Palestinian death toll in Gaza surpasses 25,000 while Israel announces the death of another hostage

The level of death, destruction and displacement from the war is without precedent in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli soldiers travel on an army armored personnel carrier (APC) near the Israeli-Gaza border as smoke rises to the sky in the Gaza Strip, seen from southern Israel, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Israeli soldiers travel on an army armored personnel carrier (APC) near the Israeli-Gaza border as smoke rises to the sky in the Gaza Strip, seen from southern Israel, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The Palestinian death toll from the war between Israel and Hamas has soared past 25,000, the Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip said Sunday, while Israel announced the death of another hostage and appeared far from achieving its goals of freeing more than 100 others and crushing the militant group.

The deaths, destruction and displacement from the war are without precedent in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The war has divided Israelis while the offensive threatens to ignite a wider conflict involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen that support the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he stressed in his conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday that he rejects Hamas demands for a cease-fire, Israeli forces’ withdrawal and the release of Palestinians held by Israel in exchange for the remaining hostages. He said that agreeing means another devastating Hamas attack “would only be a matter of time.”

Netanyahu also has rejected calls from U.S, its closest ally, for postwar plans that would include a path to Palestinian statehood. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the refusal to accept a two-state solution unacceptable.

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“The Middle East is a tinderbox. We must do all we can to prevent conflict igniting across the region,” Guterres added. “And that starts with an immediate humanitarian cease-fire to relieve the suffering in Gaza.”

In the latest of near-daily clashes between Hezbollah forces and Israeli troops along the Lebanese border, an Israeli airstrike Sunday hit a car near a Lebanese army checkpoint in the southern town of Kafra, killing at least one person and injuring several others, Lebanese state media reported. Israel’s military said its aircraft and tanks struck a number of Hezbollah targets, and that an anti-tank missile launched from Lebanon hit a house in Avivim in northern Israel. No injuries were reported.

Gaza death toll climbs

The war began with Hamas’ attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7. Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 250 hostages back to Gaza.

Israel’s military announced the death of Sgt. Shay Levinson, who was among the hostages. His date of death was given as Oct. 7, but there were no further details. According to Israeli media, his body is still in Gaza.

Israel has responded to the Oct. 7 attack with a bombing campaign and ground invasion that laid waste to entire neighborhoods in northern Gaza and spread south. Ground operations are now focused on the southern city of Khan Younis and built-up refugee camps in central Gaza dating to the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.

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Israel continues to carry out airstrikes throughout the besieged territory, including areas where it told civilians to seek refuge.

On Sunday, Israel’s military said the demolition last week of a key building at Israa University in Gaza was under review, and asserted that preliminary findings indicated Hamas had used the compound for military purposes. The university has said the “attack” came weeks after Israeli forces occupied the building.

Since the war started, 25,105 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, while another 62,681 have been wounded, the Health Ministry said. The toll included the 178 bodies brought to Gaza’s hospitals since Saturday, Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said.

The overall toll is thought to be higher because many casualties remain buried under rubble or in areas that medics cannot reach, Al-Qidra said.

The Health Ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its figures but says about two-thirds of the people killed in Gaza were women and minors. The ministry is part of the Hamas-run government, but its casualty figures from previous wars were largely consistent with those of U.N. agencies and even the Israeli military.

The Israeli military says it has killed around 9,000 militants, without providing evidence, and blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas because it positions fighters, tunnels and other militant infrastructure in dense neighborhoods, often near homes, schools or mosques.

The war has displaced some 85% of Gaza’s residents, with hundreds of thousands packing U.N.-run shelters and camps in the south. U.N. officials say a quarter of the population of 2.3 million is starving as a trickle of humanitarian aid reaches them because of the fighting and Israeli restrictions.

“Bread does not suffice for one hour,” said Ahmad Al-Nashawi, who accepted donated food at a tent camp in the southern city of Rafah. “You can see how many children we have other than women and men. What matters most for a child is to eat.”

Israelis increasingly divided

Some top Israeli officials have begun to acknowledge that Netanyahu’s goals of “complete victory” over Hamas and returning the remaining hostages might be mutually exclusive.

A member of Israel’s War Cabinet, former army chief Gadi Eisenkot, said last week that the only way to free the hostages was through a cease-fire. In an implicit criticism of Netanyahu, he said claims to the contrary amounted to “illusions.”

Hamas is believed to be holding the captives in tunnels and using them as shields for its top leaders. Israel has rescued one hostage, and Hamas says several have been killed in Israeli airstrikes or during failed rescue operations.

Israel’s government faces growing pressure from hostages’ families, who want an exchange like the one that took place during a weeklong November cease-fire. Other Israelis are frustrated by the security failures that preceded the Oct. 7 attack and by Netanyahu’s handling of the war.

But Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners push him to step up the offensive, with some calling for the “voluntary” emigration of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza and the re-establishment of Jewish settlements there.

Near the site of an Oct. 7 massacre during a music festival, families of Israeli victims planted trees.

“What happened after 109 days? Nothing. We’re just still waiting,” said one father, Idan Bahat.

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