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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - TEL AVIV — Israeli troops are still locked in heavy combat with Hamas fighters in and around Gaza City, more than six weeks after invading the territory's north.
Palestinian militants carried out one of the deadliest single attacks on Israeli soldiers since the Gaza invasion began, killing at least nine in an urban ambush, the military said Wednesday, a sign of the stiff resistance Hamas still poses despite more than two months of devastating bombardment.
The ambush in a dense neighbourhood came after repeated recent claims by the Israeli military that it had broken Hamas’ command structure in northern Gaza, encircled remaining pockets of fighters, killed thousands of militants and detained hundreds more.
The tenacious fighting underscores how far Israel appears to be from its aim of destroying Hamas — even after the military unleashed one of the 21st century’s most destructive onslaughts. Israel's air and ground assault has killed more than 18,600 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health officials. Gaza City and surrounding towns have been pounded to ruins. Nearly 1.9 million people have been driven from their homes.
The resulting humanitarian crisis has sparked international outrage. The United States has repeatedly called on Israel to take greater measures to spare civilians, even as it has blocked international calls for a ceasefire and rushed military aid to its close ally.
Clashes raged overnight and into Wednesday in multiple areas, with especially heavy fighting in Shijaiyah, a dense neighborhood that was the scene of a major battle during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
“It’s terrifying. We couldn’t sleep,” Mustafa Abu Taha, a Palestinian agricultural worker who lives in the neighbourhood, said. “The situation is getting worse, and we don’t have a safe place to go.”
The ambush took place Tuesday in Shijaiyah, where troops searching a cluster of buildings lost communication with four soldiers who had come under fire, the military said. When the other soldiers launched a rescue operation, they were ambushed with heavy gunfire and explosives.
Among the nine dead were Col. Itzhak Ben Basat, 44, the most senior officer to have been killed in the ground operation, and Lt. Col. Tomer Grinberg, a battalion commander.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a “very difficult day,” but he rejected international calls for a ceasefire.
“We are continuing until the end, there is no question. I say this even given the great pain and the international pressure. Nothing will stop us, we will continue until the end, until victory, nothing less,” he said in a talk with military commanders.
Heavy rainfall overnight swamped tent camps in Gaza’s south, where Israel has told people to seek refuge, even as that region has also come under daily bombardment.
In the central city of Deir al-Balah, the storm brought cold winds and flooded a sheltered area behind a hospital, sending torrents of water coursing between the tents. “The situation is catastrophic,” said Ibrahim Arafat, a father of 13 who fled Shijaiyah.
Because of the fighting and Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the health care system and humanitarian aid operations have collapsed in large parts of the territory, and aid workers have warned of starvation and the spread of disease among displaced people.
Israel invaded southern Gaza nearly two weeks ago, and heavy fighting has continued in its first target — the city of Khan Younis. Israeli strikes overnight hit two residential buildings in and around the city.
A strike on a home near the main highway between Khan Younis and the southern border town of Rafah killed two boys, ages 2 and 8, a woman in her 80s and a woman in her 30s, according to Mohammed al-Beiyouk, a relative of the deceased. Another strike killed a baby and his grandfather, according to hospital records at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis.
The military rarely comments on individual strikes. Israel says it tries to avoid harming civilians and blames the high toll on Hamas because it conceals fighters, tunnels and weapons in residential areas.
Several viral videos and photos of Israeli soldiers behaving in a derogatory manner in Gaza have emerged in recent days, creating a headache for the Israeli military as it faces an international outcry over its tactics and the rising civilian death toll in its punishing war against Hamas.
In response, the Israeli army has pledged to take disciplinary action in what it says are a handful of isolated cases.
Among the scenes that have caused dismay and anger are clips of Israeli soldiers apparently rummaging through private homes in Gaza, destroying plastic figurines in a toy store, or trying to burn food and water supplies in the back of an abandoned truck. Troops have been depicted with their arms slung around each other, chanting racist slogans as they dance in a circle.
The videos seem to have been uploaded by soldiers themselves during their time in Gaza.
Such videos are not a new or unique phenomenon in Israel or around the world. Over the years, a significant number of soldiers have been caught on camera acting inappropriately or maliciously in myriad conflict zones.
Critics, though, say these new videos – which have been largely shrugged off in Israel – reflect a national mood that is highly supportive of the war in Gaza, with little empathy for the plight of Gaza's civilians.
“The dehumanization from the top is very much sinking down to the soldiers,” Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which has long documented Israeli abuses against Palestinians, told the Associated Press.
In one photograph, a soldier poses next to words spray-painted in red on a pink building that read: “Instead of erasing graffiti, let’s erase Gaza.”
A video posted by conservative Israeli media personality Yinon Magal on X, formerly Twitter, shows dozens of soldiers dancing in a circle, apparently in Gaza, and singing a song that includes the words, “Gaza we have come to conquer... We know our slogan — there are no people who are uninvolved.”
The video, which Magal took from Facebook, has been viewed almost 200,000 times on his account and widely shared on other accounts.
Magal said he did not know the soldiers involved – but the Associated Press has verified backgrounds, uniforms and language heard in the videos and found them to be consistent with independent reporting.
Magal said the video struck a chord among Israelis because of the popular tune and because Israelis need to see pictures of a strong military. It is based on the fight song of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, whose hard-core fans have a history of racist chants against Arabs and rowdy behaviour.
“These are my fighters, they’re fighting against brutal murderers, and after what they did to us, I don’t have to defend myself to anyone,” Magal told The Associated Press.
He condemned some of the other videos that have surfaced, including the ransacking of the toy store, apparently in the northern area of Jebaliya, in which a soldier smashes toys and decapitates a plastic figurine, as destruction that is unnecessary for Israel’s security objectives.
The Israeli military's spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, has actually condemned some of the actions seen in the recent videos.
"In any event that does not align with IDF values, command and disciplinary steps will be taken,” he said.
The videos emerged just days after leaked photos and video of detained Palestinians in Gaza, stripped to their underwear, in some cases blindfolded and handcuffed, also drew international attention. The army says it did not release those images, but Hagari said this week that soldiers have undressed Palestinian detainees to ensure they are not wearing explosive vests.
Osama Hamdan, a top Hamas official, aired the video of the soldier in the toy shop at a news conference in Beirut. He called the footage “disgusting.”
Hamas, too, has come under heavy criticism for releasing a series of videos of Israeli hostages, clearly under duress.
Eran Halperin, a professor with Hebrew University's psychology department who studies communal emotional responses to conflict, said that in previous wars between Israel and Hamas, there may have been more condemnation of these types of photos and videos from within Israeli society.
But he said the October attack, which exposed deep weaknesses and failures by the army, caused trauma and humiliation for Israelis in a way that hasn't happened before.
“When people feel they were humiliated, hurting the source of this humiliation doesn’t feel as morally problematic,” Halperin told AP.
“When people feel like their individual and collective existence is under threat, they don’t have the mental capacity to empathise or apply the moral rulings when thinking about the enemy.” — Euronews
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