CAIRO/JERUSALEM, Dec 22 (Reuters) – Israeli forces signalled they were widening their ground offensive with a new push into central Gaza on Friday, as the U.N. Security Council was expected to vote on a resolution to increase humanitarian aid to stave off the threat of famine.
As hopes faded for an imminent breakthrough in talks this week in Egypt aimed at getting warring Israel and Hamas to agree to a new truce, air strikes, artillery bombardments and fighting were reported across the Palestinian enclave.
Israel’s military on Friday ordered residents of Al-Bureij, in central Gaza, to move south immediately, indicating a new focus of the ground assault that has already devastated the north of the Strip and made a series of incursions in the south.
Israel’s government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to eradicate Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, after its fighters launched a cross-border raid on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
But the soaring death toll during the Israeli military campaign of retaliation has drawn increasing international criticism, even from staunch ally the United States.
In its latest update on casualties, Gaza’s health ministry said 20,057 Palestinians had been killed and 53,320 wounded in Israeli strikes since Oct. 7.
The Israeli military has expressed regret for civilian deaths but blamed Iran-backed Hamas for operating in densely populated areas or using civilians as human shields, an allegation the group denies.
Israel says 140 of its soldiers have been killed since it launched its ground incursion into Gaza on Oct. 20.
In the latest accounts of fighting on Friday, residents reported Israeli tank shelling of eastern areas of Al-Bureij, the subject of the latest military evacuation order.
Israeli forces have previously engaged with Hamas gunmen on the edges of Al-Bureij but have yet to thrust deeper into the built-up area, which grew out of a camp for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Israeli-Arab war.
Hamas-affiliated Shehab news agency reported heavy shelling and air strikes on Jabalia al-Balad and Jabalia refugee camp, in northern Gaza, and that Israeli vehicles were trying to advance from the western side of Jabalia amid the sound of gunfire.
Air strikes were also reported in Khan Yunis and Rafah, in the south.
The Israeli military said in a statement its air force destroyed a long-range missile launch site in Juhor ad-Dik, central Gaza, from which, it said, “recent launches into Israeli territory were carried out” – a possible reference to an attack on Tel Aviv on Thursday.
The war in Gaza has fuelled tensions at other regional faultlines.
Israel and Iranian-back Hezbollah have repeatedly traded fire across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, and Houthi militants of Yemen, also Iran-backed, have attacked ships in the lower Red Sea, increasing the risks of trade disruption.
Violence has also surged in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority dominated by Hamas rivals Fatah has limited self-rule.
Around the Al Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, there were calls for worshippers to attend Friday prayers outside in defiance of orders that for weeks have limited access to the flashpoint site to women and the elderly.
Islam’s third holiest site, built on ground revered by Jews who know it as Temple Mount, has long been at the heart of tensions between Jews and Muslims.
Some mosques in East Jerusalem closed their doors on Friday and urged people to go to Al Aqsa and pray at the gates of the mosque “to break the siege”.
Police fired smoke to disperse small groups of youths who gathered near the Old City and at mosques in East Jerusalem but police also distributed footage showing worshippers arriving calmly.
UN AND CAIRO TALKS
Negotiations had continued on Thursday to try to avoid a U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution, drafted by the United Arab Emirates, that would demand that Israel and Hamas allow “the use of all land, sea and air routes to and throughout the entire Gaza” for humanitarian aid deliveries.
On Thursday night in New York, after weeks of talks and a vote delayed for days, the vote by the Security Council was put off again until Friday, despite the U.S. saying it could now support an amended proposal.
A Nov. 24-Dec. 1 humanitarian pause helped to increase aid deliveries to Gaza. A report by a U.N.-backed body said the entire population of Gaza is facing crisis levels of hunger. The risk of famine is increasing each day, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification said.
The pause led to the release of more than 100 hostages held by Hamas since Oct. 7 and in exchange, 240 Palestinians were freed from Israeli jails.
But in a statement on Thursday that dampened hopes of a breakthrough, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a smaller group also holding hostages in Gaza, rejected any deals about exchanges of hostages and Palestinian prisoners “except after a full cessation of aggression” by Israel.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was in Cairo for a second day of negotiations, however, which ended late on Thursday. While mediating countries including Egypt and Qatar have previously met separately with Israel, Hamas and other groups, there were no details on who might be engaged with any Israeli party.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said negotiations on a hostage release were continuing but declined to provide details.
Reporting by Bassam Masoud in Gaza, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Grant McCool and Alex Richardson; Editing by Diane Craft and Nick Macfie