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Israel says war to wind down in southern Gaza as UN demands ceasefire

Fighting has ravaged the Gaza Strip since October 7, 2023
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Israel on Monday said the "intensive" phase of its war on Hamas in devastated southern Gaza would end "soon" as the UN chief pleaded for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire".

Hamas announced the death of two of the Israeli captives it abducted during its October attack that triggered the war, in a video Israel condemned as a "brutal use of innocent hostages".

Fighting has ravaged the Gaza Strip since October 7, when Hamas militants carried out an unprecedented attack on Israel that resulted in about 1,140 deaths, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel began a relentless military campaign that has killed at least 24,100 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian territory's health ministry.

Israel has launched a relentless military campaign to destroy Hamas

The army had stepped up operations and bombardments in the southern cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah in recent weeks after saying Hamas's military structures in the north had been dismantled.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told a news conference on Monday that an "intense manoeuvring stage" due to last around three months "will end soon" in southern Gaza.

He said the stage was already being reached in northern Gaza, with Israel's army confirming one of its four divisions in the territory completed its withdrawal on Monday.

The cabinet approved an amended 2024 budget including an additional 55 billion shekels ($15 billion) to meet the cost of the war, a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said fighting would still continue for months.

The UN says more than three months of conflict have displaced roughly 85 percent of Gaza's population, crowded into shelters and struggling to get food, water, fuel and medical care.

Israel is facing heavy international pressure over Gaza's humanitarian crisis and growing number of civilian casualties, with the territory's Hamas-run health ministry reporting 60 deaths in overnight bombardment Sunday-Monday.

Deadly violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, exchanges of fire over Israel's border with Lebanon, and strikes by US forces and Iran-backed Yemeni rebels in the Red Sea have raised fears of an escalation beyond the Gaza Strip.

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Monday reiterated calls for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, "to ensure sufficient aid gets to where it is needed. To facilitate the release of the hostages. To tamp down the flames of wider war".

- 'Hostages have no time' -

Hamas militants also seized about 250 hostages on October 7, 132 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza, including at least 25 believed to have been killed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under intense domestic pressure to return the hostages

The Islamist group's armed wing on Monday released a video showing a woman hostage, speaking under duress, revealing that two men she was held captive with had been killed in captivity.

In a statement released with their video, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades blamed "the Zionist army's bombing" for the death of the hostages.

Israel's army condemned the video as a "brutal use of innocent hostages". Spokesman Daniel Hagari rejected the cause of death as a "lie" but added: "We know that we hit targets near the location where they were held" and an investigation is underway.

With fuel and other essentials scarce, a  woman carries cardboard boxes to help make a fire in Rafah, the southern Gaza Strip

Netanyahu is under intense domestic pressure to return the hostages and account for political and security failings surrounding the October 7 attacks.

Hagit Chen said it was "hard to live, to sleep, to breathe, to eat" because she has heard nothing from her son Itay, 19, since Hamas took him captive on October 7.

"The hostages have no time. Everyone is ill and injured," she said in Berlin, where hostage relatives met German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday.

- 'Not enough for a human being' -

AFPTV footage showed smoke billowing over Khan Yunis, southern Gaza's main city, as explosions could be heard from nearby Rafah, on the territory's southern border with Egypt.

As temperatures plunge, families living in makeshift tents in Rafah have resorted to burning plastic to ward off the chill, despite the noxious fumes.

Seen from Rafah, the southern Gaza Strip, a rainbow appears amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas

"At night, I feel like we're going to die from the cold," said Haneen Adwan, 31, a mother of six children who was forced to flee from central Gaza's Nuseirat refugee camp.

Echoing earlier warnings of a fast-approaching famine, UN agencies earlier called on Israel to allow access to its Ashdod port, north of Gaza, for critical aid deliveries.

"We are only eating rice, but rice is not enough for a human being," said 53-year-old Omar al-Shandogi.

- Violence flares beyond Gaza -

Violence involving regional allies of Iran-backed Hamas -- considered a "terrorist" group by the United States and the European Union -- has surged since the war began.

Attacks by Yemen's Huthi rebels, who say they act in solidarity with Gaza, have disrupted shipping in the vital Red Sea maritime trade route, triggering strikes on scores of rebel targets last Friday by US and British forces.

Israelis mourn during the funeral of Barak Ayalon and his mother Mira Ayalon, killed after a missile fired from Lebanon hit a house in the northern Israeli border community of Kfar Yuval

The Huthis claimed a missile attack on a US-owned cargo ship off Yemen on Monday, a day after firing a cruise missile at an American destroyer before it was shot down.

Since October, violence has also surged in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where three Palestinians were killed Monday in separate clashes with the Israeli army, the Palestinian health ministry said.

The Israeli army said its troops had opened fire and killed one person in Dura, near Hebron, after a crowd of around 100 "hurled Molotov cocktails and blocks" at them.

In central Israel, which has been largely spared the current violence, a suspected car ramming attack on Monday killed one woman and injured 17 other people, medics said, and police arrested two Palestinian suspects.

Discussions have opened about the future reorganisation of the Palestinian territories after the war.

Gallant on Monday said a Palestinian "civilian alternative" will govern post-war Gaza where Israeli forces would enjoy "freedom of operation" and with Hamas unable to "rule or function as a military force".

The future Gaza government must grow out of the Gaza Strip," Gallant said at a press conference.