Israel Widens Attack on Hamas; Palestinians Pour Into Southern Gaza

A Palestinian child wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip receives treatment at the Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Dec. 29, 2023.

Israel's widening attacks in central and southern Gaza have pushed tens of thousands of Palestinians seeking shelter into the southern city of Rafah, where the population has more than tripled — soaring to 850,000 people, according to United Nations figures.

"People are using any empty space to build shacks," said Juliette Touma, director of communications at UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. "Some are sleeping in their cars, and others are sleeping in the open."

Most available water is polluted. The sanitation system has broken down, and working toilets are a rarity.

"Everyone here is infected with a disease," Dalia Abu Samhadana said of her family, who fled the fighting in Khan Younis earlier in the month and now shelter in Rafah's Shaboura district in a house with 49 people. With little food available, her daily diet is mainly bread and tea.

Almost the entire population of Gaza is dependent on international aid, including food, UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini said Friday. Despite a U.N. resolution last week calling for an immediate and unhindered increase in the entry of aid, no increase has been seen, he said.

Lazzarini said the aid operation faces "severe restrictions" from Israeli authorities. Trucks face long delays at the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt and the newly reopened Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel, he said.

Aid distribution within Gaza is further obstructed by the constant bombardment and fighting, Israeli military checkpoints and repeated cuts in telecommunications, he said, as well as by desperate crowds that often overwhelm arriving aid trucks and take supplies.

Israel has told residents of central Gaza to head south, but even there, people are not safe.

Strike kills dozens, says hospital

A strike in Rafah on Thursday evening destroyed a residential building, killing at least 23 people, according to the media office of the nearby Kuwaiti Hospital.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Dec. 29, 2023.

Israel's military continued airstrikes and ground operations aimed at Hamas in northern, central and southern Gaza on Friday. Palestinians say residences were hit overnight in the Nuseirat and Maghazi refugee camps in central Gaza. Heavy fighting was also reported in the Bureij refugee camp.

Twelve weeks after Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages, Israeli forces have flattened much of the Gaza enclave. Nearly all its 2.3 million people have been displaced.

Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization the U.S., U.K, EU and others.

Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry said 187 Palestinians were confirmed killed in Israeli airstrikes in the past 24 hours, raising the toll to 21,507 since October to about 1% of Gaza's population. Thousands more bodies are feared to be buried in the ruins of Gaza's obliterated neighborhoods, while nearly 56,000 civilians have been wounded by Israeli attacks since October.

The Israeli military says 167 of its troops have been killed.

World decries civilian casualties

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a phone call Friday with Benny Gantz, an Israeli minister and war Cabinet member, underscored the need to protect civilians and avoid a regional conflict, the German federal government said in a statement.

On Friday, South Africa asked the International Court of Justice for an urgent order declaring that Israel was in breach of its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention in its attack against the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza.

In a statement from South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation, the government said the application against Israel was filed Friday.

"Israel, since 7 October 2023 in particular, has failed to prevent genocide and has failed to prosecute the direct and public incitement to genocide," the statement said.

Israel's foreign ministry called South Africa's application baseless.

Israel's foreign ministry blamed Hamas for the suffering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by using them as human shields and stealing humanitarian aid from them.

Hamas denies both claims.

"Israel has made it clear that the residents of the Gaza Strip are not the enemy and is making every effort to limit harm to the non-involved and to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip," the ministry statement said.

A Palestinian man carries the body of his relative killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, outside a morgue in Rafah, southern Gaza, Dec. 29, 2023.

South Africa's filing alleged Israel was violating its obligations under the treaty, drafted in the wake of the Holocaust, which makes it a crime to attempt to destroy a people in whole or in part.

It asked the court to issue provisional, or short-term, measures ordering Israel to stop its military campaign in Gaza, which it said were "necessary in this case to protect against further, severe and irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people."

Peace plan proposed

A delegation of high-level Hamas officials was expected in Cairo Friday to consider an Egyptian peace proposal designed to bring an end to the war between Hamas and Israel.

The Egyptian three-phase peace plan calls for the release of Hamas hostages taken on October 7, when Hamas launched its attack on Israel, and the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel; observation of a cease-fire that would end the war; and establishment of a Palestinian government of technocrats responsible for administering a postwar Gaza.

Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have had access to the proposal since last week, reports say. Islamic Jihad is also fighting Israel.

Some material for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.