RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Desperate Palestinians fleeing Israel's expanding ground offensive crowded into an ever-shrinking area of the Gaza Strip as the Israel-Hamas war entered its third month Friday. The United Nations warned that its aid operation is “in tatters” because no place in the besieged enclave is safe.
The Israeli army said that over the past day its forces had struck about 450 targets in the tiny, densely populated Gaza Strip, signaling the continued intensity of a campaign that has already led to widespread civilian casualties and mass displacements.
Israel also dropped leaflets over parts of Gaza with a biblical warning to Hamas leaders that it would take “a life for a life, an eye for an eye.” A day after troops rounded up hundreds of Palestinians for questioning about suspected ties to Hamas, an Israeli government spokesman suggested that practice would continue.
The first images of such roundups emerged Thursday from the northern town of Beit Lahiya, showing dozens of men kneeling or sitting in the streets, stripped down to their underwear, their hands bound behind their backs and some with their heads bowed.
Israel has vowed to crush the military capabilities of Hamas, which rules Gaza, and remove it from power following the group’s Oct. 7 attack that sparked the war.
Israel’s air and ground campaign initially focused on the northern half of Gaza, leading hundreds of thousands of residents to flee south. Intense battles continued in parts of the north in recent days.
“Airstrikes and random artillery shelling have continued intensely since last night until this morning,” said Hassan Al Najjar, a journalist speaking by phone from northern Gaza.
Hundreds rounded up
U.N. monitors said Israeli troops reportedly detained men and boys from the age of 15 in a school-turned-shelter in the town of Beit Lahiya, in the north.
Eylon Levy, an Israeli government spokesman, said Friday that authorities were questioning the detainees — who he said were picked up in Hamas strongholds — to determine whether they were members of the militant group.
Those detained were “military-aged men who were discovered in areas that civilians were supposed to have evacuated weeks ago,” Levy said, indicating there would be more such sweeps going forward as troops move from north to south.
In central Gaza, leaflets were dropped on the refugee camps of Nuseirat and Maghazi with a message for Hamas officials.
“To Hamas leaders: A life for a life, an eye for an eye and whoever started is to blame. If you punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith you were afflicted,” the leaflet read, using verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, that are similar to a warning in the Old Testament.
There has also been a dramatic surge in deadly military raids and an increase on restrictions on Palestinian residents in the occupied West Bank since the start of the war.
Israeli forces stormed into a refugee camp in the West Bank on Friday to arrest suspected Palestinian militants, unleashing fighting with local gunmen in which six Palestinians were killed, health officials said. The Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment on the operation.
Earlier this week, U.N Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used a rarely exercised power to warn the Security Council of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe,” and Arab and predominantly Muslim nations have called for a vote Friday on a Council resolution to demand an immediate cease-fire.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, appears likely to block any U.N. effort to halt the fighting, which was triggered by the deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants on southern Israel. Still, U.S. concern over the devastation is growing. U.S. officials told Israel ahead of the expansion of its ground offensive to southern Gaza several days ago that it must limit civilian deaths and displacement, saying too many Palestinians were killed when it obliterated much of Gaza City and surrounding areas in the north.
Over the past week, Israeli forces expanded their ground offensive into southern Gaza, with a focus on Khan Younis, the territory's second largest city.
On Friday, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said Israel’s air force attacked a home facing the society’s office in Khan Younis. It did not give details about casualties.
Medhat Abbas, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza, reported a strike in the city of Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, saying it killed and wounded a number of people but gave no exact numbers.
The military says it makes every effort to spare civilians and accuses Hamas of using them as human shields as the militants fight in dense residential areas.
With the entire Gaza Strip under military assault, tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting have packed into the border city of Rafah, in the far south of the Gaza Strip, and Muwasi, a nearby patch of barren coastline that Israel has declared a safe zone.
With shelters significantly beyond capacity, many people pitched tents along the side of the road leading from Rafah to Muwasi.
“We do not have a humanitarian operation in southern Gaza that can be called by that name anymore,” the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, warned Thursday. The pace of Israel’s military assault “has made no place safe for civilians in southern Gaza, which had been a cornerstone of the humanitarian plan to protect civilians and thus to provide aid to them. But without places of safety, that plan is in tatters.”
Israel has designated Muwasi on the territory's Mediterranean coast as a safe zone. But the U.N. and relief agencies have called that a poorly planned solution.
Israel’s campaign has killed more than 17,100 people in Gaza — 70% of them women and children — and wounded more than 46,000, according to the territory’s Health Ministry, which says many others are trapped under rubble. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.
Hamas and other militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in the Oct. 7 attack and took more than 240 hostages. More than 130 hostages remain in Gaza, mostly soldiers and civilian men, after more than 100 were freed, most during a cease-fire last month.
Mroue contributed from Beirut and Becatoros from Athens, Greece. Associated Press writer Julia Frankel in Jerusalem contributed.