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Israel signals it has wrapped up major combat in northern Gaza as the war enters its fourth month

JERUSALEM –

The Israeli military signalled that it has wrapped up major combat in northern Gaza, saying it has completed dismantling Hamas’ military infrastructure there, as the war against the militant group entered its fourth month Sunday.

The military did not address troop deployments in northern Gaza going forward. Its spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said late Saturday that forces would “continue to deepen the achievement” there, strengthen defences along the Israel-Gaza border fence and focus on the central and southern parts of the territory.

The announcement came ahead of a visit to Israel by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who on Sunday was in Qatar, a key mediator. Biden administration officials have urged Israel to wind down its blistering air and ground offensive in Gaza and shift to more targeted attacks against Hamas leaders to prevent harm to Palestinian civilians.

In recent weeks, Israel had been scaling back its military assault in northern Gaza and pressing its offensive in the south, where most of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians are squeezed into smaller areas in a humanitarian disaster while being pounded by Israeli airstrikes.

The war was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which the militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took some 250 people hostage.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again insisted the war will not end until the objectives of eliminating Hamas, getting Israel’s hostages returned and ensuring that Gaza won’t be a threat to Israel are met.

“This is our responsibility and this is the obligation of all of us,” he told his Cabinet.

Israel’s retaliation has killed more than 22,800 Palestinians and wounded more than 58,000, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. The count of the dead does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Health officials say about two-thirds of those killed have been women and minors. Israel blames Hamas for the civilian casualties because the group operates in heavily populated residential areas.

On Sunday, officials at Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis received the bodies of 18 people, including 12 children, who were killed in an Israeli strike late Saturday. More than 50 people were injured in the strike on a home in the Khan Younis refugee camp, which was set up decades ago to house refugees from the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation.

An airstrike near the southern city of Rafah killed two journalists on Sunday, including Hamza Dahdouh, the oldest son of Wael Dahdouh, Al Jazeera’s well-known chief correspondent in Gaza, the Arabic channel and local medical officials said. Al Jazeera broadcast footage of Dahdouh, weeping and holding his son’s hand, before walking away in a daze. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

Al Jazeera strongly condemned the killings and other “brutal attacks against journalists and their families” by Israeli forces, and urged the International Criminal Court, governments and human rights groups to hold Israel accountable.

Dahdouh previously lost his wife, two children and a grandchild in an Oct. 26 airstrike, and himself was wounded in an Israeli strike last month that killed a co-worker.

Another airstrike hit a house between Khan Younis and the southern city of Rafah, killing at least seven people whose bodies were taken to the nearby European Hospital, according to an Associated Press journalist at the facility.

“Everything happening here is outside the realms of law, outside the realms of reason. Our brains can’t fully comprehend all this that is happening to us,” said a grieving relative, Inas Abu al-Najja, her wavering voice rising. Men worked the rubble with picks and bare hands.

Israeli forces pushed deeper into the central city of Deir al-Balah, where on Saturday residents in several neighborhoods were warned in flyers dropped over the city that they must evacuate.

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, known by the acronym MSF, said it was evacuating its medical staff and their families from Deir al-Balah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital.

A bullet penetrated a wall of the hospital’s intensive care unit on Friday, and “drone attacks and sniper fire were just a few hundred meters from the hospital” over the past couple of days, said Carolina Lopez, the group’s emergency coordinator at the hospital. She said the hospital received between 150 and 200 injured people daily in recent weeks.

The head of the hospital, hosting a UN. delegation, warned that “today, we are on the verge of a true catastrophe.” Without health care, residents “will be left in the streets to meet their death,” Dr. Iyad Abu Zaher said.

Hagari, the military spokesman, said scattered fighting in northern Gaza was to be expected, along with rockets sporadically being launched from there toward Israel. He said Hamas militants “without a framework and without commanders” are still present. The military has said it has killed more than 8,000 Hamas fighters, without presenting evidence.

Hagari said Israeli forces would act differently in the south than they had in northern Gaza, where heavy bombardment and ground combat levelled entire neighbourhoods.

He said urban refugee camps being targeted by the military are packed with gunmen and that “an underground city of sprawling tunnels” was discovered underneath Khan Younis. Echoing Israeli political leaders, he said the fighting “will continue throughout 2024.”

In addition to U.S. appeals for scaling back high-intensity combat, Blinken on his fourth Mideast trip in three months has called for more aid to reach Gaza and urged Israel’s leaders to come up with a post-war vision for the besieged territory.

Two U.S. senators who inspected aid deliveries over the weekend described a slow and cumbersome process largely due to Israeli inspections of cargo trucks, with seemingly arbitrary rejections of vital humanitarian equipment.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration and Netanyahu remain far apart on who should run the territory after the war, with the Israeli leader rejecting the Washington-floated idea of having a reformed Palestinian Authority, an autonomy government in parts of the occupied West Bank, eventually administer Gaza.

A new escalation of cross-border fighting between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah has complicated the U.S. push to prevent a regional conflagration. Hezbollah described Saturday’s rockets as an “initial response” to the targeted killing of a top Hamas leader in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut last week. The strike was presumed to have been carried out by Israel.

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Magdy reported from Cairo and Jobain from Rafah, Gaza Strip.

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