Israel widens evacuation orders, shifts offensive to southern Gaza


KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip –


Israel’s military ordered more areas in and around Gaza’s second-largest city of Khan Younis to evacuate on Sunday, followed by heavy bombardment, as it shifted its offensive to the southern half of the territory where it asserts that leaders of the Hamas militant group are hiding.


Palestinians in Gaza said they were running out of places to go. The Gaza Strip, bordering Israel and Egypt, is sealed. Many of the territory’s 2.3 million people are crammed in the south after Israel ordered civilians to leave the north in the early days of the war sparked by the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and other militants that killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in southern Israel.


Before the latest evacuation orders, United Nations monitors said the areas told to evacuate made up about one-quarter of the territory.


Heavy bombardment was reported overnight into Sunday around Khan Younis and the southern city of Rafah, as well as parts of the north that had been the focus of Israel’s shattering air and ground offensive. Juliette Toma, director of communications at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said nearly 958,000 displaced people were in 99 United Nations facilities in the southern Gaza Strip.


UN human rights chief Volker Turk urged an end to the war, saying civilian suffering was “too much to bear.”


Hopes for another temporary truce were fading. A weeklong ceasefire that expired Friday had facilitated the release of dozens of the around 240 Gaza-held Israeli and foreign hostages in exchange for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. But Israel has called its negotiators home.


“We will continue the war until we achieve all its goals, and it’s impossible to achieve those goals without the ground operation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday evening. One goal is to remove Hamas from power in Gaza.


It was not clear how many people had been killed since the end of the ceasefire.


On Sunday, Israel’s military widened evacuation orders in and around Khan Younis, telling residents of at least five more areas and neighbourhoods to leave. Residents said the military dropped leaflets ordering them to move south to the border city of Rafah or to a coastal area in the southwest. “Khan Younis city is a dangerous combat zone,” leaflets read.


But Halima Abdel-Rahman, a widow and mother of four, said she won’t heed such orders anymore. She fled her home in October to an area outside Khan Younis, where she stays with relatives.


“The occupation tells you to go to this area, then they bomb it,” she said by phone. “The reality is that no place is safe in Gaza. They kill people in the north. They kill people in the south.”


The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has told Israel to avoid significant new mass displacement and do more to protect civilians. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris also told Egypt’s president that “under no circumstances” would the U.S. permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, an ongoing siege of Gaza or the redrawing of its borders.


On the ground in Gaza, there was frustration and mourning. Outside a Gaza City hospital, a dust-covered boy named Saaed Khalid Shehta dropped to his knees beside the bloodied body of his little brother Mohammad, one of several bodies laid out after people said their street was hit by airstrikes. He kissed him.


“You bury me with him!” the boy cried. A health worker at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital said more than 15 children were killed.


Israel’s military said its fighter jets and helicopters “struck terror targets in the Gaza Strip, including terror tunnel shafts, command centres and weapons storage facilities” overnight, while a drone killed five Hamas fighters.


The bodies of 31 people killed in Israeli bombardment across central Gaza were taken to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al-Balah, said Omar al-Darawi, a hospital administrative employee. Associated Press video showed bodies in bags outside the hospital as dozens of people held funeral prayers. One woman wept, cradling a child’s body on her lap. Another carried the body of a baby.


The main hospital in Khan Younis received at least three dead and dozens wounded Sunday from an Israeli strike that hit a residential building in the eastern part of the city, according to an AP journalist there.


In northern Gaza, rescue teams with little equipment dug through the rubble of buildings in the Jabaliya urban refugee camp and other Gaza City neighbourhoods.


“They strike everywhere,” said Amal Radwan, a woman sheltering in Jabaliya. “There is the nonstop sound of explosions around us.”


The Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Sunday the overall death toll in the strip since Oct. 7 had surpassed 15,500, a sharp jump from the previous count of more than 13,300 on Nov. 20. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but said 70 per cent of the dead were women and children. It said more than 40,000 people had been wounded.


“Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating,” the U.S. vice president said Saturday.


Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, said Israel was making “maximum effort” to protect civilians and the military has used leaflets, phone calls, and radio and TV broadcasts to urge Gazans to move from specific areas.


Israel says it targets Hamas operatives and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighbourhoods. It claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence. Israel says at least 78 of its soldiers have been killed in the offensive in northern Gaza.


The renewed hostilities have heightened concerns for 137 hostages, who the Israeli military says are still being held after 105 were freed during the recent truce. Israel freed 240 Palestinians during the truce. Most of those released by both sides were women and children.


Israel’s government is under pressure to negotiate additional releases. The families of hostages have called for an urgent meeting with the security cabinet, saying time was “running out to save those still held by Hamas.”


Fears of a wider conflict continued. Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group said it struck Israeli positions near the tense Lebanon-Israel border as clashes between the Iran-backed group and Israeli military resumed. Eleven people — eight soldiers and three civilians — were injured from Hezbollah fire in the area of Beit Hillel, army radio reported.


——


Magdy reported from Cairo and Becatoros from Athens, Greece. Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed to this report.

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