Israel widens evacuation orders as it shifts its offensive to southern Gaza

    WORLD  03 December 2023 - 17:32

    Israel’s military on December 3 ordered more areas in and around Gaza’s second-largest city of Khan Younis to evacuate, as it shifted its offensive to the southern half of the territory where it says many Hamas leaders are hiding.

    Heavy bombardments were reported overnight and into Sunday in the area of Khan Younis and the southern city of Rafah, as well as parts of the north that had been the focus of Israel’s blistering air and ground campaign, AP reports.

    Many of the territory’s 2.3 million people are crammed in the south after Israeli forces ordered civilians to leave the north in the early days of the 2-month-old war, sparked by an October 7 attack by Hamas and other militants that killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in southern Israel. Around 240 more were taken hostage.

    With the resumption of fighting, hopes receded that another temporary truce could be negotiated. A weeklong cease-fire, which expired Friday, had facilitated the release of dozens of Gaza-held Israeli and foreign hostages and Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

    “We will continue the war until we achieve all its goals, and it’s impossible to achieve those goals without the ground operation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an address Saturday night.

    Since the cease-fire collapsed, Hamas has fired scores of rockets into Israel, setting off air raid sirens across southern and central areas. Most rockets are intercepted or fall in open areas, but the fire continues to disrupt life across wide swaths of Israel. Over 200,000 Israelis have been evacuated from their homes along the Gaza and Lebanon borders due to rocket fire since Oct 7.

    On Sunday, the Israeli military widened evacuation orders in and around Khan Younis, telling residents of at least five more areas and neighbourhoods to leave for their safety. Several hundred thousand Palestinians have received evacuation orders since the fighting resumed but they have few places to go.

    Residents said the Israeli military dropped leaflets ordering them to move south to Rafah or to a coastal area in the southwest. “Khan Younis city is a dangerous combat zone,” the leaflets read.

    U.N. monitors said in a report issued before the latest evacuation orders that those who were told to leave make up about one-quarter of the territory of Gaza — home to nearly 800,000 people before the war.

    Much of Gaza’s population is now packed into the territory’s southern half. The territory itself, bordering Israel and Egypt to the south, is sealed, leaving residents with the only option of moving around within Gaza to avoid the bombings.

    There are nearly 958,000 displaced people in 99 United Nations facilities in the southern Gaza Strip, including 34 in Khan Younis, according to Juliette Toma, director of communications at the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

    The average number of displaced people in U.N. shelters is 9,500, more than four times their usual capacity, according to the agency’s report on Nov. 30. The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has warned Israel to avoid significant new mass displacement.

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

    Separately, the bodies of 31 people killed in Israeli bombardment across the central areas of the strip were taken to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Gaza’s central city of Deir al-Balah, said Omar al-Darawi, an administrative employee at that hospital.

    AP video showed bodies in white bags on the ground outside the hospital in Deri al-Balah as dozens of people held funeral prayers Sunday morning. One woman wept, cradling a child’s body on her lap as she sat on a chair. Another adult carried the body of a baby as he got into a truck taking the remains for burial.

    The Israeli military said on December 3 that 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.

    In northern Gaza, rescue teams with little equipment scrambled Sunday to dig through the rubble of buildings in the Jabaliya refugee camp and other neighbourhoods in Gaza City in search for potential survivors and dead bodies.

    “They strike everywhere,” said Amal Radwan, a woman sheltering in Jabaliya, an urban refugee camp. “There is the non-stop sound of explosions around us.”

    Mohamed Abu Abed, who lives in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in Gaza City, also said there were relentless airstrikes and shelling in his neighbourhood and surrounding areas.

    “The situation here is unimaginable,” he said. “Death is everywhere. One can die in a flash.”

    The Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Saturday that the overall death toll in the strip since the Oct. 7 start of the war had surpassed 15,200, 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 it said 70% of the dead were women and children. It said more than 40,000 people had been wounded since the war began.

    U.S. appeals to protect civilians came after an offensive in the first weeks of the war devastated large areas of northern Gaza.

    “Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters on December 2 during the COP28 climate conference in Dubai.

    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. He added that Israel is considering creating a security buffer zone that would not allow Gazans direct access to the border fence on foot.

    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.

    Bombardments on Saturday destroyed a block of about 50 residential buildings in the Shijaiyah neighbourhood of Gaza City and a six-story building in the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya on the northern edge of the city, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

    More than 60 people were killed in the Shijaiyah strikes and more than 300 buried under the rubble, the monitors said, citing the Palestinian Red Crescent.

    Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesman for Gaza’s Civil Defense, said rescuers lack bulldozers and other equipment to reach those buried under the rubble, confirming the Red Crescent estimate of about 300 people missing. He said the block had housed over 1,000 people.

    Meanwhile, Harris told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in a meeting 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, according to a U.S. summary.

    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.

    The hostages’ plight has drawn widespread attention and sympathy in Israel, and the release of some during the cease-fire put pressure on the government to negotiate additional releases. The resumption of fighting appears to have put those efforts on hold and raised fears that the remaining hostages could be in danger.

    The families of hostages have called for an urgent meeting with Israel’s Security Cabinet, saying time was “running out to save those still held by Hamas.”

    A group formed by family members of hostages said Sunday the prime minister and Security Cabinet had a “moral and ethical obligation” to meet with the relatives. “Security Cabinet members must provide families an answer to the question: How do they plan to maintain the supreme goal of the war – returning the hostages alive. Now,” they said.


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