As the battle in the Beit Hanoun hospital raged, the IDF said it was pushing into the “the heart of Gaza City” for the first time since its withdrawal from the territory in 2005.

Israeli troops have conducted routine counter-insurgency operations here in the past – cynically described by politicians as “mowing the lawn” – but this latest operation aims to wipe out Hamas and its military infrastructure for good. It’s a war aim around which the Israeli public is united, but one that could yet prove difficult to achieve.

“For the first time in decades, the IDF is fighting in the heart of Gaza City, in the heart of terror,” said Maj Gen Yaron Finkelman, the head of the southern command on Tuesday, describing the ongoing offensive as “a complex and difficult war”.

Despite the firepower being deployed, he said his troops had the 240 hostages held by Hamas uppermost in their mind, and that “returning them is our compass”.

Gen Finkelman’s remarks came after Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister, warned that the country has only a matter of weeks to defeat Hamas as international pressure for a ceasefire builds.

Officials in Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health authority claim the Israeli operation has already killed more than 10,000 people, mostly in air strikes, and the US is said to be becoming increasingly concerned.

“They’re watching a train wreck, and they can’t do anything about it, and the trains are speeding up,” a person familiar with the US administration’s thinking told the Washington Post earlier this week. “The train wreck is in Gaza, but the explosion is in the region.”

Israeli forces appear to be in control of the coastal road inside Gaza City, and only about a mile from the Al Shifa hospital, where Israel says senior Hamas commanders are hiding in underground bunkers.

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