Tel Aviv — Israel's military says it is in the third phase of its groundin the Gaza Strip. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops have encircled and entered the key southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, where they suspect senior Hamas commanders behind the group's bloody Oct. 7 terror attack are hiding.
The intensity of the IDF's air and, however, has drawn mounting calls for another cease-fire from United Nations officials, humanitarian aid agencies — and even the families of some of the 138 Israeli hostages still believed to be held in Gaza.
Some of those desperate families took their concerns directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet on Tuesday, but they've told CBS News they were met by a government determined to press ahead with its stated mission to destroy Hamas.
Israel's offensive against the Palestinian militant group, which has run Gaza for almost two decades despite being designated a terror organization by the U.S., Israel and may other nations, was focused on Khan Younis. The IDF said Tuesday that forces had entered the heart of the city.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in the middle of the war. The U.N. estimates that most of Gaza's 2.3 million inhabitants have been forced to flee their homes, first driven out — on Israel's orders — of the northern half of the Palestinian enclave to the south, to places including Khan Younis, but now ordered to evacuate that city "immediately."
Aid agencies have pleaded with Israel to stop or at least pause its assault, as it did for one week under a temporary cease-fire agreement with Hamas that enabled the release of dozens of hostages in exchange for Israel freeing more than 200 Palestinian prisoners. It also enabled more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza from Egypt – but the agencies doing that work have been clear that it wasn't nearly enough, and the flow has slowed to a trickle again since the truce collapsed on Dec. 1.
The European Union's head of foreign policy, Josep Borrell, said in a social media post on Wednesday that he'd received a "worrying call" from the United Nations humanitarian relief chief Martin Griffiths, to inform him that, "due to the bombing in the south of Gaza — with many victims and massive destruction — the UN won't be able to continue operating unless there is an immediate ceasefire."
"As requested by the U.N., the fighting must stop," said Borrell.
As Israeli forces push deeper into southern Gaza, aid organizations say Palestinian civilians are running out of places to escape the onslaught.
U.N. human rights chief Volker Turk said staff from the global body's various aid agencies had "described the situation as apocalyptic," warning that in "these circumstances, there is a heightened risk of atrocity crimes."
The U.N.'s World Food Program also issued a statement calling urgently for a new humanitarian cease-fire, saying the previous one enabled it to provide aid to some 250,000 people, "but the distribution of aid is now almost impossible and endangers the lives of humanitarian workers. Above all, it is a disaster for the civilian population of Gaza."
Also pleading for a break in fighting on Tuesday were the desperate loved ones of the remaining hostages, who came to confront Netanyahu and his top aides in person on Tuesday evening.
Among the friends and family members was Jennifer Master, whose boyfriend Andrey was among those kidnapped during the Hamas rampage on Oct. 7 that Israel says saw the group kill some 1,200 people.
She and the other families heard horrifying testimony from some of the hostages released by Hamas during the pause in hostilities.
Carmit Katzir's 77-year-old mother was among those freed, but her brother Elad is still thought to be among the captives in Gaza. She said the released hostages described being "actually very close" to being killed by Israeli airstrikes.
Asked what she and the other families told their country's leader, Master said: "I want the fighting to stop!"
Katzir told CBS News on Wednesday that her mother's health deteriorated badly during her captivity. She developed heart problems from the harsh conditions and starvation, and only learned when she was released that her husband was murdered on the morning she was seized.
Katzir's family came under attack at the same kibbutz from which Lior and Noam Peri's 79-year-old father Chaim was abducted by Hamas.
They're scared, but they did get some good news from the freed hostages:
"They told us he's alive," Lior told CBS News, referring to her father. "But we then have the conditions, and the physical and the emotional state... it's unbearable."
Some of the family members said the meeting with Netanyahu and his war cabinet on Tuesday broke down into yelling, shouting and chaos, and there has been no indication that Israel's government is prepared to ease up its operations in Gaza.
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