Israeli forces penetrated the heart of Khan Younis as they closed in on the Hamas leaders accused of orchestrating the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust.
As the ground offensive intensified around the biggest city in southern Gaza, Israel was subject to a dramatic intervention by the United Nations chief amid warnings from UN aid officials of “apocalyptic” conditions facing Palestinian civilians.
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, and other commanders were believed to be hiding in tunnels underneath Khan Younis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday night that Sinwar may be able to escape, but stressed: “It’s only a matter of time before we get him.”
Israel was in a sombre mood ahead of the start on Thursday night of Hanukkah, the first Jewish festival since the October 7 raid by Hamas and allied Palestinian terrorists that massacred 1,200 people. A total of 138 Israelis remained held hostage in Gaza.
Israel’s resulting blitz in Gaza has claimed more than 16,000 Palestinian lives. Aid agencies warn that a humanitarian disaster is unfolding in the coastal strip with most of its 2.3 million people left homeless and lacking in essential supplies.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used a rarely exercised power to warn the Security Council of an impending "humanitarian catastrophe" in Gaza and to demand a full ceasefire.
He invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter, which no Secretary-General has cited in half a century, allowing him to inform the Security Council of matters believed to threaten international peace and security.
Israel accused Mr Guterres of "a new moral low" and "bias against Israel". The United States indicated it would not support Security Council action.
People trapped in UN-run shelters in Khan Younis are fighting over food, according to Nawraz Abu Libdeh, a shelter resident who said he had been displaced six times by Israeli bombardment.
"The hunger war has started," he said. "This is the worst of all wars."
The UK Government also stepped up its calls for Israel to accelerate the delivery of lifesaving aid into Gaza.
Defence Secretary Grant Shapps was on a visit to the region for talks with Israeli and Palestinian ministers. He was expected to raise efforts to recover the hostages, including a number of Britons.
Mr Shapps has authorised unarmed surveillance flights over the eastern Mediterranean, including in air space over Israel and Gaza to help locate hostages, and the deployment of an extra 1,000 military personnel in the Middle East.
“We are working to find the best way to get aid and support to those in desperate need in the quickest and most direct route. That includes options by land, sea and air,” he said.
Mr Shapps was also set to raise the “urgent need” to improve security for Palestinians in the West Bank, after the US government imposed travel sanctions on Israeli settlers accused of orchestrating violence against Palestinians.
Alicia Kearns, chair of the Commons Foreign Relations Committee, urged the Government to replicate the US bans against the “extremist settlers”.
“I am surprised we did not announce them in conjunction,” she said.