Palestinian death toll in Gaza surpasses 25,000 while the prolonged war divides Israelis

AP , Sunday 21 Jan 2024

The death toll from the Israeli war on Gaza has soared past 25,000, the Palestinian health ministry said Sunday, while the Israeli government appeared far from achieving its goals of crushing Hamas and freeing more than 100 captives.

Israeli protester
A protester wears a shirt depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempt during a demonstration to demand the release of the captives taken by Hamas into the Gaza Strip during the Oct. 7th operation, in Tel Aviv, Israel. AP

The level of death, destruction and displacement from the war is without precedent in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli officials say the war is likely to continue for several more months.

The fighting and the plight of captives held in Gaza have divided ordinary Israelis and their leaders while the offensive threatens to ignite a wider war involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen that support the Palestinians. 

In Lebanon, Hezbollah forces have engaged in near-daily clashes with Israeli troops along the border.

An Israeli airstrike on Sunday hit a car near a Lebanese army checkpoint in the southern town of Kafra, killing at least two people and injuring several others, Lebanese state media reported. The identities of those killed and injured were not immediately clear. 

Israel's military said it doesn't comment on reports in foreign media.

The United States, which has provided essential diplomatic and military support for Israel's aggression, has had limited success in persuading Israel to put civilians at less risk and to facilitate the delivery of more humanitarian aid.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected US and international calls for postwar plans that would include a path to Palestinian statehood. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the refusal to accept a two-state solution "totally unacceptable.”

“The Middle East is a tinderbox. We must do all we can to prevent conflict igniting across the region," Guterres added Sunday. "And that starts with an immediate humanitarian cease-fire to relieve the suffering in Gaza.”

Gaza Death Toll Climbs

The war began with Hamas’ Al-Aqsa Flood Operation in southern Israel on Oct. 7. killed some 1,200 people, and around 250 were taken captive.

Since then, Israel launched a bombing campaign and ground invasion that laid waste to entire neighbourhoods in northern Gaza and spread south from there. Ground operations are now focused on the southern city of Khan Younis and built-up refugee camps in central Gaza dating back to the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.

Israel continues to carry out airstrikes throughout the besieged territory, including areas in the south where it told civilians to seek refuge. Many Palestinians have ignored evacuation orders, saying nowhere feels safe.

Since the war started, 25,105 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, while another 62,681 have been wounded, the health ministry said. 

The toll included the 178 bodies brought to Gaza’s hospitals since Saturday, the health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said.  Another 300 people were wounded in the past day, he said.

The overall toll is thought to be higher because many casualties remain buried under the rubble from Israeli strikes or in areas where medics cannot reach them, Al-Qidra said.

The health ministry says around two-thirds of the people killed in Gaza were women and minors. 

The Israeli military says it has killed around 9,000 militants, without providing evidence, and blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas claiming it positions fighters, tunnels and other militant infrastructure in dense neighbourhoods, often near homes, schools or mosques.

The military says 195 soldiers have been killed since the start of the Gaza offensive.

The war has displaced some 85% of Gaza’s residents from their homes, with hundreds of thousands packing into UN-run shelters and tent camps in the southern part of the tiny coastal enclave. 

UN officials say a quarter of the population of 2.3 million is starving as a trickle of humanitarian aid reaches them because of the fighting and Israeli restrictions.

“Bread does not suffice for one hour,” said Ahmad Al-Nashawi, who accepted donated food at a damp of plastic tents in the southern city of Rafah. “You can see how many children we have other than women and men. What matters most for a child is to eat.”

Israelis Increasingly Divided

Netanyahu has vowed to keep up the aggression until Israel achieves “complete victory” over Hamas and returns all remaining captives. But even some top Israeli officials have begun to acknowledge that those goals might be mutually exclusive.

Hamas is believed to be holding the captives in tunnels and using them as shields for its top leaders. Israel has managed to rescue just one captive, and Hamas says several have been killed in Israeli airstrikes or during failed rescue operations.

A member of Israel’s War Cabinet, former army chief Gadi Eisenkot, said last week that the only way to free the captives was through a ceasefire. In an implicit criticism of Netanyahu, he said claims to the contrary amounted to “illusions.”

Hamas has said it will not free more captives until Israel ends its offensive. 

The group is expected to make any further releases conditional on securing freedom for thousands of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

Israel's government has ruled that out for now, but it faces growing pressure from families of the captives, who are pushing for an exchange like the one that took place during a weeklong November ceasefire.

Some Israelis also are frustrated by the security failures that preceded the Oct. 7 offensive and by Netanyahu's handling of the war. 

Thousands of people gathered in Tel Aviv over the weekend to call for new elections.

But Netanyahu's far-right coalition partners are pushing him to step up the offensive, with some calling for the “voluntary” emigration of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza and the re-establishment of Jewish settlements there.

 Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from the territory in 2005, two years before Hamas took power.

* This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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