By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Bassam Masoud and Dan Williams
CAIRO/GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli airstrikes killed at least 78 people in Gaza, Palestinian health officials said, in one of the besieged enclave’s deadliest nights of Israel’s 11-week-old battle with Hamas.
Strikes that began hours before midnight persisted into Christmas Day on Monday. Residents and Palestinian media said Israel stepped up air and ground shelling against al-Bureij in central Gaza.
Pope Francis lamented that Jesus’ message of peace was being drowned out by the “futile logic of war” in the very land where he was born.
At least 70 people were killed in an Israeli airstrike targeting Maghazi in central Gaza, health ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidra said, adding that many were women and children.
The Israeli army said it was reviewing the report of a Maghazi incident and was committed to minimising harm to civilians. Hamas denies the Israeli charge that it operates in densely populated areas or uses civilians as human shields.
The Palestinian Red Crescent published footage of wounded residents being transported to hospitals. It said Israeli warplanes were bombing main roads, hindering the passage of ambulances and emergency vehicles.
Medics said an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis in southern Gaza killed eight Palestinians.
Clergy cancelled celebrations in Bethlehem, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank city where Christian tradition says Jesus was born in a stable 2,000 years ago.
“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, presiding at Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Palestinian Christians held a candle-lit Christmas vigil in Bethlehem with hymns and prayers for peace in Gaza, instead of the usual celebrations.
There was no large tree, the usual centrepiece of Bethlehem’s Christmas observances. Nativity figurines in churches were placed amid rubble and barbed wire in solidarity with the people of Gaza.
Hamas and smaller militant ally Islamic Jihad, both sworn to Israel’s destruction, are believed to be holding more than 100 hostages from among 240 they captured during their Oct. 7 rampage through Israeli towns, when they killed 1,200 people.
Since then, Israel has besieged the narrow Gaza Strip and laid much of it to waste, with more than 20,400 people confirmed killed, according to authorities in Hamas-ruled Gaza, and thousands more believed dead under the rubble.
The vast majority of the 2.3 million Gazans have been driven from their homes, and the United Nations says conditions are catastrophic.
Since a week-long truce collapsed at the start of the month, fighting has only intensified on the ground, with war spreading from the north of the Gaza Strip to the full length of the densely populated enclave.
The Israeli military said on Sunday that two of its soldiers had died in the past day, bringing to 158 the number killed since ground operations began on Oct. 20.
“This is a difficult morning, after a very difficult day of fighting in Gaza,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday. “The war is exacting a very heavy cost from us. However, we have no choice (but) to continue to fight.”
He said in a video message that troops would fight deeper into Gaza until “total victory” over Hamas.
Israel has been under pressure from its closest ally the United States to shift operations to a lower-intensity phase and reduce civilian deaths.
On Saturday, Israel’s military chief of staff said his forces had largely achieved operational control in the north of Gaza and would expand operations further in the south.
But residents say fighting has only intensified in northern districts.
Diplomatic efforts, mediated by Egypt and Qatar, on a new truce to free the remaining hostages held by militants in Gaza have yielded little public progress, although Washington described the talks last week as “very serious.”
Islamic Jihad said a delegation led by its exiled leader Ziad al-Nakhlala was in Cairo on Sunday. His arrival followed talks attended by Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in recent days.
The militant groups have said they would not discuss any release of hostages unless Israel ends its war in Gaza, while the Israelis say they are willing to discuss only a pause in fighting.