabitants of Gaza and the United Nations has warned of an imminent famine; aid groups blame Israel for limiting the supply, and Israel blames the disorganization of these groups and diversions by Hamas.

The Israeli army said in a statement on Thursday that it had killed nearly 200 people, described as terrorists, in fighting in or near Al-Shifa, Gaza's largest hospital, and that its troops had come under fire from militants in and around one of the hospitals. buildings. Gaza authorities said more than 200 civilians were killed and another 1,000 arrested during the raid. Neither claim can be independently verified.

Witnesses described days and nights of terror in Al-Shifa, where many civilians took refuge to escape the fighting and bombing in their neighborhoods, with several patients dying.

“We constantly hear strikes and gunfire, day and night, and see smoke rising from buildings,” said Ezzeldine al-Dali, who lives less than a mile from Al-Shifa. He said Israeli forces set fire to several houses in the area after their occupants had been evacuated. This claim could not be independently verified.

“The scale of the destruction around us is indescribable,” al-Dali, 22, said in a voice message Thursday. “The houses that were not reduced to rubble were burned,” he added.

In the southern town of Khan Younis, fighting has raged all week in and around the Al-Amal hospital, which went out of service on Monday night after Israeli forces besieged it, forcing everyone inside to leave and then using bulldozers to seal off the entrances with gunfire. embankments, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, which runs the hospital.

Most of Gaza's hospitals no longer function as hospitals, and those that do are severely undersupplied and staffed. “The loss of Al-Amal is another blow to an already collapsing health system,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday.

Reporting contribution was provided by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Johnatan Reiss, Richard Pérez-Peña AND Katie Rogers.

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