Israeli warplanes heavily bombarded an area around Khan Younis in southern Gaza on Monday as the military ordered mass evacuations from the town in the face of a widening ground offensive that is pushing Palestinians into a progressively shrinking portion of the besieged territory.
The expanded assault posed a deadly choice for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — either stay in the path of Israeli forces, or flee within the confines of southern Gaza with no guarantee of safety. Aid workers warned that the mass movement would worsen the already dire humanitarian catastrophe in the territory.
“Another wave of displacement is under way, and the humanitarian situation worsens by the hour,” the Gaza chief of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Thomas White, said in a post on X (formerly Twitter).
Adding to the chaos, phone and internet networks across Gaza collapsed again Monday evening, the Palestinian telecom provider PalTel reported. The network has broken down multiple times during the war, making it largely impossible for residents to communicate with each other or the outside world for hours -sometimes days - until it is repaired.
Israel has vowed to eliminate Gaza’s Hamas rulers, whose October 7 attack on Israel killed some 1200 people, mostly civilians, and triggered the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades. The war has already killed thousands of Palestinians and displaced over three-fourths of the territory’s population of 2.3 million people. Palestinian health officials say bombardment has killed several hundred civilians since a week-long truce ended on Friday.
Already under mounting pressure from its top ally, the United States, Israel appears to be racing to strike a death blow against Hamas — if that’s possible, given the group’s deep roots in Palestinian society — before any new ceasefire. But the mounting toll is likely to further increase international pressure to return to the negotiating table.
Airstrikes and the ground offensive in northern Gaza have reduced large swaths of Gaza City and nearby areas to a rubble-filled wasteland. Hundreds of thousands of residents fled south during the assault.
Now, around 2 million people — most of the territory’s population — are crowded into the 230 square kilometres of southern and central Gaza, where Israel’s ground offensive is now moving, threatening to render even larger areas uninhabitable.
Since the truce’s collapse, the military has ordered the population out of an area of about 62 square kilometres in and near Khan Younis, according to the evacuation maps issued by the Israeli military. That further reduces the space available for Palestinians by more than a quarter.
Fighting in central Gaza
Constant bombardment on the edges of Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city, lit up the sky over the town on Monday evening, and a stream of ambulances carrying wounded people, including several women and children, flowed into the main hospital.
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Over the past few days, Israeli strikes have been occurring “on a ferocious scale”, said Mohammed Aghaalkurdi, an aid worker with the group Medical Aid for Palestinians in Khan Younis. “Barely has any kind of aid been delivered to the people, nor is there any food left in shops.”
He said neighbourhoods and displaced shelters were emptying as people fled. Leaflets dropped by the military warn people to go south toward the border with Egypt, but they are unable to leave Gaza, as both Israel and neighbouring Egypt have refused to accept any refugees.
Relatives of Israeli Colonel Asaf Hamami mourn during his funeral at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv. Photo / AP
The area that Israel ordered evacuated covers about a fifth of Khan Younis. Before the war, that area was home to some 117,000 people, and now it also houses more than 50,000 people displaced from the north, living in 21 shelters, the UN said.
It was not known how many were fleeing. Some Palestinians have ignored past evacuation orders, saying they do not feel any safer since areas where they have been told to flee have also been bombed. Many also fear they will never be allowed back to their homes.
It was not clear where Israeli troops had moved into southern Gaza, but the military told people to stay off the main road between Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah, suggesting forces were moving between the two towns.
Israeli media also reported intense fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants in northern Gaza — in the Jabaliya refugee camp and the Gaza City district of Shijaiya, both scenes of intense bombardment and battles in recent weeks.
Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, said the army is pursuing Hamas with “maximum force” in the north and south while trying to minimise harm to civilians.
He pointed to a map that divides southern Gaza into dozens of blocks to give “precise instructions” to residents on where to evacuate. Most are urged to flee south, but, confusingly, a map posted on X by the military on Monday urged people to flee into Fakhari, a district east of Khan Younis the military ordered evacuated a day before.
“The level of human suffering is intolerable,” Mirjana Spoljaric, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said during a rare visit to Gaza. “It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza, and with a military siege in place, there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible.”
She also called for the immediate release of scores of hostages still held by Palestinian militants since the October 7 attack.
In a letter to the Red Cross chief, a group of released Israeli hostages asked to meet her while she was visiting the region and called for more help from the organisation to free the remaining 137 captives.
“Every day that passes could be their last, and the suffering they endure is inhuman,” wrote the eight freed captives and 102 relatives of hostages still in captivity.
Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip gather at a tent camp in Rafah. Photo / AP
Rising death toll in Gaza
The health ministry in Gaza said the death toll in the territory since October 7 has surpassed 15,890 people – 70 per cent of them women and children — with more than 42,000 wounded. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.
Health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said hundreds have been killed or wounded since the ceasefire’s end, with many still trapped under rubble.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah received 32 bodies overnight after Israeli strikes across central Gaza, said Omar al-Darawi, an administrative employee. Associated Press footage showed women in tears, kneeling over the bodies of loved ones and kissing them.
The military said aircraft struck some 200 Hamas targets overnight, with ground troops operating “in parallel”, without elaborating. It said troops in northern Gaza uncovered two militant tunnel shafts that held explosives and weapons in a school after coming under attack.
It is not possible to independently confirm battlefield reports from either side.
Israel says it targets Hamas operatives and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighbourhoods. Still, it does not provide accounting for its targets in individual strikes.
Israel claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence. The military says at least 81 of its soldiers have been killed.
US pressures Israel to call ceasefire
The US is pressing Israel to avoid more mass displacements and civilian deaths, a message underscored by US Vice-President Kamala Harris during a visit to the region. She also said the US would not allow the forced relocation of Palestinians out of Gaza or the occupied West Bank, or the redrawing of Gaza’s borders.
But it’s unclear how far the Biden administration is willing or able to go in pressing Israel to rein in the offensive, even as the White House faces growing pressure from its allies in Congress.
The US has pledged unwavering support to Israel since the October 7 attack, including rushing munitions and other aid to Israel.
Israel has rejected US suggestions that control over post-war Gaza be handed over to the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority as part of a renewed effort to resolve the overall conflict by establishing a Palestinian state.
- Najib Jobain, Samy Magdy, and Jack Jeffery, AP
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