Israel said Friday it has discovered a new tunnel, weapons and Hamas facilities under Gaza — evidence, it says, that Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror group carries out military operations through an extensive network running underneath civilian infrastructure.
The military did not provide video or photo evidence of the kilometer long tunnel extending from the campus of Al-Azhar University in Gaza to a nearby school, but it released photos of weapons soldiers allegedly found at the university, including explosives and rocket parts.
The military said it also found a Hamas control room with cameras, phones, walkie-talkies and weapons near a hospital in northern Gaza, as well as an additional tunnel entrance. A photo released by the military showed an opening to an underground passageway with a ladder stretching downward.
Israel said such discoveries show that Hamas is entrenched in civilian areas — a claim central to its justification for intensifying its attacks on the enclave and calling for more mass evacuations on civilian areas there.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Friday there is no place within Gaza that is safe, hours before the U.N. Security Council was scheduled to vote on a demand for a humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza.
"The people of Gaza are looking into the abyss," Guterres told the 15-nation council. "The international community must do everything possible to end their ordeal."
Guterres sent a letter to council members Wednesday taking the rare step of invoking Article 99 of the U.N. Charter, drawing their attention to the crisis and pressing them to act.
"I urge the council to spare no effort to push for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, for the protection of civilians, and for the urgent delivery of lifesaving aid," he said.
Many displaced Palestinians in Gaza crammed into Rafah on the southern border with Egypt, where Israeli leaflets urged Palestinians to flee, saying they would be safe. But the Hamas-controlled health ministry reported at least 37 deaths there in overnight Israeli air attacks.
The Israeli military Thursday accused militants of firing rockets from areas near Rafah near the humanitarian zone.
Israel Defense Forces said Friday that over the past 24 hours the IDF struck more than 450 targets in Gaza from land, sea and air — the most since the seven-day Israel-Hamas cease-fire collapsed last week and about double the daily figures typically reported since then.
More strikes were reported Friday in Khan Younis in the south where Israeli forces were fighting house to house and "shaft to shaft," a reference to tunnel shafts, Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfuss said in a video message from the area.
Gaza's Health Ministry reported 350 people killed Thursday, raising the death toll since the start of the war two months ago, to 17,487, with thousands more missing and presumed buried under rubble. Seventy percent of the victims are women and children, according to the health ministry.
Ninety-four Israeli soldiers have been killed fighting in Gaza since its ground invasion of the enclave began, according to the Israeli military.
With most Palestinians in Gaza now displaced and unable to access any aid, hospitals overrun and food running out, the main U.N. agency there said society was "on the verge of a full-blown collapse" and its ability to protect people there was "reducing fast."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday in Washington it was imperative that Israel too steps up to protect Gaza's civilian population. "And there does remain a gap between... the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we're seeing on the ground," he told a news conference.
Still, a top White House official Wednesday backed Israel’s decision to carry out operations in the densely packed south of Gaza.
"We believe there are many legitimate military targets that remain in the south including, as Israel has said, perhaps much, if not most, of the Hamas leadership,” White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer told the Aspen Security Forum in Washington.
“They have every right to go after those targets,” he said, calling Israel’s stated goal of ensuring Hamas can no longer govern in Gaza “a very legitimate objective.”
Finer also reiterated the White House position that calls for a blanket cease-fire would benefit Hamas, but said Washington continues to press Israel to allow more humanitarian aid to reach Gaza.
"Our strong view is that there should be significantly more humanitarian assistance going into Gaza than is currently the case," he said. “For now, upwards of 200 trucks a day of humanitarian assistance [are] going in, which is not satisfactory to us. We want more than that to go in, but it is a major step forward.”
Speaking at the same conference, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Cairo, too, has pushed for additional aid to Gaza.
"In no way has Egypt in any way restricted [aid],” he said. “To the contrary, we are constantly striving to have more assistance."
"But there's a mechanism ... we have to respect or else the [aid] convoys will come under military attack," Shoukry added.
In the occupied West Bank, Israeli forces shot and killed six Palestinians Friday in a refugee camp, near the town of Tubas.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pushed Friday for an international peace conference to end the war in Gaza and to work out a lasting political solution that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In an interview with Reuters at his office in Ramallah, Abbas, 87, said the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in general had reached an alarming stage that requires international mediation. And added that Israeli forces have intensified their attacks everywhere in the occupied West Bank over the past year with settlers escalating violence against Palestinian towns.
Also Friday, Israel’s military responded to an investigation about the death of a Reuters journalist in southern Lebanon on October 13.
Reuters reports that the military said in a statement, without naming the journalist Issam Abdallah, that at the time of the incident Lebanese Hezbollah forces attacked across the border and Israeli forces opened fire to prevent Hezbollah from entering Israel.
The IDF said in a statement, according to Reuters, that it was “aware of the claim that journalists who were in the area were killed” in what was an active combat zone, and the incident is under review.
Nearly 100 hostages held by Hamas were released before the weeklong cease-fire between Israel and Hamas collapsed on December 1. The militants are believed to still hold about 140 more hostages.
No negotiations are underway for another cessation in fighting.
Israel began its military campaign to end Hamas’ rule of Gaza after Hamas fighters crossed into southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking the hostages.
VOA U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer and VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this story. Some information for this article was provided by The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.