Israel pushes for control in northern Gaza as health authorities and the Israeli military report mounting death tolls

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Israeli army tanks are deployed in southern Israel bordering the Gaza Strip on Dec. 22, 2023.

Jack Guez | Afp | Getty Images

Israel bombed areas of Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip overnight, with fighting throughout Sunday morning, residents and Palestinian media said, as Gaza health authorities and the Israeli military both announced mounting death tolls.

Israel says it has achieved almost complete operational control over northern Gaza and is preparing to expand a ground offensive against Hamas militants to other areas. But Jabalia residents reported persistent aerial bombardment and shelling from Israeli tanks, which they said had moved further into the town on Saturday.

A Gaza health ministry spokesman said on Sunday that 166 Palestinians had been killed in the past 24 hours, taking the total Palestinian death toll to 20,424. Tens of thousands have been wounded, with many bodies believed trapped under rubble. Almost all of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced.

Read more about the Israel-Hamas war:

The Israeli military said eight soldiers had been killed, bringing to 154 its published combat losses since it began its ground incursion in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage into Israel, in which militants killed 1,200 and took 240 hostages.

CNBC could not independently verify the death toll.

The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had discussed the Israeli campaign.

Biden “emphasized the critical need to protect the civilian population including those supporting the humanitarian aid operation, and the importance of allowing civilians to move safely away from areas of ongoing fighting,” the White House said in a statement.

“The leaders discussed the importance of securing the release of all remaining hostages,” the White House said.

Israel’s main ally has maintained its support while expressing concern over the casualty toll and humanitarian crisis in Gaza. U.S. officials have said they expected Israel to shift soon to a lower-intensity phase.

Netanyahu, speaking at a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, dismissed reports that the United States had convinced Israel not to expand its military campaign.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that Netanyahu was persuaded by Biden not to attack the militant Hezbollah group in neighboring Lebanon out of concerns it would launch an attack on Israel.

“Israel is a sovereign state,” Netanyahu said. “Our decisions in the war are based on our operational considerations, and I will not elaborate on that.”

The U.N. Security Council averted a threatened U.S. veto on Friday, after days of wrangling, by removing from a draft resolution a call for an immediate end to the war and diluting Israeli control over aid deliveries. The U.S. and Israel oppose a ceasefire, contending it would let Iran-backed Hamas regroup and rearm.

Washington abstained from the final statement, which urges steps to allow “safe, unhindered, and expanded humanitarian access” to Gaza and “conditions for a sustainable cessation” of fighting.

‘The world is sick and inhumane’

Israel has long urged residents to leave northern areas of Gaza, but its forces have been bombarding targets in central and southern parts of the enclave.

Six Palestinians were killed and several wounded in an Israeli air strike on a house at the Bureij refugee camp, in the center of the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli army ordered people to evacuate and head west towards Deir Al-Balah city, medics said.

Joudat Imad, 55, a father of six, had to leave an area in the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza after a map published by the army marked it as a place people had to evacuate.

“I was lucky to get a tent in Rafah,” he told Reuters by phone. “From an owner of two buildings to a refugee in a tent awaiting aid — that is what this brutal war has turned us to. The world is sick and inhumane that it can’t see Israel’s brutality and it is helpless to stop this war of destruction and starvation.”

In Rafah, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, an Israeli air strike on a house killed two people, Palestinian medics said.

The Palestinian Red Crescent reported an attack on one of its main bases in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. It said a 13-year-old child had been shot dead by an Israeli drone while inside the Al-Amal Hospital.

The Israeli military has expressed regret for civilian deaths but blames Hamas for operating in densely populated areas or using civilians as human shields, an allegation the group denies.

‘Tough battle’

Yiftah Ron-Tal, a former commander of the Israeli ground forces, described the built-up Gaza battlefield as “the most complicated and fortified” in the world, requiring infantry, tanks, artillery and engineer corps.

“…I think what’s happening now is a product of a tough battle in a condensed area and in this kind of battle, sadly, there are many losses,” he told army radio.

The conflict has spread, as Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi forces disrupt global trade with missile and drone attacks on vessels in the Red Sea in retaliation for Israel’s assault on Gaza.

The United States shot down four drones launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen towards a U.S. destroyer in the southern Red Sea on Saturday, bringing to 15 the number of such attacks on commercial shipping, U.S. Central Command said.

A drone launched from Iran struck a chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean on Saturday, the U.S. Defense Department said.

An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said the Mediterranean Sea could be closed if the United States and its allies kept committing “crimes” in Gaza, Iranian media reported, without elaborating.

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