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Israel-Palestine war: Grim Christmas Eve in Bethlehem as war rages in Gaza

At least 70 killed in Gaza's Maghazi refugee camp in one of deadliest strikes of the war, as Strip's death toll spirals
Children inspect items in the rubble in a room overlooking a building destroyed by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 24 December 2023 (Said Khatib/AFP)
Children inspect items in the rubble in a room overlooking a building destroyed by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 24 December 2023 (Said Khatib/AFP)

Gaza's deadliest-ever war cast a pall of gloom over Bethlehem on Christmas Eve on Sunday, as the death toll spiralled and Israel shifted its efforts against Hamas to the besieged territory's south.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run Strip said an Israeli strike late on Sunday killed at least 70 people in the Maghazi refugee camp, in central Gaza, and destroyed several houses. If the death toll is confirmed, it will be one of the deadliest strikes since the war began on 7 October.

Health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said the "toll is likely to rise" as many families were thought to be in the area at the time of the strike.

"What is happening at the Maghazi camp is a massacre that is being committed on a crowded residential square," Qudra said.

Hamas issued a statement calling the air strike "a horrific massacre" and said it was "a new war crime".

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More than 20,400 people have now been confirmed killed, according to authorities in Gaza, and thousands more are believed dead under the rubble. The vast majority of the 2.3 million Gazans have been driven from their homes and the United Nations says conditions are catastrophic.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed reports that Washington convinced Israel not to expand its military activity during a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.

"I have seen false publications claiming that the US prevented and is preventing us from operational operations in the region," Netanyahu said. "This is not true. Israel is a sovereign state. Our decisions in the war are based on our operational considerations, and I will not elaborate on that."

The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that Netanyahu was persuaded by President Joe Biden not to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon out of concerns it would launch an attack on Israel similar to the 7 October attack launched by Hamas.

Christmas 'cancelled'

Christmas celebrations were effectively cancelled in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, where the Latin patriarch offered a message of solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza.

And Pope Francis kicked off mass at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome with a call for peace.

"Tonight, our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war, by the clash of arms that even today prevents him from finding room in the world," the Catholic leader said.

'Tonight, our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war'

- Pope Francis

US President Joe Biden earlier stressed the "critical need" to protect civilians, in a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed Israel would "continue the war until all of its goals have been achieved", according to official statements.

As heavy fighting raged on, the Israeli army said 154 troops had died in Gaza since it launched its ground invasion on 27 October.

Ten soldiers were killed in battles on Saturday, one of the deadliest days for the Israeli side.

"The war is exacting a very heavy price... but we have no choice but to keep fighting," said Netanyahu.

Israel's withering military campaign, including massive aerial bombardment, has killed 20,424 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza's health ministry.

The Gaza health ministry reported late Sunday a strike that killed 10 members of one family in the Jabalia camp in northern Gaza.

'Our heart goes to Gaza'

As the war rages on, Christians around the world marked Christmas Eve.

Festivities are usually held in Bethlehem, where faithful believe Jesus was born, but this year the city is almost deserted, with few worshippers around and no Christmas tree erected, after church leaders decided to forego "any unnecessarily festive" celebrations in solidarity with Gazans.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrived on Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, clad in the traditional black and white keffiyeh.

War on Gaza: Netanyahu denies US convinced Israel not to expand military operations
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"Our heart goes to Gaza, to all people in Gaza but a special attention to our Christian community in Gaza who are suffering," he said.

"We are here to pray and to ask not only for a ceasefire, a ceasefire is not enough… violence generates only violence."

Sister Nabila Salah from the Catholic Holy Church in Gaza - where two Christian women were killed by an Israeli sniper earlier this month according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem - struck a sombre tone.

"All Christmas celebrations have been cancelled," she told AFP. "How do we celebrate when we are… hearing the sound of tanks and bombardment instead of the ringing of bells?"

At a hospital in Khan Younis, where much of the fighting has been concentrated recently, Fadi Sayegh, whose family has previously received permits to travel to Bethlehem for celebrations, said he would not be celebrating Christmas this year.

"There is no joy. No Christmas tree, no decorations, no family dinner, no celebrations," he said, while undergoing dialysis. "I pray for this war to be over soon."

Palestinian claims of torture

Vast areas of Gaza lie in ruins and its 2.4 million people have endured dire shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine due to an Israeli siege, alleviated only by the limited arrival of aid trucks.

The Jordanian army said its air force had air-dropped aid to about 800 people sheltering at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in northern Gaza.

'A humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza is the only way forward. War defies logic and humanity, and prepares a future of more hatred and less peace'

- Filippo Grandi, UN

Eighty percent of Gazans have been displaced, according to the UN, with many fleeing south and now shielding themselves against the winter cold in makeshift tents.

Two Palestinian men who had been held by the Israeli army in Gaza and a medic alleged that detainees have been subjected to torture in Israeli custody, including beatings and food deprivation.

Nayef Ali, 22, said he was detained in Gaza City's eastern Zaitun suburb and later taken to an Israeli detention facility, and showed cuts on his wrists and other parts of his body.

"They [Israeli troops] tied our hands behind our backs for two days," he said.

"We were not allowed to eat or drink, neither were we allowed to use the toilet. There were only beatings and beatings."

The head of the UN refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, urged an end to the suffering in the third month of the war.

"A humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza is the only way forward," he wrote on X (formerly Twitter). "War defies logic and humanity, and prepares a future of more hatred and less peace."

And World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus similarly renewed calls for a ceasefire, saying: "The decimation of the Gaza health system is a tragedy."

On Friday, the United States allowed the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that effectively called on Israel to allow "immediate, safe and unhindered" deliveries of life-saving aid to Gaza "at scale".

World powers had wrangled for days over the wording and, at Washington's insistence, toned down some provisions - including removing a call for a ceasefire.

Heightened tensions

The Gaza war has heightened tensions across the Middle East. Yemen's Houthi rebels have fired at cargo vessels in the Red Sea, leading the United States to build a naval taskforce to deter the missile and drone strikes.

Thousands took to the streets of Rabat on Sunday to demand an end to Morocco's ties with Israel.

Protesters waved Palestinian flags and held placards reading "resistance till victory", "stop Moroccan government normalisation with Israel" and "free Palestine".

Rabat normalised ties with Israel in 2020, in a deal brokered by former US President Donald Trump's administration. 

The two countries are yet to complete the process of setting up full embassies in each other's countries, but Morocco and Israel have moved closer together, including by signing a defence cooperation pact.

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