The United States has urged Israel to narrow the zone of combat and clarify where Palestinian civilians can seek safety during any Israeli invasion in southern portions of besieged Gaza, US officials said, to prevent a repeat of the massive death toll from Israel's northern Gaza attacks.
US officials from President Joe Biden on down, including in the State Department and Pentagon, have pleaded with Israel to take a more cautious approach if and when the Israeli military extends its war to southern Gaza.
Two-thirds of the enclave's population of 2.3 million have fled to south to avoid the war zone in the north.
Israel's indiscriminate bombing in the north and south of Gaza has killed nearly 16,000 Palestinians and sparked a strong international criticism, and Biden has taken fire at home for his sweeping support for Israel's occupation and invasion.
Washington understands Israel's desire to root out resistance group Hamas in southern Gaza, but believes greater caution is needed in the heavily populated area, said two US officials who provided some details of the advice being given.
Many of the lead architects of the Hamas blitz in southern Israel on October 7, in which 1,200 people were killed and around 240 captured, are in the south, one official noted.
"But given that hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled to the south, at Israel’s request [ultimatum], we believe Israel should only move forward after operational planning has accounted for the presence of many more innocents," the official said.
Planning should include drawing lessons from the invasion conducted in the north to enhance protections for innocent civilians, "including things like narrowing the zone of combat and clarifying areas where civilians can seek refuge," the official said.
The second official said that when Israel was planning its invasion in northern Gaza, US officials advised the Israelis to use a smaller force than planned and be careful in terms of tactics, movements, unit size and rules of engagement.
"They are still in the planning phase for the south. We are urging them to factor this into their planning," the official said.
Both officials said the US would like the Israelis to make sure they know where civilians are situated, focus on high-value precision targets and make sure they are going after specific locations rather than indiscriminate strikes.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened Israel will resume its invasion and war on Gaza "to eliminate" Hamas, which has governed Gaza for 16 years.
"After this phase of returning our abductees is exhausted, will Israel return to fighting? So my answer is an unequivocal yes," he said. "There is no way we are not going back to fighting until the end."
Netanyahu is facing rebellion from within his far-right government to end the truce and resume military invasion in blockaded Gaza. His extremist Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir has issued an ultimatum, saying the current coalition government would dissolve if the war against Gaza is halted.
Tense calm in Gaza
For Palestinians in besieged Gaza, the truce's calm has been overwhelmed by the search for aid and by horror as they see the extent of destruction caused by Israel.
In the north, residents described entire residential blocks levelled to the ground in Gaza City and surrounding areas. The smell of decomposing bodies trapped under collapsed buildings fills the air, said Mohammed Mattar, a 29-year-old resident of Gaza City who, along with other volunteers, searches for the dead under rubble or left in the streets.
They have found and buried 46 so far during the truce, he said. Most were unidentified.
More bodies remain inside rubble but can’t be reached without heavy equipment or are left on streets that are unapproachable because of Israeli troops nearby, Mattar said.
In the south, the truce has allowed more aid to be delivered from Egypt, up to 200 trucks a day, but aid officials say it is not enough, given that most now depend on outside aid.
Overwhelmed UN-run shelters house more than 1 million displaced people, with many sleeping outside in cold, rainy weather.
At a distribution centre in Rafah, large crowds line up daily for newly arrived bags of flour. But supplies run out quickly before many can get their share.
"We’ve been searching for bread for our children," said one woman in line, Nawal Abu Namous.
"Every day, we come here … we spend money on transportation to get here, just to go home with nothing."
Some markets and shops have reopened, but prices for the few items in stock have skyrocketed. Winter clothes are unavailable.
One clothes shop owner in Deir al Balah told The Associated Press that he hates opening his doors in the morning, knowing he’ll spend most of the day apologising to customers for not having winter items.
The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said some 111,000 people have respiratory infections and 75,000 have diarrhoea, more than half of them under 5 years old.
"More people could die from disease than bombings."
"We are fed up," said Omar al Darawi, who works at the overwhelmed Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in central Gaza. "We want this war to stop."