The war in Gaza ground into the new year on Monday, with Hamas firing a barrage of rockets at Israel just as the clock struck midnight and two dozen people killed overnight in Israeli strikes on the Palestinian territory.
Air alert sirens sounded across Israel as 2024 began, and AFP journalists in Tel Aviv witnessed missile defence systems intercepting rockets overhead, with some revellers in the streets below rushing for cover while others kept up the party with a shrug.
“We were all afraid on the corners… my heart was pounding,” Gabriel Zemelman, 26, said in front of a bar after the rocket fire.
“It’s terrifying. You just saw the life we live, it’s crazy.”
The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attack in a video published on social media, saying they had fired M90 rockets in “response to the massacres of civilians” carried out by Israel.
The Israeli army confirmed the attack, without initially reporting any casualties or damage.
Surrounded by partiers, server Ran Stahl, 24, said he didn’t have the heart to celebrate, not since one of his friends was killed in Hamas’s attack on the Supernova music festival.
“The minute I start to dance, I feel guilty — the sadness and mourning come back,” he said.
In Gaza, overnight Israeli strikes killed at least 24 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, with attacks reported across the length of the territory.
The nearly three-month war in Gaza was triggered by Hamas’s bloody October 7 attacks on Israel, which killed around 1,140 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Fighters also took around 250 people hostage that day, most of whom remain in Gaza, according to Israeli officials.
Israel vowed to destroy Hamas in response, launching a punishing offensive in the Gaza Strip that has reduced vast areas to a ruined wasteland and killed at least 21,822 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.
The Israeli army says 172 of its soldiers have been killed inside Gaza, with the war showing no signs of stopping.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Saturday that the fighting would last “many months until Hamas is eliminated and the hostages are returned”.
– ‘We live like animals’ –
In the besieged Gaza Strip, where the UN says 85 percent of the population has been displaced, 20-year-old Hamdan Abu Arab said he hoped “2024 will be better”.
“Just a while ago, I was talking to my friends, and we remembered how… we used to go out and enjoy our time on the last day of the year. But this New Year’s Eve, there are only missiles and the remains of people,” he said.
Since Israel imposed a siege at the outset of the war, Gazans have been facing dire shortages of food, fuel, water and medicine.
UN chief Antonio Guterres has condemned the “epic human suffering” and “collective punishment” of Palestinian civilians, while the WHO has warned of the risk of infectious disease.
“We are exhausted… We were displaced five times during this war,” said 29-year-old Bassam Hana.
“We hope things improve in 2024 and that we live just like any other human being. Currently, we live like animals.”
At least 48 Palestinians were killed in strikes on Gaza City over the weekend, the territory’s health ministry said, with many still buried under the rubble.
“After the explosion we arrived at the scene of the strike and saw martyrs everywhere,” said one resident after a building was hit.
“Children are still missing, we can’t find them.”
In his nightly briefing on Sunday, Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari said several militants “were killed and subdued during the battles in Khan Yunis” earlier in the day.
“We are continuing to handle the underground tunnels and to strike the rocket launching array, in order to reduce rocket fire into the State of Israel.
“Dozens of aircrafts are in the skies of Gaza at any given moment,” he said.
– Regional fears –
International mediators have continued efforts toward a new pause in fighting.
A Hamas delegation from Qatar visited Cairo on Friday to discuss an Egyptian three-phase plan proposing renewable ceasefires, a staggered release of hostages for Palestinian prisoners, and ultimately an end to the war, sources close to Hamas said.
Their allies Islamic Jihad said on Saturday that Palestinian factions were “in the process” of evaluating the proposal and would give a response “within days”.
The war in Gaza has raised fears of a broader regional conflict, with hostilities flaring with mostly Iran-backed militant groups in nearby countries who say they are acting in support of Hamas.
The Israeli army announced Sunday night having intercepted two “hostile aircraft” launched from Syria towards northern Israel. Earlier it had reported launches toward Israeli territory originating in Lebanon.
“Throughout the day, IDF (military) tanks and helicopters targeted three terrorist squads operating in Lebanon,” the army said in a statement.
And in the Red Sea, the US military said Sunday that Navy helicopters had fired at Iran-backed Huthi rebel boats off Yemen that were attacking a cargo ship, with Yemeni sources reporting 10 rebels killed.