The Israeli military on Wednesday said it had uncovered a major Hamas command center in the heart of Gaza City, inflicting what it described as a serious blow to the Islamic militant group as pressure grows on Israel to scale back its devastating military offensive in the coastal enclave.
The army said it had exposed the center of a vast underground network used by Hamas to move weapons, militants and supplies throughout the Gaza Strip. Israel has said destroying the tunnels is a major objective of the offensive.
The announcement came as Hamas’ top leader arrived in Egypt for talks aimed at brokering a temporary cease-fire and a new deal for Hamas to swap Israeli hostages for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
Israeli leaders have vowed to press ahead with the two-month-old offensive, launched in response to a bloody cross-border attack by Hamas in October that killed some 1,200 people and saw 240 others taken hostage.
The offensive has devastated much of northern Gaza, killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians, and driven some 1.9 million people — nearly 85% of the population — from their homes. The widespread destruction and heavy civilian death toll has drawn increasing international calls for a cease-fire.
Hamas militants have put up stiff resistance lately against Israeli ground troops, and its forces appear to remain largely intact in southern Gaza. It also continues to fire rockets into Israel every day.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has continued to support Israel’s right to defend itself while also urging greater effort to protect Gaza’s civilians.
But in some of the toughest American language yet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday called on Israel to scale back its operation.
“It’s clear that the conflict will move and needs to move to a lower intensity phase,” Blinken said. He said the U.S. wants to see “more targeted operations” with smaller levels of forces focused on specific targets, such as Hamas’ leaders and the group’s tunnel network.
“As that happens, I think you’ll see as well, the harm done to civilians also decrease significantly,” he said.
His comments were more pointed than statements by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who in a visit to Israel this week said the U.S. would not dictate any timeframes to its ally.
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