Palestinians search for survivors of the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip in Rafah on Tuesday, December 12, 2023. AP

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israel and the United States on Tuesday displayed their sharpest public disagreement over the conduct and future of the war against Hamas, as the two allies became increasingly isolated by global calls for a ceasefire.

The dispute arose as Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza, crushing Palestinians in their homes.

President Joe Biden said he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel was losing international support due to its “indiscriminate bombing” and that Netanyahu should change his government, which is dominated by far-right parties.

Biden's comments came as the White House national security adviser heads to Israel this week to discuss with Netanyahu a timetable for war — and what will happen if Hamas is defeated. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Israel next week for a visit that the Pentagon said is intended to show U.S. support for Israel but also to press the need to prevent further civilian casualties in Gaza.

The war sparked by Hamas' attack on southern Israel on October 7 has already brought unprecedented death and destruction to the impoverished coastal enclave, with much of northern Gaza destroyed, more than 18,000 Palestinians killed and more than 80% of the population of 2.3 million expelled from Israel. their homes.

The US has urged Israel to do more to reduce civilian casualties since it launched its invasion of southern Gaza earlier this month. But the number of victims continued to rise seemingly at the same dizzying pace.

The health system and aid operations have collapsed in large parts of Gaza amid the Israeli blockade of the territory and intense airstrikes and fighting, and aid workers have warned of famine and the spread of disease among the people. displaced in overcrowded shelters and tent camps.

Devastation in the north

Gaza City and much of the surrounding north have already suffered widespread destruction from more than two months of bombing. Amid the rubble, Israeli ground troops are still locked in heavy combat with Palestinian fighters, more than six weeks after the soldiers invaded the north.

Violent clashes broke out on Tuesday in Gaza City's Zaytoun and Shijaiya neighborhoods, as well as in Jabaliya, a densely built-up urban refugee camp, residents said.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians remain in the north, crammed into homes or in UN schools converted into shelters. As airstrikes and drones destroy homes, rescuers are unable to reach anyone buried in the wreckage, residents said.

“It was huge,” Mustafa Abu Taha, a farm worker, said of the sound of gunfire and explosions in Shijaiya, where he lives.

Amal Radwan, a woman sheltering in a school in Jabaliya, said the situation was “catastrophic” as Israeli troops tried to advance deep into the district and fired heavy fire at fighters.

“Whenever resistance hit them, they hit us really hard. It became crazy. They attack everywhere without worrying about women or children,” she said.

On the outskirts of Gaza City, Israeli troops, using controlled detonation, blew up a school run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, in the city of Beit Hanoun, in the north of the country. Footage posted online showed soldiers cheering as they watched the building collapse in a giant explosion and a cloud of smoke.

UNRWA head Phillippe Lazzarini confirmed the demolition in a post on Tuesday X, calling it “outrageous.” There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military. On Saturday, he said militants opened fire from inside a UNRWA school in the city.

Israel also began flooding some Hamas tunnels, a U.S. official confirmed Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the action. The Israelis have said they are testing selective flooding of tunnels on a limited basis and exploring the idea as one of a series of options to degrade the tunnel network, according to another U.S. official familiar with the matter.

President Joe Biden said during a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that there had been claims there were no hostages in the Gaza tunnels being flooded with seawater by the Israelis, but “I’m not sure about that.”

Biden's comments were a surprisingly direct criticism of Israel, even as his administration continues to provide unwavering diplomatic and military support for the military campaign in Gaza in the face of growing international outrage.

The UN secretary-general and Arab states rallied much of the international community behind calls for an immediate ceasefire. But the US vetoed those efforts at the UN Security Council last week when it sent tank ammunition to Israel to allow it to maintain the offensive.

A non-binding vote on a similar resolution at the UN General Assembly passed overwhelmingly on Tuesday. The vote demanding a ceasefire is largely symbolic, but serves as an important barometer of world opinion.

Israel launched the campaign after Hamas and other militants invaded the south on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking another 240 hostage. About half of them remain in captivity. At least 105 Israeli soldiers died in the ground offensive, the army says.

Israel and the United States say any ceasefire that leaves Hamas in power would mean victory for the militant group, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and has vowed to destroy Israel. Israel blames the civilian casualties on Hamas, saying it positions fighters, tunnels and rocket launchers in dense urban areas, using civilians as human shields.

But the two allies also had disagreements over the timing of the war and how Gaza should be governed in the future.

In a briefing with the AP on Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signaled that the current phase of intense ground fighting and airstrikes could last for weeks and new military activities could continue for months.

Netanyahu said the military will have to maintain open security control of Gaza after the end of the war.

The Biden administration has said that Israel should not return to a military occupation and that the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority should govern Gaza as talks resume on creating a Palestinian state close to Israel.

Netanyahu appeared to firmly rule out that possibility on Tuesday, acknowledging that “there is disagreement about 'the day after Hamas'.”

“I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo,” he said, referring to the peace process in the 1990s that created the Palestinian Authority and which aimed to achieve a two-state solution. The authority governs pockets of the occupied West Bank and governed Gaza until Hamas took power in 2007.

Strikes and attacks in Gaza

Attacks overnight and into Tuesday in southern Gaza — where nearly all of Gaza's population of 2.3 million are now clustered — killed dozens of people, according to hospital records.

Islam Harb's three sons were among those killed when Israeli airstrikes destroyed four residential buildings in the Egyptian border city of Rafah. At least 23 people died, including seven children and six women, according to an Associated Press reporter who saw the bodies arrive at a hospital.

“My twins, Maria and Joud, were martyred, and so was my little son, Ammar,” Harb said.

In central Gaza, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah received the bodies of 33 people killed in attacks overnight, including 16 women and four children, according to hospital records. Many were killed in attacks that targeted residential buildings in the Maghazi refugee camp.

In the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia, Israeli forces stormed the Kamal Adwan Hospital, ordering all men, including doctors, into the courtyard, said Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry. The hospital had 65 patients in intensive care and six newborns in incubators, the UN said, and about 3,000 displaced people were sheltering there with little food or water.

The Israeli military says it is arresting men in northern Gaza as it searches for Hamas fighters. Photos and videos circulating online show groups of detainees in just their underwear, tied up and blindfolded, and some of those released say they were beaten and denied food and water.

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Asked about the hospital, the military said it “continues to act against Hamas strongholds in northern Gaza,” including Beit Lahia, and takes “all possible precautions to mitigate damage to non-combatants.”