Israel has said the Gaza war against Hamas militants was taking its toll on troops, as the focus of combat shifted to the south where most displaced Palestinians are trapped.

Hamas launched a shock attack against Israel from Gaza on October 7, killing about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Hamas and other Palestinian militants also took around 250 hostages, of whom 105 have been released and several killed, including by friendly fire.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has led a relentless air and ground offensive that has left much of Gaza in ruins and killed more than 20,400 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

On day 79 of the war, here are key developments from the past 24 hours:

Gaza Death Toll Rises

The health ministry in Gaza said at least 20,424 people have been killed in the Palestinian territory since the start of the war.

The toll included 166 deaths in the past 24 hours, it said, and 54,036 people had been wounded.

Netanyahu Expects ‘Long War’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the war was exacting a “very heavy price” as the toll of soldiers killed in fighting with Hamas mounted to 154.

“This is a difficult morning, after a very difficult day of fighting in Gaza,” he said after the army announced the deaths of 14 soldiers in Gaza since Friday.

“Let it be clear: This will be a long war,” Netanyahu added.

US President Joe Biden earlier had a “long talk” with Netanyahu, in which Biden emphasized “the critical need” to protect civilians but did not ask for a ceasefire.

Israeli Troops Push South

The Israeli army indicated its forces were close to having operational control in northern Gaza, after weeks of intense fighting.

Now, “We focus our efforts against Hamas in southern Gaza,” military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said.

Fighting has raged in Khan Yunis, the birthplace of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza and the man Israel holds most responsible for the attack that sparked the war.

The Israeli army said it had attacked about 200 targets in Gaza over the past day.

Gaza Health System Decimated: WHO

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Sunday the health system in Gaza was being destroyed.

“The decimation of the Gaza health system is a tragedy,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter. “We persist in calling for CeasefireNow.”

The UN health agency has long been sounding the alarm about the state of health care in the besieged territory, where only nine out of 36 hospitals remain partially functional.

Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for the health ministry in Gaza, said healthcare in the territory’s south was “collapsing, and northern Gaza has no health services at all.”

Islamic Jihad Chief in Egypt

The leader of Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, which has been fighting alongside Hamas, has arrived in Cairo for talks on a potential truce and hostage exchange, a senior member in his movement said.

Ziad Nakhaleh’s visit to Egypt, which has long mediated between Israel and the Palestinians, follows a similar trip last week by Hamas’s chief.

‘Tonight Our Hearts Are in Bethlehem’

Pope Francis on Sunday appealed for peace as he kicked off Christmas celebrations with a mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica as the Israel-Hamas war raged in the Gaza Strip.

“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 pope said to some 6,500 faithful who attended the traditional service.

Francis’s address never mentioned Israel or Gaza by name, but he made numerous references to violence and war.

arguing that justice would not come “from a show of force”, the pontiff said Jesus “does not eliminate injustice from above by a show of force, but from below, by a show of love”.

Malo Pinatel, with AFP