By Bassam Masoud and Maayan Lubell
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Hundreds more Palestinians were killed as Israel fought Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip’s biggest cities on Thursday, and almost 2 million displaced Gazans facing shortages of food struggled to find safe refuge.
Residents reported fierce battles going on east of Khan Younis, southern Gaza’s largest city. Palestinian health officials said three Gazans were killed in an Israeli airstrike on a house in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza.
Israel said its forces killed a number of gunmen in Khan Younis, including two who emerged firing from a tunnel.
Israeli TV showed footage, which Reuters could not independently verify, of what it said were captured Hamas fighters, stripped to their underwear with heads bowed sitting in a Gaza City street.
Some Palestinians recognised relatives and denied they had any links to Hamas or any other group. Hani Almadhoun, a Palestinian American based in Virginia, saw relatives in the picture and told Reuters they were “innocent civilians with no links to Hamas or any other faction.”
“They took them from a house, that belongs to the family, in the area of the market. They detained my brother Mahmoud, 32, his son Omar, 13, my other nephew Aboud, 27, and my father 72, and several of our in-laws.”
Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said soldiers were fighting against militants in Hamas “centers of gravity.”
“During this fighting, those who stay in the area, come out of tunnels and some out of houses, we investigate and check who is linked to Hamas and who is not, we detain and interrogate all of them,” Hagari said. He did not speak directly about the images but said that hundreds of suspected militants have been interrogated so far and that many have surrendered in the past 24 hours.
Gazans have crammed into Rafah on the southern border with Egypt, heeding Israeli messages saying that they would be safe in the city after successive warnings to head south.
But more than 20 people were killed in apartments there late on Wednesday, said Eyad al-Hobi, a relative of some of those killed.
More than 17,170 Palestinians have been killed and 46,000 wounded, according to the Gaza health ministry, since Oct. 7, when Israel began bombarding Gaza in response to a cross-border rampage by Hamas militants who control the enclave. The Hamas attack killed 1,200 people, with 240 people taken hostage, according to Israel’s tally.
In the past 24 hours alone, 350 people had been killed, Gaza health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said.
Israel says it must wipe out Hamas and is doing everything possible to get civilians out of harm’s way.
US CALLS ON ISRAEL TO BETTER PROTECT CIVILIANS
With no end in sight to the fighting, a top White House national security aide, Jon Finer, said the United States had not given Israel a firm deadline to end major combat operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
There are many “legitimate military targets” remaining in south Gaza including “much if not most” of the Hamas leadership, Finer said at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington.
A Nov. 24-Dec. 1 humanitarian pause had helped increase delivery of much-needed aid to the Palestinian enclave and allowed Israel and Hamas to exchange hostages and prisoners.
On Thursday, White House security spokesperson John Kirby told a press briefing that “we’re not close to inking another deal on humanitarian pause”.
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke separately by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Biden “emphasized the critical need to protect civilians and to separate the civilian population from Hamas including through corridors that allow people to move safely from defined areas of hostilities,” the White House said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered similar messages to Israel on the protection of Palestinian civilians.
“It remains imperative that Israel put a premium on civilian protection. And there does remain a gap between, exactly what I said when I was there, the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground,” Blinken said at a press conference in Washington following a meeting with British Foreign Secretary David Cameron.
Blinken is due to meet top diplomats from Arab states, including Egypt, on Friday in Washington.
Egypt, along with the United Nations, has been lobbying Israel to speed up an inspection process for aid trucks that requires the vehicles to drive to Egypt’s border with Israel before looping back to Rafah. The number of trucks crossing daily has dropped in recent days to fewer than 100, from nearly 200 when the week-long truce was in place, according to the United Nations.
Israel has agreed, at the request of the United States, to open the Kerem Shalom border crossing for screening and inspection of humanitarian aid into Gaza, a senior U.S. official said.
Israeli troops reached the heart of Khan Younis on Wednesday in a new phase of the war, now entering its third month.
Ambulances and relatives rushed the wounded into the city’s Nasser hospital, but even the floor space inside was full. Two badly wounded children lay on a trolley and a bloodstained young boy lay screaming among the patients on the floor.
“The injuries are very severe,” said doctor Mohamed Matar. “The situation is catastrophic in all senses of the word … We can’t treat the injured in this state.”
Those who escape violence face an increasingly desperate struggle to survive.
Ibrahim Mahram, who fled to Al Mawasi, said five families were sharing a tent in the former Bedouin village, which refugee organisations say lacks shelter, food and other necessities.
“We suffered from the war of cannons and escaped it to arrive at the war of starvation,” he told Reuters.
The U.N. Palestinian Refugee Agency (UNRWA) said 1.9 million people – 85 percent of Gaza’s population – had been displaced and its shelters were four times over capacity.
(Reporting by Bassam Masoud in Gaza and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Maggie Fick in Beirut, Dan Williams and Henriette Chacar in Jerusalem, Emma Farge in Geneva, Nayera Abdallah and Simon Lewis, Rami Ayyub and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Writing by Philippa Fletcher, Alexandra Hudson and Grant McCool; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Diane Craft)