Israeli air strikes and ground forces pounded the northern Gaza Strip amid a countdown to a four-day fighting truce that was scheduled to begin Friday morning.
Several clashes were reported between Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in Jabalia, an area just north of Gaza City, which Israeli officials have described as a stronghold of Hamas, the group that rules the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military said it surrounded the area on Thursday afternoon, and later added that it had discovered six tunnel openings during a raid on a compound on the outskirts of the neighborhood, including one inside a mosque. It added that it also found combat equipment, including rocket launchers. Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht described Jabalia as a “hotspot.”
Hamas, which launched an attack on Israel last month, has built a maze of hidden tunnels that some believe extend through most, if not all, of the Gaza Strip, territory it controls. Dismantling the tunnels is a key part of Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas’ leadership in the wake of the October 7 attack.
Amin Abed, a resident of Jabalia, said in a phone interview on Thursday that more than 50 of his relatives and neighbors were killed. Among the dead was an old friend who Mr. Abed said had to piece together body parts.
“We no longer count the martyrs,” Abed said, using the term that Arabic speakers use to refer to those killed in war. “Northern Gaza is uninhabitable and unsafe.”
He said he tried to flee the fighting on Monday, but heard gunshots from snipers. He was taking shelter in a health center in Jabalia with thousands of others, and he said that he was hearing heavy gunfire as the battles continued.
Mr. Abed said he received an Israeli call on Thursday warning him not to leave the “battlefield” in the north, but he remained wary of moving south, anticipating that Israel would expand its ground operations there.
The number of people leaving northern Gaza has decreased, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which attributed the change to expectations that a ceasefire was imminent. The office said that about 250 people walked south on Wednesday, the smallest number since Israel began instructing Gazans to flee through a “corridor” on Salah al-Din Street.
Many people had to travel on foot, and Mr. Abed said that some of his relatives and neighbours, including children and the elderly, could not walk such distances. He added that those who remained in Jabalia were in dire need of food, medicine and cooking gas.
He said: “Hunger, loss of loved ones, and fatigue eat away at people’s flesh.” “People are dying slowly.”
Israel has allowed some aid into Gaza but has opposed fuel deliveries, saying Hamas uses it for rocket attacks and is storing fuel intended for civilians.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza estimated the death toll this week at more than 13,000 people, including thousands of women and children.
The United Nations has warned that the risk of severe drought and waterborne diseases is increasing in light of the almost complete absence of fresh water in the north. She added that the Israeli pipeline transporting water to the area remains closed, and the local desalination plant is still unable to operate without fuel.
Aid groups say they have been unable to reach the north to distribute bottled water. Bakeries stopped working a long time ago, and wheat is said to be scarce in the markets. Livestock are facing starvation, and crops are increasingly being abandoned, the United Nations said.
There were also signs on Thursday that many Gazans who fled to the south will try to return to their homes during the ceasefire. The Israeli army said that residents would be prevented from returning to the north during the truce period, and that it was preparing for the possibility of “inconvenience” by residents who tried to return.
The Israeli army said that Israeli forces will remain in Gaza during the cessation of hostilities.
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