JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military on Wednesday said it had uncovered a major Hamas command center in the heart of Gaza City, inflicting what it described as a serious blow to the Islamic militant group as pressure grows on Israel to scale back its devastating military offensive in the coastal enclave.
The army said it had exposed the center of a vast underground network used by Hamas to move weapons, militants and supplies throughout the Gaza Strip. Israel has said destroying the tunnels is a major objective of the offensive.
The announcement came as Hamas’ top leader arrived in Egypt for talks aimed at brokering a temporary cease-fire and a new deal for Hamas to swap Israeli hostages for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
Israeli leaders have vowed to press ahead with the two-month-old offensive, launched in response to a bloody cross-border attack by Hamas in October that killed some 1,200 people and saw 240 others taken hostage.
The offensive has devastated much of northern Gaza, killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians, and driven some 1.9 million people — nearly 85% of the population — from their homes. The widespread destruction and heavy civilian death toll has drawn increasing international calls for a cease-fire.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has continued to support Israel’s right to defend itself while also urging greater effort to protect Gaza’s civilians.
But in some of the toughest American language yet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday called on Israel to scale back its operation.
“It’s clear that the conflict will move and needs to move to a lower intensity phase,” Blinken said. He said the U.S. wants to see “more targeted operations” with smaller levels of forces focused on specific targets, such as Hamas’ leaders and the group’s tunnel network.
“As that happens, I think you’ll see as well, the harm done to civilians also decrease significantly,” he said.
His comments were more pointed than statements by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who in a visit to Israel this week said the U.S. would not dictate any timeframes to its ally.
The Israeli military escorted Israeli reporters into Palestine Square in the heart of Gaza City to show off what it described as the center of Hamas’ tunnel network.
Military commanders boasted that they had uncovered offices, tunnels and elevators used by Hamas’ top leaders. The military released videos of underground offices and claimed to have found a wheelchair belonging to Hamas’ shadowy military commander, Mohammed Deif, who has not been seen in public in years.
The army’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said the army had located a vast underground complex. “They all used this infrastructure routinely, during emergencies and also at the beginning of the war on Oct. 7,” he said. He said the tunnels stretched across Gaza and into major hospitals. The claims could not be independently verified.
Hagari also indicated that Israel was winding down its operations in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, where it has been battling Hamas militants for weeks. He said the army had moved into a final remaining Hamas stronghold, the Gaza City neighborhood of Tufah.
But the army also acknowledged a significant misstep. An investigation into its soldiers’ mistaken shooting of three Israelis held hostage in Gaza found that, five days before the shooting, a military search dog with a body camera had captured audio of them shouting for help in Hebrew.
Hagari said the recording was not reviewed until after the hostages were killed while trying to make themselves known to Israeli forces.
The incident has sparked an uproar in Israel and put pressure on the government to reach a new deal with Hamas. The military chief has said the shooting was against its rules of engagement.
The Israeli military campaign now is largely focused on southern Gaza, where it says Hamas’ leaders are hiding.
“We will continue the war until the end. It will continue until Hamas is destroyed, until victory,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement. “Whoever thinks we will stop is detached from reality.”
CEASE-FIRE TALKS GAIN MOMENTUM
As Netanyahu vowed to continue the war, there were new signs of progress in cease-fire talks.
Hamas’ top leader, Ismail Haniyeh, traveled to Cairo for talks on the war, part of a flurry of diplomacy. In recent days, top Israeli, American and Qatari officials have also held cease-fire talks.
“These are very serious discussions and negotiations, and we hope that they lead somewhere,” the White House’s national security spokesman, John Kirby, said aboard Air Force One while traveling with President Joe Biden to Wisconsin.
Biden, however, indicated a deal was still a ways off. “There’s no expectation at this point, but we are pushing,” he said. Asked about the rising death toll in Gaza, Biden said: It’s tragic.”
Hamas says no more hostages will be released until the war ends. It is insisting on the release of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including high-level militants convicted in deadly attacks, for remaining captives.
Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official in Beirut, said the efforts right now are focused on how to “stop this aggression, especially that our enemy now knows that it cannot achieve any of its goals.”
Israel has rejected Hamas’ demands for a mass prisoner release so far. But it has a history of lopsided exchanges for captive Israelis, and the government is under heavy public pressure to bring the hostages home safely.
Egypt, along with Qatar and the U.S., helped mediate a weeklong cease-fire in November in which Hamas freed over 100 hostages in exchange for Israel’s release of 240 Palestinian prisoners. Hamas and other militants are still holding an estimated 129 captives, though roughly 20 are believed to have died in captivity.
U.N. Security Council members are negotiating an Arab-sponsored resolution to halt the fighting in some way to allow for an increase in desperately needed humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza.
A vote on the resolution, first scheduled for Monday, was pushed back again on Wednesday in the hopes of getting the U.S. to support it or allow it to pass after it vetoed an earlier cease-fire call.
Mobile phone and internet service was down across Gaza again on Wednesday. The outage could complicate efforts to communicate with Hamas leaders inside the territory who went into hiding after Oct. 7.
The war has led to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Tens of thousands of people are crammed into shelters and tent camps amid shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies. Israel’s foreign minister traveled to Cyprus to discuss the possibility of establishing a maritime corridor that would allow the delivery of large amounts of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
At least 46 people were killed and more than 100 wounded early Wednesday after Israel bombarded the urban Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City, according to Munir al-Bursh, a senior Health Ministry official.
At least five people were killed and dozens injured in another strike that hit three residential homes and a mosque in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah Wednesday, health officials said.
The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Tuesday the death toll since the start of the war had risen to more than 19,600. It does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths.
Israel’s military says 134 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza ground offensive. Israel says it has killed some 7,000 militants, without providing evidence. It blames civilian deaths in Gaza on Hamas, saying it uses them as human shields when it fights in residential areas.
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