RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israeli forces bombarded Palestinian refugee camps Tuesday in central Gaza and issued orders telling residents to evacuate, signs that the military plans to expand its ground offensive into another part of the besieged territory. Gaza's main telecom provider announced another "complete interruption" of services.
A potential new battle zone threatens new destruction in a war that Israel's military says will last for "many months" as it vows to crush the ruling Hamas militant group after its Oct. 7 attack. Israeli forces have been engaged in heavy urban fighting in northern Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, driving Palestinians into ever-smaller areas in search of refuge.
The U.S. said Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, was meeting Tuesday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Despite U.S. calls for fewer civilian casualties and international pressure for a cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the fight "isn't close to finished."
Israel’s offensive is 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 Health Ministry in Gaza, whose count doesn't differentiate between civilians and combatants. On Tuesday afternoon, it said 240 people had been killed over the past 24 hours.
"We are gravely concerned about the continued bombardment of middle Gaza by Israeli forces, which has claimed more than 100 Palestinian lives since Christmas Eve," the U.N. human rights office said, noting that Israel had ordered some residents to move to the area.
Israel said it would no longer grant automatic visas to U.N. employees and accused the world body of being "complicit partners" in Hamas’ tactics. Government spokesman Eylon Levy said Israel would consider visa requests case by case. That could further limit aid efforts in Gaza.
Residents of central Gaza described a night of shelling and airstrikes shaking the Nuseirat, Maghazi and Bureij camps. The built-up towns house Palestinians driven from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war, along with their descendants. The camps are now crowded with people who fled the north.
"The bombing was very intense," Radwan Abu Sheitta said by phone from Bureij.
The Israeli military ordered residents to evacuate a belt of territory the width of central Gaza, including Bureij, urging them to move to nearby Deir al-Balah. Hamas’ military arm, the Qassam Brigades, said its fighters struck two Israeli tanks east of Bureij. Its report couldn't be independently confirmed, but it suggested Israeli forces were approaching.
The telecom outage announced by Paltel follows similar outages through much of the war. NetBlocks, a group that tracks internet outages, confirmed that network connectivity in Gaza was disrupted again and "likely to leave most residents offline."
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel faces a "multi-arena war" from seven different fronts — Gaza and the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran. "We have responded and acted already on six of these," he told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Throughout the war, Iranian-backed militia groups around the region have stepped up attacks in support of Hamas.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq carried out a drone strike on a U.S. base in Irbil in northern Iraq on Monday, wounding three American service members, one critically, according to U.S. officials. In response, U.S. warplanes before dawn hit three locations in Iraq connected to a main militia, Kataib Hezbollah.
An Israeli strike on Monday hit a neighborhood of the Syrian capital, Damascus, killing Gen. Seyed Razi Mousavi, an adviser of the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Israel's military did not comment.
Almost daily, Hezbollah and Israel exchange 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 nine 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.
EXPANDING GAZA OFFENSIVE
More than 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes. Deir al-Balah and Rafah, in the south on the Egyptian border, have been overwhelmed with displaced people, even as Israel bombards them.
U.N. officials say a quarter of Gaza's population is starving under Israel's siege, which allows in only a trickle of food, water, fuel, medicine and other supplies. Last week, the U.N. Security Council called for immediately speeding up aid deliveries to Gaza, but there has been little sign of change.
A strike Tuesday hit a home in Mawasi, a rural area in the province of Khan Younis that Israel declared a safe zone. One woman was killed and at least eight others were wounded, according to a cameraman working for The Associated Press at the nearby hospital.
In response, Israel's military said that it wouldn't refrain from operating in safe zones, "if it identifies terrorist organization activity threatening the security of Israel."
Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas' capabilities in Gaza after the Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 others hostage. Israel aims to free the more than 100 hostages who remain in captivity.
Israel blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll in Gaza, citing militants’ use of crowded residential areas and tunnels. Israel also says it has killed thousands of militants, without presenting evidence.
At the Kerem Shalom border crossing, U.N. and Gazan medical workers received a truck carrying about 80 unidentified bodies that had been held by Israeli forces in northern Gaza. They were transferred to local authorities for burial. Medical workers called the odors unbearable.
"We cannot open this container in a neighborhood where people live," Dr. Marwan al-Hams, health emergency committee director in Rafah, told the AP. He said the health and justice ministries would investigate the bodies for possible "war crimes."
In the north, troops are focusing on the Gaza City neighborhood of Daraj Tufah, believed to be one of Hamas' last strongholds in the area, according to reports from Israeli military correspondents, who receive briefings from army commanders. The reports also said the army aims to destroy an estimated 70% of Hamas infrastructure.
Hamas fighters have shown resilience. The Israeli military announced the deaths of two more soldiers, bringing the total killed since the ground offensive began to 161.
Wafaa Shurafa reported from Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, and Samy Magdy from Cairo. Melanie Lidman in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut, contributed to this report.