The situation in Gaza continued to deteriorate on Sunday, December 31st, as the world prepares for New Year’s celebrations. On a regional scale, tensions are sharply escalating in Iraq, Syria and the Red Sea.

Israeli strikes pounded Gaza on Sunday as both sides near the end of a dark year, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack will last for “many months.”

At least 48 Palestinians were killed in overnight bombing in Gaza City, the health ministry in the Gaza Strip said, with many still buried under the rubble.

“After the explosion we arrived at the scene of the strike and saw martyrs everywhere,” said one resident after a building was hit. “Children are still missing, we can’t find them.”

Another strike killed 20 people sheltering at Al-Aqsa University in the west of Gaza City, witnesses said.

The Israeli army reported killing around a dozen enemy fighters in multiple ground battles and air and tank strikes, and said it located Hamas tunnels and explosives planted in a kindergarten.

As heavy combat rages on, 85 percent of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have been displaced, according to the UN, which warns of a growing risk of hunger and disease as desperate families shelter in makeshift tents against the winter cold.

The world has watched on in horror for months as the decades-old Israel-Palestine conflict exploded into the bloodiest ever Gaza war after Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on October 7.

The Palestinian gunmen overwhelmed Gaza’s high-tech border fence and burst into southern Israel in an attack that killed about 1,140 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

The surprise attack—in which Hamas militants committed atrocities and dragged off some 250 hostages—blindsided and infuriated Israel and sparked a devastating military response.

Heavy bombardment and a ground invasion launched three weeks into the war have reduced vast areas of Gaza to a ruined wasteland and killed at least 21,822 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry.

More than 55,000 people have been injured, it said, at a time when most Gaza hospitals are either out of service or damaged and overwhelmed.

The Israeli army says 172 of its soldiers have been killed inside Gaza, and Netanyahu said Israeli forces had killed about 8,000 “terrorists” so far.

‘Epic Human Suffering’

UN chief Antonio Guterres has condemned the “epic human suffering” and “collective punishment” of Palestinian civilians.

He and other world leaders have repeatedly called for a ceasefire while Israel has vowed to push on until Hamas is defeated, a position backed by its powerful ally, the United States.

“The war will continue for many months until Hamas is eliminated and the hostages are returned,” Netanyahu reiterated at a news conference on Saturday.

On Sunday, he vowed, “We will continue our defensive war, the justice and morality of which is without peer.”

Inside Gaza, Palestinian families—many pushed into the territory’s far south as the battlefront draws ever closer—are praying for a respite from the war.

“We were hoping that 2024 would arrive under better auspices and that we would be able to celebrate the new year at home with our families,” said Mahmoud Abou Shahma, 33, in a camp in Rafah on the border with Egypt.

“We hope that the war will end and that we will be able to return to our homes and live in peace.”

Desperate Hostage Families

At least 129 hostages are still believed to be held in Gaza after more than 100 were released in a prisoner swap during a week-long truce in late November.

Families and friends of the remaining captives have rallied to keep up pressure on the government to bring them home.

“I hope there’s going to be another deal, even a partial deal, or that some will be released,” said one demonstrator, Nir Shafran, 45.

“I’m trying to hold on to every shred of hope.”

International mediators have continued efforts toward a new pause in fighting.

A Hamas delegation from Qatar visited Cairo on Friday to discuss an Egyptian three-phase plan proposing renewable ceasefires, a staggered release of hostages for Palestinian prisoners and ultimately an end to the war, sources close to Hamas said.

Their allies the Islamic Jihad said on Saturday that Palestinian factions were “in the process” of evaluating the proposal and would give a response “within days.”

US news outlet Axios and Israeli website Ynet, both citing unnamed Israeli officials, reported that Qatari mediators had told Israel that Hamas was prepared to resume talks on new hostage releases in exchange for a ceasefire.

Netanyahu, when asked about the process on Saturday, said Hamas had been “giving all kinds of ultimatums that we didn’t accept.”

“We are seeing a certain shift (but) I don’t want to create an expectation,” he said, without elaborating.

Multiple Mideast Fronts

Amid the Gaza war, violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank and between Israel and some of its regional enemies, an alliance of Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Israeli forces have traded heavy fire with Hezbollah across the UN-patrolled border.

Netanyahu warned that “if Hezbollah wants to extend the war, it will be dealt blows like never before, and so will Iran.” Hezbollah’s number two Naim Qassem said Sunday that Israel “must first stop the Gaza war in order for the war in Lebanon to stop.”

Another Iran ally, Yemen’s Houthis, has launched drone and missile attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea, saying the strikes are in support of Palestinians in Gaza. Washington has assembled a multinational naval task force to deter such attacks.

The military said on Sunday that US Navy helicopters sank three Houthi vessels and killed their crews after they had attacked a Danish-owned container ship. At least 10 rebels were killed when US forces struck their boats, two sources at the rebel-controlled Yemeni port of Hodeida said.

In Syria, 23 fighters affiliated to Iran were killed on Saturday in “probably Israeli” air strikes in the east of the country, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which also reported four deaths in other strikes near Aleppo (north).

And in Iraq, a base of the armed forces of Iraqi Kurdistan was targeted overnight by “two drone attacks,” causing material damage, the regional authorities said on Sunday, pointing the finger at “outlaw elements financed” by Baghdad.

Malo Pinatel, with AFP