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Israel bombs refugee camps in central Gaza, residents say, as Netanyahu repeats insistence that Hamas be destroyed

Israeli forces bombarded Palestinian refugee camps in central Gaza on Tuesday, residents said, in apparent preparation to expand their ground offensive into a third section of the besieged territory.

The opening of a potential new battle zone points to the long and destructive road still ahead as Israel vows to crush Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. For weeks, Israeli forces have been engaged in heavy urban fighting in northern Gaza and in the southern city of Khan Younis, driving Palestinians into further smaller corners of territory in search of refuge.

Despite intense international pressure for a cease-fire and U.S. calls for a reduction in civilian casualties, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday warned in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journalthat, “Hamas must be destroyed, Gaza must be demilitarized, and Palestinian society must be deradicalized. These are the three prerequisites for peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors in Gaza.”

Israel’s offensive has been one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history. More than 20,900 Palestinians — two-thirds of them women and children —have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza, whose count doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants.

The ministry on Tuesday called the health situation in Gaza “catastrophic” and “disastrous” and said it’s the worst since the war began.

Meanwhile, there were new signs of the Israel-Hamas war enflaming tensions around the region. An Israeli airstrike in Syria killed an Iranian general, bringing vows of revenge from Iran. U.S. warplanes hit Iranian-backed militias in Iraq that had carried out a drone strike that wounded American soldiers there.

Residents of central Gaza on Tuesday described a night of shelling and airstrikes shaking the Nuseirat, Maghazi and Bureij camps. The camps are built-up towns, housing Palestinians driven from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war and their descendants – and now are also crowded with people who fled the north.

“The bombing was very intense,” Radwan Abu Sheitta, a Palestinian teacher said by phone from his home in Bureij. “It seems they are approaching,” he said of Israeli troops.

The Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military arm, said fighters struck an Israeli tank east of Bureij. Its report couldn’t be independently confirmed, but it suggested Israeli forces were moving toward the camp.

Throughout the war, a constellation of Iranian-backed militia groups around the region have stepped up attacks in support of Hamas. So far, all sides have appeared to calibrate the violence to stay short of sparking an all-out conflict, but the fear is that an unexpected escalation could spiral out of control.

Almost daily, Hezbollah and Israel exchange volleys of missiles, airstrikes and shelling across the Israeli-Lebanese border. Around 150 people have been killed on the Lebanese side, mostly fighters from Hezbollah and other groups but also 17 civilians. At least seven soldiers and four civilians have been killed on the Israeli side.

In the Red Sea, attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen against commercial ships have disrupted trade and prompted a U.S.-led multinational naval operation to protect shipping routes.

Israeli troops have been engaged in nearly two months of ground combat with Hamas and other militants in northern Gaza and weeks of urban fighting in thee southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. The battles and bombardment have leveled large swaths of both areas, and strikes have continued across the territory.

Still, Hamas fighters have shown a tough resilience. The Israeli military announced the deaths of two more soldiers Tuesday, bringing the total killed in the ground offensive to 158. Militants late Monday launched a barrage of rockets into Israel, triggering air raid sirens in the southern city of Ashkelon. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

Israel has vowed to continue fighting to eliminate Hamas’ military and governing capabilities in Gaza, after the militants carried out their shock attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking some 240 hostage. Israel says it also aims to free the more than 100 hostages who remain in captivity in Gaza.

Israel blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll in Gaza, citing the militants’ use of crowded residential areas and tunnels. Israel says it has killed thousands of Hamas militants, without presenting evidence.

The U.N. Security Council last week called for immediately speeding up aid deliveries to Gaza. But so far there has been little concrete sign of a change in entry of aid, which the U.N. has said it struggles to distribute because many areas are cut off by fighting.

Meanwhile, negotiations have seemed to make little headway toward a pause in fighting to enable more hostage releases in exchange for the freeing of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Egypt put forward an ambitious peace proposal aiming not only to end the war but also to lay out a plan for the day after. It calls for a phased hostage release and the formation of a Palestinian government of experts to administer the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank.

But it has gotten a cool public reception from Israel and Hamas. It falls short of Israel’s declared goal of crushing Hamas and appears to be at odds with Israel’s insistence on maintaining military control over Gaza for an extended period after the war. It is also unclear if Hamas would agree to relinquish power after controlling Gaza for the past 16 years.

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