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Palestinian death toll passes 25,000 as Israel announces the death of another hostage

Smoke rises following Israeli bombardments in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.
Mohammed Dahman
/
AP
Smoke rises following Israeli bombardments in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

Updated January 21, 2024 at 9:32 PM ET

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — 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 war's deaths, destruction and displacement 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.

Furious with the Israeli government and demanding the release of remaining hostages, relatives and others set up a tent camp outside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem and vowed to stay until a deal is reached.

Netanyahu, in a defiant new statement, said he stressed in his conversation Friday with U.S. President Joe Biden 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 rejects 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.

"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."

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 19-year-old 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, striking some areas where it told civilians to seek refuge. 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.

"The plumes of smoke from tanks, artillery and the planes of the air force will continue to cover the sky over the Gaza Strip until we will achieve our goals," Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said.

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. The military released footage of a tunnel under a residential neighborhood in Khan Younis where the army believes at least 20 hostages were kept at different times.

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.

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.

Israel said 260 trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday, the highest number since the war began. About 500 entered daily before that, according to the U.N.

"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 are increasingly divided

At the new protest camp outside Netanyahu's Jerusalem residence, hostages' families urged the government to act.

"It's not logical that you're telling us the war must continue, and you keep saying that because of military pressure we will release them, but we don't see a single one released because of this pressure," said Gilad Korengold, the father of hostage Tal Shoham.

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.

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.

Hamas is believed to be using the hostages 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.

Hostages' families want an exchange like the one during a weeklong November cease-fire. Other Israelis are frustrated by the security failures ahead of the Oct. 7 attack and by Netanyahu's handling of the war.

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.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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