GAZA/JERUSALEM, (REUTERS) – Twenty-four Israeli soldiers were killed in Israel’s worst day of losses in Gaza, the military said on Tuesday, as its forces encircled southern Gaza’s main city, trapping Palestinian residents trying to flee.
Israel said the aims of its war against the Hamas movement that runs Gaza were unchanged and that efforts were being made to bring about the release of more than 100 Israeli hostages.
Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said 21 soldiers were killed when two buildings they had mined for demolition exploded after militants fired at a nearby tank. Three soldiers were reported killed in a separate attack.
“Yesterday we experienced one of our most difficult days since the war erupted,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “In the name of our heroes, for the sake of our lives, we will not stop fighting until absolute victory.”
Asked about media reports that a ceasefire deal was being discussed, after Qatar said mediation efforts were ongoing, Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said the war’s goals were unchanged.
“The destruction of Hamas’ governing and military capabilities in the Gaza Strip and the return of all the hostages,” he said. “There will be no ceasefire that leaves the hostages in Gaza and Hamas in power.”
Levy declined to elaborate on efforts to free the hostages, who were taken to Gaza following the Oct. 7 rampage in which Hamas and other militants killed some 1,200 Israelis – the trigger for the war. Levy said lives were in the balance.
CIVILIAN ESCAPE ROUTES BLOCKED
The soldiers’ deaths came the day the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched their biggest operation in a month, to seize remaining parts of Khan Younis, Gaza’s main southern city, which is sheltering hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians.
“Over the past day, IDF troops carried out an extensive operation during which they encircled Khan Younis,” the military said, adding that they had “eliminated” dozens of fighters.
Israeli tanks, advancing west towards the Mediterranean, shut the road out towards the coast on Tuesday, blocking the escape route for civilians trying to reach Rafah, the last town on Gaza’s southern edge – now crammed with more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million people.
“I am trying to leave for Rafah but the tanks are now very near to the coast and are firing toward the west,” Shaban, 45, an electrical engineer with four children, said by phone.
At least 195 Palestinians were killed in the space of 24 hours, raising the documented toll to 25,490, according to Palestinian health officials, who say thousands more dead are feared lost in the rubble.
HOSPITAL BESIEGED, DOCTOR SAYS
The advancing Israelis have blockaded hospitals, which Palestinian officials say makes it impossible to rescue the dead and wounded. At the European Hospital, reached by Reuters in southern Khan Younis, Ahed Masmah brought in five corpses, piled on a mattress on his donkey cart.
“I found them face-down in the street,” he said.
At Khan Younis’s main Nasser hospital, the biggest still functioning in the Gaza Strip, bodies were being buried on the grounds because it was unsafe to go out to the cemetery. Footage filmed by Palestinian journalist Hamdan El-Dahdouh showed persistent gunfire hitting the top of the main building.
“I am besieged at Nasser Hospital now and my life is in great danger,” Dr Mahmoud Abu Shammala posted on Facebook. “The smell of death, the only smell I know, is filling the place.”
Another Khan Younis hospital, Al-Khair, was stormed by Israeli troops who arrested staff, Palestinian officials said.
Al-Amal Hospital was unreachable; the Red Crescent which runs it said a tank shell had hit its fourth-floor headquarters there, a civilian had been killed at the entrance and Israelis were firing from drones on anyone who moved nearby.
Israel says Hamas fighters operate in and around hospitals, which hospital staff and Hamas deny. Israel said on Monday it was making efforts to help keeping hospitals running, delivering fuel and medical aid.
“Terrified staff, patients and displaced people are now trapped inside the few remaining hospitals in Khan Younis as heavy fighting continues,” Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. Palestinian relief agency UNRWA, said in a statement.
He said six displaced people had been killed and many injured at one of the biggest U.N.-run shelters in Khan Younis. The Israeli army did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Palestinians hailed the Israeli losses as a victory.
“The resistance said it is going to make Gaza a graveyard for the occupation, and this is what is happening,” said Abu Khaled, sheltering in a school in Deir al-Balah just north of Khan Younis.
Meanwhile, families and friends mourned the soldiers at funerals across Israel, touching coffins draped in the national flag and hugging one another in their grief.
Israel’s military chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, made a televised statement after visiting the location of the blast.
“Today we feel the great and painful price of war but the one we are fighting now is vital and just,” he said.
Though the war still has overwhelming public support in Israel, discontent is emerging with Netanyahu’s strategy – annihilating Hamas but with only vague discussion of what should follow.
On Saturday, Netanyahu said Israel could not give up security control over “the entire territory west of the Jordan River”, a requirement that he acknowledged was at odds with Palestinian sovereignty – the bedrock of the two-state solution advocated for decades by Israel’s main ally, Washington.