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Israeli PM hails advance into Gaza City as UN team talks of 'grave risk of genocide'

Israeli PM hails advance into Gaza City as UN team talks of 'grave risk of genocide'

World

Israeli PM hails advance into Gaza City as UN team talks of 'grave risk of genocide'

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GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli forces thrust deeper into Gaza City - the Gaza Strip's main city - in their assault on Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, but the group resisted their drive with hit-and-run attacks from underground tunnels.

The city in the north of the Gaza Strip has become the focus of attack for Israel, which has vowed to annihilate the Palestinian group's command structure and has told civilians to flee to the south.

"We're at the height of the battle. We've had impressive successes and have passed the outskirts of Gaza City. We are advancing," Netanyahu said in a statement. He gave no further details.

Brigadier General Iddo Mizrahi, chief of Israel's military engineers, said troops were in a first stage of opening access routes in Gaza but were encountering mines and booby traps.

"Hamas has learned and prepared itself well," he said.

Hamas and allied fighters were emerging from tunnels to fire at tanks, then disappearing back into the network, residents said and videos from both groups showed.

With international calls for a humanitarian pause in hostilities going unheeded, there was no letup in the suffering of Palestinian civilians, with UN experts saying they were at "grave risk of genocide".

Palestinian civilians have suffered shortages of food, fuel, drinking water and medicine.

"Water is being used as a weapon of war," said Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.

'WE ARE GETTING SICK'

In Khan Younis, in the south of the Gaza Strip, nine-year-old Rafif Abu Ziyada said she was drinking dirty water and getting stomach pains and headaches.

"There is no cooking gas, there is no water, we don't eat well. We are getting sick," she said. "There's garbage on the ground and the whole place is polluted."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, before leaving for the Middle East on Thursday, said he would discuss concrete steps to minimise harm to civilians in Gaza, after saying earlier they were bearing the brunt of the conflict.

Over a third of Gaza's 35 hospitals are not functioning, with many turned into impromptu refugee camps.

"The situation is beyond catastrophic," said the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, describing packed corridors and many medics who were themselves bereaved and homeless.

"We remain convinced that the Palestinian people are at grave risk of genocide," seven UN special rapporteurs said in a statement in Geneva.

"We demand a humanitarian ceasefire to ensure that aid reaches those who need it the most."

The latest war in the decades-old conflict began when Hamas fighters broke through the border on Oct 7. Israel says they killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took more than 200 hostages in the deadliest day of its 75-year-old history.

Israel's ensuing bombardment of the small Palestinian enclave of 2.3 million people has killed at least 9,061 people, including 3,760 children and 2,326 women, according to Gaza health authorities.

Israel says it has lost 18 soldiers and killed dozens of militants since ground operations were expanded on Friday.

'WE ARE NOT ANIMALS'

The Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt was opened for limited evacuations for a second day under a Qatari-brokered deal between Israel, Egypt, Hamas and the United States, aimed at letting some foreign passport holders and their dependents, and some wounded Gazans, out of the enclave.

Palestinian border official Wael Abu Mehsen said 400 foreign citizens would leave for Egypt via the Rafah crossing on Thursday, after some 320 on Wednesday.

Dozens of critically injured Palestinians were to cross too. Israel asked foreign countries to send hospital ships for them.

"I want to pass. We are not animals," said Ghada el-Saka, an Egyptian at Rafah waiting to return home after visiting relatives. "We've seen death with our own eyes," she added, describing a strike near her siblings' house that had made her and her daughter live on the street.

Suzan Beseiso, a US citizen with relatives in Gaza, said she was not excited to leave Gaza "because we have so many people that we love and care about".

"Right now I'm between ice and fire. I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to see the family I left behind or the friends I left behind. People are dying. Everybody's dying. Nobody's safe."

Though the United States and other Western nations have traditionally supported Israel, harrowing images of bodies in the rubble and hellish conditions inside Gaza have triggered appeals for restraint and street protests around the world.

Though Israel has told Gazans to go south, that part of the territory was not spared either. Three Palestinians died in tank shelling near the town of Khan Younis and an air strike killed five outside a UN school in Beach refugee camp, Gaza health officials said.

In central Gaza, an air strike destroyed clusters of houses in the Bureij refugee camp, residents and Gaza officials said, with 15 bodies pulled from the rubble.

"A massacre, a massacre," people cried as they gathered corpses in blankets.

Israel was talking to medical agencies about setting up field hospitals in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, an Israeli official said on Thursday.

"Right now, we are talking about field hospitals that would provide the basic medical care required for war trauma," Colonel Elad Goren of COGAT, an Israeli Defence Ministry agency that liaises with Palestinians on civilian affairs, said.

Israel's latest strikes have included the heavily populated area of Jabalia, set up as a refugee camp in 1948.

Gaza's Hamas-run media office said at least 195 Palestinians were killed in the two hits on Tuesday and Wednesday, with 120 missing and at least 777 people hurt.

Israel, which accuses Hamas of hiding behind civilians, said it killed two Hamas commanders in Jabalia.

With Arab nations vocal in their outrage at Israel's actions, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said Israel's "disproportionate attacks" may constitute war crimes.

Violence has also spread to the occupied West Bank, with Israeli raids touching off clashes with gunmen and people throwing stones.