Israel says will fight during Ramadan unless Hamas frees hostages

This picture taken from a position in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip shows Israeli battle tanks rolling on February 19, 2024, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. PHOTO/AFP

What you need to know:

  • Israel's massive retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,092 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the territory's health ministry.

Deadly fighting raged on in Gaza Monday after Israel warned that, unless Hamas frees all hostages, it will push on with its offensive during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, including in the far-southern Rafah area.

Global concern has mounted over the fate of 1.4 million Palestinians who have been forced into Rafah near the Egyptian border, enduring bombardment and dire food shortages in crowded makeshift shelters and tents.

Overnight strikes and battles in Gaza killed more than 100 Palestinians, mostly women and children, pushing the death toll past 29,000, said the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory, with fighting heaviest in Khan Yunis, just north of Rafah.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz warned Sunday that the Israeli army is ready to push deeper into Rafah during Ramadan which, based on the lunar calendar, starts around March 10.

"The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know: if by Ramadan the hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere to include the Rafah area," said Gantz, a former military chief of staff.

He added: "Hamas has a choice. They can surrender, release the hostages, and the civilians of Gaza can celebrate the feast of Ramadan."

Gantz said Israel would allow the evacuation of civilians from Rafah and "minimise the civilian casualties" -- but so far it has not specified where Palestinians could flee, with vast swathes of the territory flattened after more than four months of devastating war.

Egypt has stressed it does not want Gazans to flee over the border, arguing this would facilitate an effort to empty Gaza of its Palestinian population -- an objective Israel denies.

Satellite images show Egypt has started erecting a walled enclosure parallel to the Gaza border, in an apparent precautionary move in case of a mass refugee flight.

'My children are starving'

The war started when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack of October 7 that left about 1,160 people dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

The militants of Hamas, considered a "terrorist" group by the United States, EU and other governments, also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,092 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the territory's health ministry.

The army released footage Monday from inside Gaza of Israeli combat troops with canine units engaged in fierce house-to-house battles, and tanks churning through the sand amid remains of bombed-out buildings.

The spiralling humanitarian crisis has forced some Palestinians to grind animal feed into flour.

"My children are starving, they wake up crying from hunger," a northern Gaza woman told AFP.

"Where do I get food for them?"

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which has been bitterly at odds with Israel, said nearly three-quarters of Gazans are drinking contaminated water and warned "the speed of deterioration in Gaza is unprecedented".

Besieged hospital

Weeks of truce talks involving US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators have failed to bring a deal to pause the fighting, and Israel has rejected Hamas's demands, which include a total withdrawal of its forces.

Heavy fighting has raged in and around the besieged Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, which the World Health Organization said is no longer operational.

Israel's army said Saturday it had detained about 100 suspects at the hospital, and also that it found medicines there that had been sent for hostages but were never delivered to them.

The Gaza health ministry said seven patients, including a child, had died in the hospital since Friday due to power cuts, and "70 staff including intensive care doctors" had been arrested.

At least 20 of the 200 patients still there urgently require relocation to other facilities, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that his organisation "was not permitted to enter" the site.

Israel says diesel and oxygen supplies have been delivered to the hospital and a temporary generator was running.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said that "troops have operated with great precision to apprehend terrorists, with no resulting civilian casualties".

'Genocide' claim 

International pressure has grown on Israel to halt the war in the besieged coastal territory.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted the army will continue until it achieves "total victory", despite also facing domestic pressure from resurgent anti-government protests and desperate relatives of hostages.

The UN's top court opened a week of hearings from Monday examining the legal consequences of the country's 57-year occupation of Palestinian territories.

The Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki told the court his people were suffering "colonialism and apartheid" under the Israelis.

Israel will not participate in the hearings which the prime minister's office has said is "aimed at harming Israel's rights to defend itself from existential threats".

The hearings -- requested by the UN General Assembly -- are separate from South Africa's high-profile case alleging Israel is committing genocide in its current Gaza offensive.

Western governments have increasingly pushed for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state to be part of a wider peace process, something Israel has rejected.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Sunday accused Israel of committing "genocide" and compared its actions to Adolf Hitler's campaign to exterminate Jews.

Netanyahu labelled the comments "shameful" and Foreign Minister Israel Katz declared the Brazilian president "persona non grata in the state of Israel" unless he apologises.

In an indicator of the scale of the war's economic impact, Israel's GDP slumped by 19.4 percent in the last three months of 2023 from the previous quarter, the central statistics office said Monday.