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Fighting rages across Gaza, death toll tops 35,000

Israel defied global opposition and sent tanks and soldiers into eastern Rafah, effectively shutting a key aid crossing
An Israeli soldier visits a memorial bearing portraits of people taken hostage or killed in the Hamas attack on the Supernova music festival on October 7, at the site of the festival near Kibbutz Reim in southern Israel, on May 9, 2024.

An Israeli soldier visits a memorial bearing portraits of people taken hostage or killed in the Hamas attack on the Supernova music festival on October 7, at the site of the festival near Kibbutz Reim in southern Israel, on May 9, 2024. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 13, 2024 05:11 AM GMT
Updated: May 13, 2024 05:22 AM GMT

Israel struck Gaza on May 12 and troops battled militants in several areas of the Hamas-run territory, where the health ministry said the death toll in the war had exceeded 35,000 people.

More than seven months into the Israel-Hamas war, UN chief Antonio Guterres urged "an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the unconditional release of all hostages and an immediate surge in humanitarian aid" into the besieged Gaza Strip.

"But a ceasefire will only be the start," Guterres told a donor conference in Kuwait, where countries pledged over $2 billion to aid the devastated Palestinian territory.

As Egyptian, Qatari and American mediation efforts towards a truce appeared to stall, US President Joe Biden said on May 11 that a ceasefire could be achieved "tomorrow" if Hamas released the hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attack that sparked the conflict.

The militant group on May 12 called Biden's statement a "setback" to the negotiations and said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had "rushed to overturn" the talks by launching the Rafah offensive.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said an all-out Israeli offensive on Rafah would provoke "anarchy" without eliminating Hamas.

"Israel's on the trajectory, potentially, to inherit an insurgency with many armed Hamas left or, if it leaves, a vacuum filled by chaos, filled by anarchy and probably refilled by Hamas," he told NBC.

He said he also agreed with a statement by Netanyahu that Israeli forces had killed more civilians than Hamas militants.

AFP correspondents, witnesses and medics said Israeli strikes pounded several areas of Gaza overnight.

Israel said its jets had hit "over 150 terror targets" over the past day.

The territory's health ministry said at least 63 people were killed over the previous 24 hours, bringing the overall death toll from Israel's bombardment and offensive in Gaza to at least 35,034 people, mostly women and children.

Fighting in northern Gaza

The war began with Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized hostages, scores of whom were freed during a week-long truce in November. Israel estimates 128 captives remain in Gaza, including 36 who the military says are dead.

Israel's military says 272 soldiers have been killed since the start of the ground offensive in Gaza on October 27.

Months after Israel said it had dismantled Hamas's command structure in northern Gaza, fighting has resumed in Jabalia refugee camp and Gaza City's Zeitoun neighborhood.

Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on May 12 that "in recent weeks we have identified attempts by Hamas to rebuild its military capabilities in Jabalia, and we are acting to destroy these attempts." He also said there was an operation in Zeitoun.

AFP correspondents reported intense clashes and heavy gunfire from Israeli helicopters in the Zeitoun area.

Israel defied international opposition this week and sent tanks and soldiers into eastern Rafah, effectively shutting a key aid crossing.

On May 11, the Israeli military expanded an evacuation order for eastern Rafah and said 300,000 Palestinians had left the area.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said in a post on X that Israel's evacuation orders were "forcing people in Rafah to flee anywhere and everywhere".

"No place is safe in Gaza," he said.

"We have reached a point where we wish for death," said Umm Mohammed Al-Mughayyir, adding that she has had to move her family seven times to escape the fighting.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk warned on May 12 that the evacuation orders, "much less a full assault", could not be "reconciled with the binding requirements of international law" or two recent International Court of Justice rulings on Israel's conduct of the war.

And in a sign of surging regional tensions, Egypt said it would formally support a case brought by South Africa at the ICJ, accusing Israel of committing genocidal acts in the war.

'No safe place'

Palestinians in Rafah, many already displaced by fighting elsewhere in the territory, piled water tanks, mattresses and other belongings onto vehicles and prepared to flee again.

"The artillery shelling didn't stop at all" for several days, said Mohammed Hamad, 24, who has left eastern Rafah for the city's west.

"We will not move until we feel that the danger is advancing to the west," he told AFP.

"There is no safe place in Gaza where we can take refuge."

Residents were told to go to the Al-Mawasi "humanitarian zone" on the coast northwest of Rafah, though aid groups have warned it was not ready for an influx of people.

Hisham Adwan, spokesman for the Gaza crossings authority, told AFP on May 12 the Rafah crossing has remained closed since Israeli troops seized its Palestinian side on May 7, "preventing the entry of humanitarian aid" and the departure of patients needing medical care.

He said Israeli forces "have advanced from the eastern border" about 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) into Rafah.

On May 12, Israel's military said it had opened a new border crossing into northern Gaza as "part of the effort to increase aid routes to the Gaza Strip, and to the northern Gaza Strip in particular".

Meanwhile, inside Israel sirens sounded at 8:00 pm local time (1700 GMT) to mark the start of Memorial Day, in honor of the country's fallen soldiers and civilian victims of attacks.

"Tonight, we have no peace, and there is no silence," President Isaac Herzog said at a ceremony at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

At the same ceremony, Israeli army chief Herzi Halevi said he was "fully responsible" for what happened on October 7.

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