Israeli planes bombed refugee camps in Gaza on Saturday as its troops expanded ground operations and tens of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes, setting the stage for a new year as bloody and destructive as the last three months of 2023.
The threat of wider escalation also looms large over the region, as skirmishes on the northern boundary with Lebanon intensify, and Israeli officials have hinted that the “diplomatic hourglass” is running out to reach a negotiated solution.
For now there seems little hope of even a temporary break in attacks, even after Egypt hosted leaders for talks last week and pushed plans for a staged break in the war.
A senior Hamas official told AP on Saturday the militant group is firm in its position that there will be no hostage releases without a permanent ceasefire. Israel will not accept ending a war its leaders describe as existential and “without limit”.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says Hamas must be destroyed after the brutal attacks of 7 October, when gunmen broke into Israel and murdered 1,200 people, the majority civilians.
The scale of death and suffering inside Gaza has isolated Israel internationally, with even allies such as the UK now calling for a “sustainable ceasefire”. More than 21,600 people have been killed in Gaza, the majority women and children, and thousands more buried under the rubble, health authorities in the Hamas-run strip say.
The intense attacks over Friday and Saturday , including on the urban refugee camps of Nuseirat and Bureij, killed 165 people in 24 hours, authorities said.
Steadfast support from Washington has helped Israeli leaders shrug off international concern about the humanitarian crisis to focus on the military campaign.
On Friday the administration of President Joe Biden approved a $150m (£118m) sale of military equipment to Israel, bypassing Congress to do so for the second time in a month. The state department cited the “urgency of Israel’s defensive need”. Across Israeli society there is broad support for the war, despite widespread anger at the military and intelligence failures that left Israelis so vulnerable on 7 October, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist and a fellow at the US foreign policy thinktank the Century Foundation.
Families of those held hostage have been powerful critics of the government, and loud voices calling for a ceasefire, but even they “are not really calling to end the war”, she said.
American officials in recent weeks have called for more “targeted” attacks on Hamas leaders, amid daily warnings from the UN and other aid agencies about the devastating scale of human suffering.
“Gaza is grappling with catastrophic hunger. 40% of the population are now at risk of famine,” UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said on Saturday . “Every day is a struggle for survival.”
Gazans have almost all fled their homes, clustering in tents and overcrowded parts of the south and central strip that Israeli military officials say are safer, though they are still regularly bombed.
There are shortages of food, clean water and medical supplies, after weeks of tight Israeli blockade. When supplies are allowed in, active fighting and logistics challenges in an area devastated by war mean they do not reach many desperate inhabitants.
Thomas White, director of Gaza affairs at UNRWA, said Israeli troops opened fire on UN workers on an aid mission on Friday.
“Israeli soldiers fired at an aid convoy as it returned from northern Gaza along a route designated by the Israeli army,” White said on X, formerly Twitter.
“Our international convoy leader and his team were not injured but one vehicle sustained damage.”
Military and diplomatic support is still flowing, but an end to America’s unconditional backing is in sight next year, meaning Israeli leaders have little incentive to curb their campaign now.
“America is pushing Israeli authorities to start at least envisioning the end of the intense stage,” said Scheindlin.
Having sworn to destroy Hamas, and take out its leadership, they are still short of any tangible evidence that a war that has brought devastation to Gaza and claimed a mounting toll of Israeli soldiers has made the country safer.
Israeli’s military has repeatedly claimed it is closing in on the men behind the 7 October attacks. On Saturday a spokesman said troops had destroyed a tunnel complex in a house used by Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, and shared pictures of the site.
But they have not managed to kill or capture any of the top Hamas leaders on the country’s hit list, or detail how they believe they can wipe out an organisation with political and ideological connections far beyond Gaza.
Scheindlin described a war that began as a scrambled effort to stop an active attack, shifted to a campaign with a legitimate military objective but fuelled by fury and a hunger for revenge, is now coasting on inertia.
The unity that brought the country together in grief and horror after the 7 October attacks by Hamas is starting to show cracks.
Perhaps the most divisive question is how much of a priority the fate of the hostages should be in the war: many families say they feel neglected by the government.
Questions over Netanyahu’s push for controversial judicial reforms, which fuelled fierce political divisions and mass protests, are now resurfacing.
The economy is also suffering with reservists away from their jobs, tourism badly affected by the war, spending down at a sombre time for the nation.
Domestic and international pressure together might not have the impact that those who want to see the attacks stopped or curbed might hope for, however, simply because the government does not have another plan.
Despite “all the internal pressures that might make us think the government wants to wind down the war, I don’t totally buy that,” Scheindlin said. “They are acting completely consistently with their utter incompetency in the first months (in power).
“ They don’t have any other plan, even if this one isn’t working.”