(Bloomberg) -- Southern parts of the Gaza Strip were hit by airstrikes on Sunday hours after Israel called for the evacuation of areas of the Palestinian enclave where it believes Hamas leaders are located.
Al Jazeera reported 10 people dead and more than 100 wounded in an airstrike in the Al-Geneina neighborhood of the border city of Rafah in southern Gaza, citing eyewitness reports. The information couldn’t be verified.
Israel is seeking to dismantle Hamas brigades, killing leaders and operatives, in the south as it did in and around Gaza City, said Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, chief of staff for the Israel Defense Forces.
“It will be as fierce, with no lesser results,” Halevi said. “It will be as thorough in the south as it has been in the north.”
Separately, the Pentagon said a US warship had been attacked in the Red Sea, and Houthi rebels in Yemen said they had carried out operations against “two Israeli ships.”
Israel on Sunday instructed Palestinians to abandon areas near Khan Younis, the southern city where Israel believes top Hamas militants are hiding. The US has been urging Israel to come up with safe zones for fleeing civilians, urging the military not to repeat in the south the same scale of destruction and civilian death as in the north.
Israel on Saturday pulled its officials from Qatar, where negotiations had earlier resulted in a seven-day truce accompanied by exchanges of hostages for Palestinian prisoners.
In ordering its team to come home, Israel said Hamas had reneged on a pledge to release women and children held since the Oct. 7 attacks on southern Israel. Hamas is designated as a terrorist group by the US and the European Union.
Qatar said Sunday it will continue efforts to revive the truce, and Eylon Levy, a spokesman for the Israeli government, said Israel is prepared to entertain further offers from Hamas. The militant group released a statement Sunday saying further hostage releases depend on “stopping the aggression and reaching a cease-fire.”
About 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed when Hamas stormed Israeli towns, kibbutzim, army bases and a music festival. The violent incursion triggered Israeli’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza, now approaching its second month, with the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza saying more than 15,500 people have been killed, the majority of them women and children.
In the past day the IDF said it continued to strike suspected Hamas targets from fighter jets, helicopters and from the sea. Hamas has responded with heavy rocket fire toward southern and central Israel. Exchanges of fire resumed across the Israel-Lebanon border, with an Israeli military vehicle hit by an anti-tank missile.
Levy said that 398 Israeli soldiers and 59 police personnel have been killed since the war began and that 11,000 rockets have been fired toward Israel, with 2,000 falling short and landing in Gaza. He added that 800 tunnels used by Hamas have been found and 500 destroyed.
After the exchanges of the past week, 137 hostages remain in Gaza with 117 of those being male, including two children, he said. All but 11 are Israeli, he said, adding that the bodies of three hostages have been located by the ministry and six people are still missing.
Despite warnings from multiple US officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris, for Israel to heed warnings about civilian casualties, Levy said “Israel and the US see eye-to-eye about the goals of this war.”
“I have personally pushed Israeli leaders to avoid civilian casualties, and to shun irresponsible rhetoric,” Austin said on Saturday. “In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
Many nations have warned Israel not to use the overwhelming force in the south as it did in the north, where it leveled much of Gaza City.
“We are trying to be as surgical as we can be in a very difficult combat situation,” Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the BBC on Sunday. He added that casualty estimates from Gaza health authorities “need to be taken with a grain of salt.”
John Kirby, spokesman for the US National Security Council, said Israel has taken “a step in the right direction” in being mindful of civilian casualties.
Israel has given civilians in Gaza an online map with “a list of areas where they can go to be more safe,” Kirby said Sunday on NBC. “There’s not too many modern militaries in advance of conducting operations that would actually do that.”
Netanyahu nonetheless suggested that a significant escalation is underway in the south as Israel seeks to destroy Hamas, the stated objective of the war.
Combat in the south is more difficult now because of the displacement of some 1.8 million people, many of whom fled there to avoid the earlier fighting in the north, according to figures by the United Nations.
“Clearly the first phase of the operation, before the cease-fire, exacted such an enormous cost,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “A lot of those people were told to move south. Now the campaign’s moving south. And that’s the real worry that a lot of people in the administration have.”
--With assistance from Courtney McBride and Fadwa Hodali.
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