Israel Orders Mass Evacuations as It Widens Offensive; Palestinians Are Running Out of Places To Go

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Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to the hospital
Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to the hospital in Deir al Balah on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/ Hatem Moussa)

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — The Israeli military on Monday renewed its calls for mass evacuations from the southern town of Khan Younis, where tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought refuge in recent weeks, as it widened its ground offensive and bombarded targets across the Gaza Strip.

The expanded offensive, following the collapse of a weeklong cease-fire, is aimed at eliminating Gaza's Hamas rulers, whose Oct. 7 attack into Israel 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 Palestinians, who are running out of safe places to go.

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 even possible, given the group’s deep roots in Palestinian society — before another cease-fire. But the mounting toll of the fighting, which Palestinian health officials say has killed several hundred civilians since the truce ended on Friday, further increases pressure to return to the negotiating table.

It could also render even larger parts of the isolated territory uninhabitable.

The ground offensive has transformed much of the north, including large parts of Gaza City, into a rubble-filled wasteland. Hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge in the south, which could meet the same fate, and both Israel and neighboring Egypt have refused to accept any refugees.

Residents said they heard airstrikes and explosions in and around Khan Younis overnight and into Monday after the military dropped leaflets warning people to relocate further south toward the border with Egypt. In an Arabic language post on social media early Monday, the military again ordered the evacuation of nearly two dozen neighborhoods in and around Khan Younis.

Halima Abdel-Rahman, a widow and mother of four, said she's stopped heeding such orders. She fled her home in October to an area outside Khan Younis, where she stays with relatives.

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

Rising toll

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said the death toll in the territory since Oct. 7 has surpassed 15,500, with more than 41,000 wounded. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but said 70% of the dead were women and children.

A Health Ministry spokesman asserted that hundreds had been killed or wounded since the cease-fire ended early Friday. “The majority of victims are still under the rubble,” Ashraf al-Qidra said.

The Palestinian Civil Defense department said an Israeli strike early Monday killed three of its rescuers in Gaza City. The Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service said one of its volunteers was killed and an employee was wounded in a strike on a home in the urban Jabalia refugee camp, also in the north.

An Associated Press reporter in the central town of Deir al-Balah heard shooting and the sound of tanks south of the line across which Palestinians from the north were told for weeks to evacuate, but there was no immediate visual confirmation. The military rarely comments on troop deployments.

Hopes for another temporary truce faded after Israel called its negotiators home over the weekend. Hamas said talks on releasing more of the scores of hostages seized by Palestinian militants on Oct. 7 must be tied to a permanent cease-fire.

The earlier truce facilitated the release of 105 of the roughly 240 Israeli and foreign hostages taken to Gaza during the Oct. 7 attack, and the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Most of those released by both sides were women and children.

The United States, along with Qatar and Egypt, which mediated the earlier cease-fire, say they are working on a longer truce.

In the meantime, the U.S. is pressing Israel to avoid more mass displacement and the killing of civilians, a message underscored by Vice President Kamala Harris during a visit to the region. She also said the U.S. 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 U.S. has pledged unwavering support to Israel since the Oct. 7 attack, which killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, including rushing munitions and other aid to Israel.

Israel has rejected U.S. suggestions that control over postwar Gaza be handed over to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority ahead of renewed efforts to resolve the conflict by establishing a Palestinian state.

Gaza's misery deepens

Palestinians who used last week's respite to stock up on food and other basics, and to try and bury their dead, are once again struggling to escape Israel's aerial bombardment.

Outside a Gaza City hospital on Sunday, a dust-covered boy named Saaed Shehta dropped to his knees and kissed the bloodied body of his little brother Mohammad, one of several bodies laid out after people said their street was hit by airstrikes.

“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 targets in Gaza, including “tunnel shafts, command centers and weapons storage facilities." It acknowledged "extensive aerial attacks in the Khan Younis area."

The bodies of 31 people killed in the bombardment of central Gaza were taken to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Hospital in Deir al-Balah on Sunday, said Omar al-Darawi, a hospital administrative employee. Later, hospital workers reported 11 more dead after another airstrike.

Israel says it does not target civilians and has taken measures to protect them, including its evacuation orders. In addition to leaflets, the military has used phone calls and radio and TV broadcasts to urge people to move from specific areas.

Israel says it targets Hamas operatives and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighborhoods. It claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence. Israel says at least 81 of its soldiers have been killed.

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Magdy reported from Cairo.

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