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Israel tells top US official war will last 'months'

An Israeli army tank shells the Gaza Strip from the border area in southern Israel
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Israel's defence minister warned Thursday the war with Hamas would last "more than several months" as he met a top US official amid a rift between the allies over the timeline and conduct of the campaign.

The war, now in its third month, began after the Palestinian group's unprecedented October 7 attacks on Israel that Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

In response, Israel vowed to destroy Hamas and launched an unrelenting military offensive that has left swathes of Gaza in ruins. The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said 18,787 people have been killed, mostly women and children.

In Gaza's southern city of Khan Yunis, smoke rose from a grey landscape of rubble which people combed with shovels and their bare hands after a strike. One man sat on the broken concrete, wiping his eyes.

"Around four people are still stuck under the rubble" after an airplane hit the building "without a warning", said Hassan Bayyout, 70.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan arrived in Tel Aviv on Thursday and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

Relatives at Najjar hospital in Rafah mourn Muhannad Ashour, the youngest of victims from the same family killed in Israeli bombardment

In their meeting, Gallant warned that Israel's fight with Hamas "will require a period of time -- it will last more than several months, but we will win and we will destroy them".

Later in the day, the White House underlined that the United States wanted a swift end to the war.

"I think we all want it to end as soon as possible," White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Kirby said that Washington was "not dictating terms" to Israel and that the timeline given by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant was "consistent" with what Israeli officials had previously said.

But during his visit to Israel, Sullivan had asked "hard questions" of Israeli officials about the course of their offensive against the Palestinian territory, the spokesman added.

US President Joe Biden, whose government has provided Israel with billions of dollars in military aid, delivered his sharpest rebuke of the war this week. He said Israel's "indiscriminate bombing" of Gaza was eroding international support.

- 'Darkest chapter' -

But Netanyahu vowed to carry on "until victory" and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the war would continue "with or without international support".

Israeli soldiers prepare to enter the Gaza Strip, near the border area in southern Israel

The Israeli prime minister has said there is also "disagreement" with Washington over how Gaza would be governed after the war.

Netanyahu rejects the two-state solution Washington is insisting upon.

Qatar-based Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said on Wednesday that "any arrangement in Gaza or in the Palestinian cause without Hamas or the resistance factions is a delusion".

This week, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly supported a non-binding resolution for a ceasefire, which Washington voted against.

Palestinian youths observe an Israeli army patrol car at the entrance to Jenin refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where violence has surged alongside the Israel-Hamas war

The United Nations estimates 1.9 million out of Gaza's 2.4 million people have been displaced.

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, warned Gaza risked a "breakdown of civil order" as hunger and desperation drove people to seize humanitarian aid being delivered to the enclave.

"Everywhere you go people are desperate, hungry and are terrified," Lazzarini, who just returned from Gaza, told reporters in Geneva.

- Hospital a focus -

Cold wintry rain has lashed the makeshift tents where the displaced struggle to survive without sufficient food, drinking water, medicines or cooking fuel, with diseases spreading.

A Palestinian drags brickes at a camp for displaced people in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip where most civilians have taken refuge, on December 13, 2023

After a strike in Rafah, where many Palestinians have fled, the faces of relatives were contorted in grief after they identified the body of a child, Muhannad Ashour, at Najjar hospital.

Despite the needs, aid distribution has largely stopped in most of Gaza, except on a limited basis in the Rafah area, the UN says.

COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said the military "is enabling tactical pauses for humanitarian purposes". One was taking place Thursday for four hours in a Rafah neighbourhood to allow civilians to restock supplies such as food and water, it said.

Fewer than one-third of Gaza's hospitals are partly functioning, the UN says, and the World Health Organization expressed its concern about an Israeli raid on Kamal Adwan hospital in north Gaza.

UN General Assembly backs resolutions for a ceasefire in Gaza

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said Wednesday that the hospital director and about 70 other medical staff "remain detained in an unknown location outside of the hospital".

It said Israeli forces had released five doctors and female staff but there were reports of "ill-treatment" of those who had been held.

The Hamas-controlled health ministry said Israeli forces had "fired at patient rooms". AFP was unable to confirm the situation independently.

On Thursday the army said that, during military activity in the hospital area, "over 70 terrorist operatives came out of the hospital with weapons in hand".

It said troops killed "a number" of militants during fighting in the area.

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using hospitals, schools, mosques and vast tunnel systems beneath them as military bases -- charges the group denies.

- Cross-border fire -

Israeli tanks shelled Gaza from southern Israel on Thursday.

Palestinians react amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Rafah

Militants have continued to fire rockets from Gaza towards Israeli territory.

The Palestinian health ministry said Israeli forces killed 11 people in the occupied West Bank since launching a raid in Jenin and its refugee camp on Tuesday. The army said it seized weapons, dismantled explosives laboratories, tunnel shafts and other military facilities.

The war has led to increased popular support for Hamas in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

In Europe, Danish authorities said they had prevented a "terror" attack after three arrests in Denmark and a fourth in the Netherlands, as Israel said the suspects in Denmark were acting "on behalf of Hamas".

In Berlin, prosecutors said German police also arrested three suspected members of Hamas on Thursday, accused of preparing an attack against Jewish targets in Europe.

Danish police refused to comment on whether there was any link between the arrests reported in Denmark and Germany.