Israeli tanks have battled their way to the centre of Khan Younis in a major new push into the heart of the main city in the southern Gaza Strip.
Residents said tanks had reached the main north-south road through the middle of Khan Younis on Sunday after intense combat through the night that had slowed the Israeli advance from the east. Warplanes were pounding the area west of the assault.
The air rumbled with the constant thud of explosions and thick columns of white smoke rose over the city, which is sheltering hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled other parts of the enclave. As morning broke near a city-centre police station, the constant rattle of machine gun fire could be heard. Streets there were deserted apart from an old woman and a girl riding on a donkey cart.
Israel launched the storm of Khan Younis this week after a truce collapsed, extending its ground war to Gaza's southern half in a new, expanded phase of its two-month-old campaign to wipe out Hamas militants. International aid organisations say this has left the enclave's 2.3 million people with nowhere to hide.
At the site of one Khan Younis home that had been destroyed by bombing overnight, relatives of the dead were combing the rubble in a daze. They dragged the body of a middle-aged man in a yellow T-shirt from under the masonry.
Militant group Islamic Jihad, allied to Gaza's Hamas rulers, said its fighters were battling Israeli forces in the area. The Israeli military said it bombed underground tunnel shafts in Khan Younis and attacked a squad of Palestinian gunmen preparing an ambush, but said nothing about any tank advance there.
Both sides also reported heavy fighting in the north of the Gaza Strip, where Israel had previously said its troops had mainly succeeded in their mission last month. Explosions rang out at dawn there and columns of smoke could be seen from across the fence in Israel.
Israel vowed to annihilate Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, after militants burst across the fence on October 7 and went on a rampage through Israeli towns, gunning down families in their homes, killing 1200 people and seizing 240 hostages.
Since then, Gaza's health authorities say at least 17,700 people have been confirmed killed in Israeli strikes, with thousands more missing and presumed dead under rubble. The toll no longer includes figures from northern parts of the enclave, beyond the reach of ambulances and where hospitals have ceased functioning.
The vast majority of Gaza's residents have been forced from their homes, many fleeing several times with only the belongings they can carry. Israel says it is doing what it can to protect them, but even its closest ally the United States says it has fallen short of those promises. An Israeli siege has cut off supplies, with the United Nations warning of mass hunger and disease.
At an international conference in Doha, capital of Qatar which acted as the main mediator for a week-long truce that saw more than 100 hostages freed, Arab foreign ministers criticised the United States for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution on Friday that demanded a humanitarian ceasefire.
Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said the war risked radicalising an entire generation across the Middle East.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he would "not give up" appealing for a ceasefire.
"I urged the Security Council to press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and I reiterated my appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared," Guterres said. "Regrettably, the Security Council failed to do it, but that does not make it less necessary."
Israel has spurned demands it halt the fighting. Briefing his cabinet on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had told the leaders of France, Germany and other countries: "You cannot on the one hand support the elimination of Hamas, and on other pressure us to end the war, which would prevent the elimination of Hamas."
Washington has backed Israel's position, rejecting any ceasefire as a step that would only benefit Hamas. But with the death toll soaring and UN agencies warning of humanitarian catastrophe, other Western allies have baulked: France voted in favour of the UN ceasefire resolution and Britain abstained.
Australian Associated Press