By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Fadi Shana and Emily Rose
CAIRO/GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel announced its worst combat losses in more than a month on Wednesday after an ambush in the ruins of Gaza, and faced growing diplomatic isolation as civilian deaths mounted and a humanitarian catastrophe worsened in the Palestinian territory.
Intense fighting between Hamas militants and Israeli soldiers was under way in both north and south Gaza, a day after the United Nations demanded an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and U.S. President Joe Biden said Israel’s “indiscriminate” bombing of civilians was costing international support.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military would fight on despite international pressure for a ceasefire.
“We’re continuing until the end, until victory, until Hamas is annihilated,” he told soldiers in Gaza over radio. “I say this in the face of great pain but also in the face of international pressures. Nothing will stop us.”
Israel reported 10 of its soldiers killed in the past 24 hours, including a full colonel commanding a forward base and a lieutenant-colonel commanding a regiment. It was the worst one-day loss since 15 soldiers were killed on Oct. 31.
Most of the deaths came in the Shejaia district of Gaza City in the north, where troops were ambushed trying to rescue another group of soldiers who had attacked Hamas fighters in a building, the military said.
Hamas said the episode showed that Israeli forces could never subdue Gaza: “The longer you stay there, the greater the bill of your deaths and losses will be, and you will emerge from it carrying the tail of disappointment and loss, God willing.”
In a televised address, Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh said any future arrangement in Gaza without Hamas was a “delusion”.
WHITE HOUSE DELAYS SALE OF RIFLES
Israel had global sympathy when it began a campaign to annihilate Hamas, the group whose fighters stormed across the border fence from Gaza on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and seizing 240 hostages.
But since then, Israel has besieged the Palestinian enclave and laid much of it to waste. Gaza’s health ministry said on Wednesday at least 18,608 people have been killed and 50,594 injured in Israeli strikes on Gaza. Many thousands more are feared lost in the rubble or beyond the reach of ambulances.
At least 288 displaced people in shelters run by the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, the agency said in a post on X on Wednesday.
The Biden administration is delaying the sale of more than 20,000 U.S.-made rifles to Israel over concerns about increasing attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank, two sources familiar with the matter said.
Warplanes again bombed the length of Gaza and aid officials said the arrival of winter rain worsened conditions for hundreds of thousands sleeping rough in makeshift tents. The vast majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been made homeless.
In Rafah, in Gaza’s south, the bodies of a family killed in an air strike were laid out in the rain in bloodied white shrouds, including several small children. One, the size of a newborn, was wrapped in a pink blanket.
Ahmed Abu Reyash collected the bodies of his nieces, aged 5 and 7. As he walked through the street carrying one of the girls, a relative tugged at the shroud and shouted: “These are children! Children! Do they kill anyone other than children? No! These are innocents! They killed them with their dirty hands!”
At a tent camp in Rafah, Yasmin Mhani said she had woken up at night to find her youngest child, who is seven months old, soaking wet.
“This is the fifth place we have had to move to, fleeing from one place to another, with nothing but a t-shirt on,” she said, hanging wet clothes outside her tent.
Since a week-long truce collapsed at the start of December, Israeli forces have extended their ground campaign from the northern Gaza Strip into the south with the storming of the main southern city of Khan Younis.
Meanwhile, fighting has only intensified amid the rubble of the north, where Israel had previously said its military objectives had been largely met.
The scars of Israel’s ground assault could be seen in a cemetery in the Al-Faluja neighbourhood of Jabalia, northern Gaza. Tanks had churned up the ground, breaking and scattering gravestones and disinterring some corpses.
In the south, Israeli forces advanced in recent days to the centre of Khan Younis, and on Wednesday were using bulldozers to destroy a road near the home of the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Al-Sinwar, resident Abu Abdallah told Reuters.
In central Rafah in southern Gaza Strip, Palestinian health officials said 13 people were killed in an Israeli strike that hit two houses.
Hospitals in the north have largely stopped functioning. In the south, they have been overrun by dead and wounded, carried in by the dozen throughout the day and night.
“Doctors including myself are stepping over the bodies of children to treat children who will die,” Dr Chris Hook, a British physician with medical charity MSF at Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, told Reuters.
Israel says it has been encouraging increased aid to Gaza through Egypt’s border, and is announcing daily four-hour pauses in operations near Rafah to help civilians reach it. The U.N. says cumbersome inspections and insecurity limit aid flows.
DESIGNATED SAFE ZONES ‘NOT SAFE’
At an Israeli military press briefing, spokesperson Keren Hajioff said the military was taking several measures to prevent civilian casualties.
She said such measures included encouraging civilians to “temporarily” move out of the line of fire, which now extends across most of Gaza. But a UNICEF spokesman told CBS News on Wednesday that Gaza’s so-called safe zones are “quite simply not safe”.
Earlier on Wednesday, an Israeli military statement said that since it designated a humanitarian zone for civilians in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 18, 116 rockets had been fired from there toward Israel, with 38 of those falling inside Gaza.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who is visiting the region, would discuss with the Israelis the need to be more precise with their strikes against Hamas targets.
Sullivan met with officials of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and discussed “broader diplomatic efforts to maintain stability across the region and prevent the Israel-Hamas conflict from expanding,” a U.S. official said.
(Reporting by Bassam Massoud in Khan Younis, Gaza, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo, Dan Williams and Henriette Chacar in Jerusalem, Maggie Fick in London and Reuters bureauxWriting by Peter Graff, William Maclean and Grant McCool; Editing by Nick Macfie, Angus MacSwan and Cynthia Osterman)