Israel widens evacuation orders as it shifts its offensive to southern Gaza amid heavy bombardments
By NAJIB JOBAIN, SAMY MAGDY and ELENA BECATOROS Associated Press
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel’s military on Sunday 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.
The U.N. human rights chief urged for an end to the war, saying the suffering of civilians was “too much to bear.”
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 Oct. 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 for another temporary truce receded. 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 Saturday.
On Sunday, the Israeli military widened evacuation orders in and around Khan Younis, telling residents of at least five more areas and neighborhoods to leave. Several hundred thousand Palestinians have received evacuation orders since fighting resumed, but they have few places to go.
Halima Abdel-Rahman, a Palestinian widow and mother of four, said she won’t heed the evacuation orders any more. She fled her home in Beit Lahia in October for an area just outside Khan Younis, where she is staying with relatives and which has just come under an evacuation order.
“No, we won’t leave,” she said over the phone. “The occupation tells you to go to this area then they bomb it. The reality is that no place is safe in Gaza. They kill people in the north. They kill people in the south.”
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. The Gaza Strip, bordering Israel and Egypt to the south, is sealed, leaving residents with the only option of moving around within Gaza to avoid the bombings.
“Silence the guns and return to dialogue – the suffering inflicted on civilians is too much to bear. More violence is not the answer. It will bring neither peace nor security,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a statement Sunday.
He said those people in the north have been living in an “appalling situation” and are forced to move “in what appears to be an attempt to empty northern Gaza of Palestinians.”
Türk said that “the time to change course is now. Those that choose to flout international law are on notice that accountability will be served. No one is above the law.”
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has warned Israel to avoid significant new mass displacement. Juliette Toma, director of communications at the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said there were nearly 958,000 displaced people in 99 United Nations facilities in the southern Gaza Strip, including 34 in Khan Younis.
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. 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 its fighter jets and helicopters “struck terror targets in the Gaza Strip, including terror tunnel shafts, command centers and weapons storage facilities” overnight, while a drone killed five Hamas fighters.
In northern Gaza, rescue teams with little equipment scrambled to dig through the rubble of buildings in the Jabaliya urban refugee camp and other neighborhoods in Gaza City in search for potential survivors and dead bodies.
“They strike everywhere,” said Amal Radwan, a woman sheltering in Jabaliya. “There is the non-stop sound of explosions around us.”
Mohamed Abu Abed, who lives in Gaza City’s Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, also said there were relentless airstrikes and shelling in his neighborhood 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 Oct. 7 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 said 70% of the dead were women and children. It said more than 40,000 people had been wounded.
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 Saturday 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 neighborhoods. 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.
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 government is under pressure to negotiate additional releases. The resumption of fighting appears to have put those efforts on hold.
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.”
Magdy reported from Cairo and Becatoros from Athens. Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed to this report.