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Gunfire, air strikes as Israel pushes south against Gaza militants

Gunfire and air strikes on Friday shook Gaza’s city of Khan Yunis, witnesses said, where Israel is pressing its southward push against Hamas militants. The Palestinian Red Crescent reported intense artillery fire near the city’s Al-Amal hospital, while the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said 77 people were killed and dozens wounded overnight. At the city’s Al-Nasser hospital, a child with a bloodied face cried on a gurney. Ambulances arrived with the injured and the dead while in the darkened city beyond, automatic weapons fire sounded. An orange fireball flashed above rooftops. Israel says it still expects the war to continue for months. But a divide over Gaza’s post-war future with key ally the United States came into sharp focus after Washington again stressed the creation of a Palestinian state as the only way to guarantee Israel’s long-term security. The United Nations says the war, which began with unprecedented Hamas attacks against Israel on October 7, has displaced roughly 85 percent of Gaza’s people. UN agencies say improved aid access is needed urgently as famine and disease loom, but a communications blackout which continued Friday for an eighth day only added to the challenges. Loss of connectivity “prevents people in Gaza from accessing lifesaving information or calling for first responders and impedes other forms of humanitarian response,” said the UN humanitarian agency, OCHA. The October 7 attacks resulted in the deaths of about 1,140 people in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures. Militants also seized about 250 hostages, around 132 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza. At least 27 hostages are believed to have been killed, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures. Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas in response. Its relentless air and ground offensive has killed at least 24,762 Palestinians, around 70 percent of them women, young children and adolescents, according to Gaza’s health ministry. – Among the rubble – With Israel’s military offensive moving farther south in the territory, which is about 40 kilometres (25 miles) long, some residents in northern Gaza have begun returning home to what remains of their neighbourhoods. In Gaza City’s Rimal district, rubble has been ploughed to the sides of some dirt roads but others are still clogged with pieces of collapsed buildings. One modern mid-rise building was still standing, its windows shattered. Another tower was a burned-out shell. “Everything is destroyed and the people are dying of hunger,” said Ibrahim Saada, a bandage on his left thumb. He said he lost his whole family. Israel’s army in early January said the Hamas command structure in northern Gaza had been dismantled, but groups of isolated fighters still confront troops there. On Friday the military said ground troops backed by air support had killed several armed militants in the north. A Hamas statement reported combat in the north’s Jabalia refugee camp and nearby Gaza City area. – Unclear post-war future – Washington provides Israel with billions of dollars in military aid but the two allies disagree over Gaza’s post-war future. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week used the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to renew his call for a “pathway to a Palestinian state”, which Arab states also support. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government has opposed this. “Israel must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River,” a condition “which contradicts the idea of (Palestinian) sovereignty,” Netanyahu said on Thursday. He is under domestic pressure to account for political and security failings surrounding the October 7 attacks and to bring the hostages home. Opinion polls suggest his support has fallen since the war. – Huthi missiles – The Gaza war has already spilled into the surrounding region where Iran-aligned groups have carried out attacks. There have been regular exchanges of fire between Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement along the border of the two countries. On Friday the Israeli army said it intercepted a drone that crossed from Lebanon into Israel’s maritime area, and it struck Hezbollah infrastructure in southern Lebanon. Israeli tanks also hit “military infrastructure belonging to the Syrian army”, after munitions were fired toward the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Israeli military said. A wider conflagration has so far been averted but such fears have also been accentuated by Yemeni rebels’ missile and drone fire against shipping in the Red Sea area, prompting retaliatory strikes by US forces. Yemen’s Huthi movement is targeting what it deems Israeli-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza. The Iran-backed rebels claimed responsibility early on Friday for another attack against a US commercial ship in the Gulf of Aden.

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