By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Bassam Masoud and Henriette Chacar
CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) -Israel faced pressure from the visiting U.S. defence chief and censure from a global rights group on Monday over the intensity of its war with Hamas in Gaza due to spiralling civilian deaths and hunger among Palestinians.
With no let-up in the more than two-month-old bombardment and siege of the densely populated enclave, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was the latest U.S. official to head to Israel to press for a transition away from high-intensity warfare.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to achieve total victory over Gaza’s ruling Hamas militants, who killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages in a surprise Oct. 7 raid into Israel, according to Israeli tallies.
The war has left the Gaza Strip largely in ruins and killed about 19,000 Palestinians, according to health authorities. Food is running scarce for the territory’s 2.3 million people, basic services have collapsed, and most people are homeless.
In its report, HRW accused Israeli forces of deliberately blocking delivery of water, food and fuel, razing agricultural areas and depriving people of items needed for survival.
“The Israeli government is using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in the occupied Gaza Strip,” HRW, a global group based in New York, said in a report. “World leaders should be speaking out against this abhorrent war crime.”
Israel responded by calling HRW an “antisemitic and anti-Israeli” group with no moral right to criticise after its “silent” reaction to Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage.
“All their agenda is anti-Israel and they deserve no response,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat.
Israel has often denied targeting civilians while saying Hamas is to blame for high casualties by embedding itself in residential areas. It says it warns civilians of pending strikes wherever possible and tries to facilitate aid to innocents while blocking thousands of Hamas fighters operating from tunnels.
“We placed zero restrictions on the amount of food and water that are being allowed into the Gaza Strip,” Israeli government spokesperson Tal Heinrich said, adding that 201 trucks of humanitarian aid had entered Gaza on Sunday.
He said Israel’s ability to inspect supplies was bigger than the U.N. and charities’ capacity to send them.
In the latest bombardments, 90 Palestinians died in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza on Sunday, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry. Hamas Aqsa radio reported an attack on Gaza’s main hospital, Al Shifa.
In Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, medics said 12 Palestinians had been killed and dozens wounded, while in Rafah in the south, an Israeli air strike on a house left at least four people dead.
An Israeli tank shell hit the maternity building inside Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, killing a 13-year-old girl who had lost a leg in a previous hit, the Gaza health ministry said.
On the Israeli side, the military released the names of four more soldiers killed in combat in Gaza, making it 126 dead in the strip since its ground invasion began in late October.
Residents reported gunfire between Israeli soldiers and Hamas fighters in various spots up and down narrow Gaza, with the militants saying they had launched a series of attacks.
Reuters was unable to verify the state of operations or claims from either side.
Father-of-four Raed, 45, who has moved his family twice already, said Gazans were exhausted trying to stay alive.
“Money has lost its value, most of the items are not available. We rose from our beds after surviving a night of bombardment to tour the streets searching for food, we got tired,” he said in the Rafah area. “We want peace, truce, ceasefire, whatever they call it, but please stop the war.”
Heightened violence also continued in the occupied West Bank, where four Palestinians were killed in an Israeli army raid on the Faraa refugee camp, the Palestinian health ministry said on Monday.
HOSTAGE DEATHS SHAKE ISRAEL
In Israel, consternation rumbled over last week’s mistaken killing of three hostages in Gaza by Israeli forces, even though they had been holding up a white flag.
Avi Shamriz, father of slain hostage Alon Shamriz, said the three had done everything right to protect themselves and demanded to see footage of the incident.
“They took their shirts off. They waved a white flag. They marched in daylight in the middle of the street, not in hiding. And they yelled for help. But our army doesn’t know how to observe open-fire regulations,” he told Army Radio.
Shamriz said he recognised his son’s handwriting on a white cloth saying “Help” in Hebrew and called the deaths an execution. A military official has acknowledged the incident went against the army’s rules of engagement.
Gaza’s health ministry said on Thursday that at least 18,787 Palestinians had been killed in strikes since Oct. 7, mostly women and children under 18, but with communications having been down between then and Sunday, that number is sure to rise.
Excess mortality experts say the ministry’s ability to record and collate death toll data in real-time is deteriorating amid the collapse of all systems in Gaza, raising the likelihood of a significant undercount.
Hamas – which has ruled Gaza since 2007, two years after Israel ended a 38-year occupation – said in a statement that as well as the confirmed deaths, another 52,000 people have been wounded and nearly 8,000 are missing.
Senior Hamas official Ghazi Hamad said the U.S., Britain and other European nations were supporting Israeli aggression while “the dysfunctional international community” stood by.
“As for the Palestinian resistance, it is standing, hitting hard and inflicting significant losses whether in the Israeli invading vehicles or troops,” said Hamad, who is based outside Gaza.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo, Bassam Masoud in Gaza, Henriette Chacar in Jerusalem, and Reuters bureaux; writing by Michael Perry and Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Stephen Coates and Mark Heinrich)