CAIRO/GAZA/JERUSALEM, Dec 25 (Reuters) – At a funeral in Gaza on Monday a line of Palestinians touched white shrouds holding the bodies of at least 70 people who Palestinian health officials said were killed by an Israeli airstrike targeting Maghazi in the centre of the besieged strip.
It came after one of the enclave’s deadliest nights in the 11-week-old fight between Israel and Hamas. One man hugged a dead child and others were distraught.
“The strikes were at 2. The walls and the curtains fell on us,” said one man. “I reached down to my four-year-old child but all I found were rocks.”
Strikes that began hours before midnight continued into Monday. Palestinian media said Israel stepped up air and ground shelling in central Gaza with local people saying they had lived one of their worst nights since the war began.
Health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said many of those killed at Maghazi were women and children. Eight others were killed as Israeli planes and tanks carried out dozens of air strikes on houses and roads in nearby al-Bureij and al-Nusseirat, health officials said.
Medics added that an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis in southern Gaza killed 23, bringing total Palestinian deaths overnight to more than 100.
Pope Francis said in his Christmas message on Monday that children dying in wars, including in Gaza, are the “little Jesuses of today” and that Israeli strikes were reaping a “appalling harvest” of innocent people.
Several residents made pleas on social media for people to give them shelter as they have become homeless after leaving their homes in Bureij.
“I have 60 people in the house, people who arrived at my house believing that central Gaza area was safe. Now we are looking for a place to get to,” said Odeh, a resident of the refugee camps.
The Israeli army said it was studying the report of a Maghazi incident and was committed to minimising harm to civilians. Hamas denies the Israeli charge that it operates in highly populated areas or uses civilians as human shields.
The Palestinian Red Crescent released footage of wounded residents being transported to hospitals. It said Israeli warplanes were bombing key roads, hindering the passage of ambulances and rescue vehicles.
In his Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and world) address, Francis also called the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants “abominable” and again asked for the release of around 100 hostages still being held in Gaza.
Clergy stopped celebrations in Bethlehem, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank city where Christian tradition says Jesus was born in a stable 2,000 years ago.
Palestinian Christians held a candle-lit Christmas vigil in Bethlehem with hymns and prayers for peace in Gaza, instead of the normal celebrations.
There was no large tree, the normal centrepiece of Bethlehem’s Christmas observances. Nativity figurines in churches were put amid rubble and barbed wire in solidarity with the people of Gaza.
Hamas and smaller militant ally Islamic Jihad, both sworn to Israel’s destruction, are thought to be holding more than 100 hostages from among 240 they took during their Oct. 7 rampage through Israeli towns, when they killed 1,200 people.
Since then, Israel has besieged the narrow Gaza Strip and laid much of it to waste, with more than 20,400 people confirmed killed, according to authorities in Hamas-ruled Gaza, and thousands more thought dead under the rubble.
The great majority of the 2.3 million Gazans have been driven from their homes, and the United Nations says conditions are catastrophic.
Since a week-long truce collapsed at the start of the month, fighting has only increased on the ground, with war spreading from the north to the full length of the heavily populated strip.
The Israeli military said on Monday that two of its men had died in the past day, bringing to 158 the number killed since ground operations began on Oct. 20.
A day earlier Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted the “heavy cost” but said there was “no choice” but to continue to fight deeper into Gaza until “total victory” over Hamas.
Israel has been under pressure from its nearest ally the United States to shift operations to a lower-intensity phase and reduce civilian deaths.
On Saturday, Israel’s military chief of staff said his forces had largely gained operational control in the north of Gaza and would expand operations further in the south.
But residents say fighting has only increased in northern districts.
Diplomatic efforts, mediated by Egypt and Qatar, on a new truce to free the remaining hostages held in Gaza have produced little public progress, although Washington described the talks last week as “very serious”.
Netanyahu was set to attend a parliamentary discussion of the problem on Monday afternoon and then to convene a session of his war cabinet, Israeli officials told Reuters.
Islamic Jihad said a group led by its exiled leader Ziad al-Nakhlala was in Cairo on Sunday. His arrival followed talks held by Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in recent days.
The militant groups have said they would not discuss any release of hostages unless Israel stops its war in Gaza, while the Israelis say they are willing to discuss only a pause in fighting.
Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo, Bassam Masoud in Gaza, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome, Nafisa Eltahir in Cairo and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and William Mallard; Editing by Howard Goller and Edmund Klamann and Michael Georgy, Kirsten Donovan