Israeli leaders vowed on Sunday to pursue their war against Hamas, even as Israel’s own casualties mounted, with 15 soldiers reported killed in the Gaza Strip since Friday.
“The war is exacting a very heavy cost from us,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israelis. “However, we have no choice but to continue to fight.” All but one of the 15 soldier deaths were on Friday and Saturday.
Mr. Netanyahu said Israel was intensifying its campaign in Gaza. About 200 targets were hit over a 24-hour period, according to the military.
Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief military spokesman, said Saturday that soldiers were fighting in a “dense area” above ground in southern Gaza’s largest city, Khan Younis, and that more forces would join a division that was working underground there to destroy tunnels operated by Hamas. Fighting in the north, where Israel says it has gained control of what it described as Hamas strongholds, has also intensified, Admiral Hagari said.
Also on Sunday, the Gaza Health Ministry said dozens of people were killed in airstrikes in Al Maghazi, a neighborhood in central Gaza.
Ministry officials blamed Israeli airstrikes for the deaths. The Israeli military said it was reviewing.
In interviews with The New York Times, witnesses in the area described the sky lighting up in red as strikes continued. “The rockets shake the room, the glass is shattered, the windows are broken,” said Safaa Al-Hasanat, who is staying at Al Maghazi.
“Our kids are in a state of unimaginable fear,” she added. “It’s a terrifying situation in every sense of the word.”
With the humanitarian crisis for the 2.2 million people of Gaza worsening by the day, international pressure has been growing on Israel to halt the intense air and ground campaign begun after Hamas forces crossed into Israel on Oct. 7 and massacred an estimated 1,200 people.
Even the United States, Israel’s closest ally, has been urging the Israeli military to move to more targeted tactics, in the hope that fewer civilians will be killed. The Palestinian death toll in Gaza is reported by health authorities there to be about 20,000.
But while Israel has signaled in recent days that it would shift to a less intense phase in the campaign, Mr. Netanyahu struck a defiant tone on Sunday, a day after speaking privately with President Biden in what was described as a “long talk.”
“I told President Biden yesterday that we will fight until absolute victory — however long that takes,” Mr. Netanyahu said in remarks at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting. “The U.S. understands this.”
The United States has backed humanitarian “pauses” in the fighting in Gaza to allow aid in to a population lacking even the most basic of daily necessities. But on Saturday, after speaking with the Israeli leader, Mr. Biden said, “I did not ask for a cease-fire.”
Mr. Netanyahu, whose popularity at home has plunged since the Hamas forces defeated Israeli security measures on Oct. 7, killing civilians and soldiers alike with little resistance, appeared at pains to make clear that the United States was not calling the shots.
“Israel is a sovereign state,” Mr. Netanyahu said, adding that the country’s wartime decisions were “not dictated by external pressure.”
He specifically rejected suggestions that the United States had tried to rein in Israel’s military activity in the region, an apparent reference to reports that Mr. Biden had advised the Israeli leader against carrying out a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah, the powerful militia in Lebanon, which could widen the war.
With most of the civilian population of Gaza driven from their homes by the Israeli assault, reports from the territory on Sunday were bleak.
“We have nothing to keep us warm and dry,” said Heba Ahmad, 36. “We are living in conditions that I could have never in my entire life imagined were possible.”
As temperatures dropped and rain fell, Ms. Ahmad said she and her husband, Ehab Ahmad, were cradling their two youngest children tightly between them at night, relying on body heat and a thin blanket to try to keep them warm as water and gusts of wind came through the holes of their makeshift tent.
When the family of seven fled to the southern Gazan district of Al-Mawasi three weeks ago to try to escape the Israel bombardment, winter was already creeping in. Now, Mr. Ahmad and his eldest sons spend their days looking for firewood and even just cardboard to keep a small fire going to cook and stay warm.
“I’m speaking to you while the smoke from the fire is blinding me,” Mr. Ahmad said in a phone interview on Sunday. In the background, someone could be heard coughing uncontrollably.
The rainy weather held one silver lining: It offered a short break from the family’s daily struggle to find water. They said they had placed a bucket outside their tent to collect rainwater, and were using it to cook and to wash themselves and their clothing.
For Israel, the report that 15 soldiers were killed in 72 hours was likely to hit hard. Another soldier died on the northern border with Jordan, where Israel has been clashing with Hezbollah forces.
In a country where most Jewish 18-year-olds are drafted for mandatory military service, and people often volunteer in the reserves into middle age, many families have an intimate connection with the military.
More than 300 soldiers were killed during the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7, and more than 150 more have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its ground offensive in response to the assault.
The death and destruction in Gaza have reverberated across the region.
In Bethlehem this weekend, as Christmas neared, a season of celebration was instead one of mourning.
Gone were the customary musical festivities. Gone was the tree-lighting ceremony. And gone were the extravagant decorations that normally bedeck the city that many revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem did put out a crèche, but the baby Jesus — wrapped in a kaffiyeh, the black-and-white checkered scarf that is a badge of Palestinian identity — was lying not in a makeshift cradle of hay and wood but among broken bricks, stones and tiles.
“We’ve been glued to our screens, seeing children pulled from under the rubble day after day,” said the pastor of the church, the Rev. Munther Isaac. “We’re broken by these images. God is under the rubble in Gaza, this is where we find God right now.”
Reporting was contributed by Yara Bayoumy, Samar Hazboun, Nadav Gavrielov, Katie Rogers, Rachel Abrams, Ameera Harouda and Andrés R. Martínez.