KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip -- A barrage of Israeli airstrikes leveled apartment buildings in a refugee camp near Gaza City on Tuesday, October 31, 2023, with rescuers clawing through the destruction to pull men, women and children from the rubble.
Israel said the strike, which targeted a senior Hamas military leader, destroyed a militant command center and an underground tunnel network.
The toll from the attack in the Jabaliya camp was not immediately known.
The director of the nearby hospital where casualties were taken, Dr. Atef Al-Kahlot, said hundreds of people were wounded or killed, but he did not provide exact figures.
The Israeli military said dozens of militants were killed, including a key Hamas commander for northern Gaza.
Israel aggressively defended the attack, with military spokesman Jonathan Conricus saying the targeted commander had also been a key planner of the bloody October 7 rampage that started the war, and that the apartment buildings collapsed only because the vast underground Hamas complex had been destroyed.
Neither side’s account could be independently confirmed.
Early Wednesday, November 1, the Palestinian telecoms company Paltel reported a “complete disruption” of internet and mobile phone services in Gaza, marking the second time in five days that Gaza residents were largely cut off from the world.
Communications were previously cut off late Friday until early Sunday, coinciding with the entry of large numbers of ground troops into Gaza as Israel said it was beginning a new stage in the war. Attempts to reach Gaza residents by phone were unsuccessful early Wednesday.
Humanitarian aid agencies have warned that such blackouts severely disrupt their work in an already dire situation in Gaza.
Several hundred thousand Palestinians remain in northern Gaza in the path of the ground assault. They have crowded into homes or are packed by the thousands into hospitals that are already overwhelmed with patients and running low on supplies.
The strike in Jabaliya underlined the anticipated surge in casualties on both sides as Israeli troops battling Hamas militants advance deeper into the northern Gaza Strip toward dense, residential neighborhoods.
Israel has vowed to crush Hamas’ ability to govern Gaza or threaten Israel following the October 7 assault, which ignited the war. Hamas, an Islamic militant group, openly calls for the destruction of Israel.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military confirmed Wednesday that nine more soldiers were killed in fighting in northern Gaza, bringing the total of military casualties since the start of the ground operation to 11.
In the Jabaliya refugee camp, a densely built-up area of small streets on Gaza City’s outskirts, dozens of rescuers searched for survivors amid a series of obliterated buildings and others that had partially collapsed.
Young men carried the limp forms of two children from the upper floors of the crumbling frame of one damaged apartment building, while helping down another child and woman. It was unclear whether the children were alive or dead. Gray dust, apparently left by pulverized concrete, seemed to coat nearly everything.
The Israeli military said it carried out a wide-scale strike in Jabaliya on Hamas infrastructure “that had taken over civilian buildings.”
Brigadier General Daniel Hagari said an underground Hamas installation beneath a targeted building collapsed, toppling other nearby buildings. Conricus later said the main strike had hit between buildings.
“We don’t intend for the ground to collapse,” he told reporters. “But the issue is that Hamas built their tunnels there and that they’re running their operations from there.”
He said the commander killed in the strike, Ibrahim Biari, played an important role in the October 7 attack and had been involved in anti-Israeli attacks going back decades.
Also on Tuesday, the Israeli military said ground troops took control of a Hamas military stronghold in west Jabaliya, killing 50 militants.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem denied the military’s claim, saying it was trying to justify “its heinous crime” against civilians.
Hagari repeated calls for civilians to evacuate northern Gaza to the south. The military says it targets Hamas fighters and infrastructure and that the militants endanger civilians by operating among them. The military has also repeatedly emphasized it will strike Hamas wherever it finds it.
Some 800,000 Palestinians have reportedly fled to the south, but many have not, in part because they say nowhere is safe as Israeli airstrikes in the south have continued to cause civilian deaths. The window to flee may be closing, as Israeli forces reached Gaza’s main north-south highway this week.
More than 8,500 Palestinians have been killed in the war, mostly women and minors, the Gaza Health Ministry said Tuesday, without providing a breakdown between civilians and fighters. The figure is without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Over 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ initial attack, also an unprecedented figure. Palestinian militants also abducted around 240 people during their incursion and have continued firing rockets into Israel.
A day after Israel’s first successful rescue of a Hamas captive, the spokesman of the militant group’s armed wing said they plan to release some non-Israeli hostages in coming days. Hamas has previously released four hostages, and has said it would let the others go in return for thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, which has dismissed the offer.
More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians have fled their homes, with hundreds of thousands sheltering in packed U.N.-run schools-turned-shelters or at hospitals.
The war has also threatened to ignite fighting on other fronts. Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group have traded fire daily along the border, and Israel and the US have struck targets in Syria linked to Iran, which supports Hamas, Hezbollah and other armed groups in the region.
Some 200,000 people have been evacuated from Israeli towns near Gaza and the northern border with Lebanon.
The military said it shot down what appeared to be a drone near the southernmost city of Eilat and intercepted a missile over the Red Sea on Tuesday, neither of which entered Israeli airspace.
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen later claimed they fired ballistic missiles and drones at Israel, saying it was their third such operation and threatening more. Earlier this month, a US Navy destroyer in the Red Sea intercepted missiles and drones launched toward Israel by the Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen.
In the occupied West Bank, where Israeli-Palestinian violence has also surged, the army demolished the family home of Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official exiled over a decade ago. An official in the village of Aroura said the home had been vacant for 15 years.
Israeli forces reportedly have advanced north and east of Gaza City. South of the city, Israeli troops were also trying to cut off the territory’s main highway and the parallel road along the Mediterranean coast, according to Dawood Shehab, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group allied with Hamas.
Zaki Abdel-Hay, a Palestinian living a few minutes’ walk from the road south of Gaza City, said people are afraid to use it. “People are very scared. The Israeli tanks are still close,” he said over the phone, adding that “constant artillery fire” could be heard near the road.
The Israeli military said it struck some 300 militant targets over the past day, including compounds inside tunnels, and that troops had engaged in several battles with militants armed with antitank missiles and machine guns.
Gaza’s humanitarian crisis continued to worsen.
The World Health Organization said two hospitals were damaged and an ambulance destroyed in Gaza over the last two days. It said all 13 hospitals operating in the north have received Israeli evacuation orders in recent days. Medics have refused such orders, saying it would be a death sentence for patients on life support.
Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, the largest in the territory, is on the verge of running out of fuel, the Health Ministry said.
There has been no central electricity in Gaza for weeks, and Israel has barred the entry of fuel needed to power generators for hospitals and homes, saying it wants to prevent it from falling into Hamas’ hands.
It has allowed a limited amount of food, water, medicine and other supplies to enter from Egypt, though far less than what is needed, relief groups say. A convoy of 59 aid trucks entered through the Rafah Crossing with Egypt on Tuesday — the largest yet — bringing the total that have entered since October 22 to 216, according to Wael Abu Omar, Hamas’ spokesperson for the crossing.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, says 64 of its staff have been killed since the start of the war. (AP)