Israeli offensive shifts to crowded southern Gaza, driving up death toll despite evacuation orders
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel pounded targets in the crowded southern half of the Gaza Strip on Saturday and ordered more neighborhoods designated for attack to evacuate, driving up the death toll even as the United States and others urged it to do more to protect Gaza civilians a day after a truce collapsed.
The prospect of further cease-fires in Gaza appeared bleak, as Israel recalled its negotiators and Hamas’ deputy leader said any further swap of Gaza-held hostages for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel would only happen as part of ending the war.
“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 a televised address Saturday night.
At least 200 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting resumed Friday morning following the weeklong truce with the territory’s ruling militant group Hamas, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. Several multi-story residential buildings were hit across Gaza on Saturday, engulfing neighborhoods in huge clouds of gray smoke.
Separately, the ministry announced that the overall death toll in Gaza since the Oct. 7 start of the Israel-Hamas 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 civilians and combatants, 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.
“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 during the the COP28 climate conference in Dubai.
Appeals from the U.S., Israel’s closest ally, to protect civilians came after an offensive in the first weeks of the war devastated large areas of northern Gaza. Some 2 million Palestinians, almost Gaza’s entire population, are now crammed into the territory’s southern half.
Israel’s military said Saturday that it had hit more than 400 Hamas targets across Gaza over the past day, including more than 50 in the city of Khan Younis and surrounding areas in southern Gaza.
At least nine people, including three children, were killed in a strike on a house in Deir al-Balah, in the south, according to the hospital where the bodies were taken.
In northern Gaza, an airstrike flattened a building hosting displaced families in the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya on the outskirts of Gaza City. It left dozens dead or wounded, said residents Hamza Obeid and Amal Radwan.
“There was a loud bang, then the building turned into a pile of rubble,” Obeid said. AP video showed smoke rising as men, some in sandals, picked their way over the debris. The Israeli military confirmed it was operating in Jabaliya and said it had found and destroyed Hamas tunnels in the surrounding area.
And a powerful strike hit a cluster of multi-story buildings in Hamad City, a Qatari-funded housing development on the outskirts of Khan Younis. Huge clouds of smoke engulfed the complex. There was no immediate word on casualties.
“Where is it safe? I swear to God, no one knows, where are we going?” asked Zohair al Raai, who said his family received a recorded message saying their building in Hamad City should evacuate.
Meanwhile, Palestinian militant groups in Gaza said they fired a barrage of rockets on southern Israel. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesperson, said Hamas had launched more than 250 since the cease-fire ended. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.
With the resumption of fighting, the Israeli military published an online map carving up the Gaza Strip into hundreds of numbered parcels and asked residents to familiarize themselves with the number of their location ahead of evacuation warnings.
On Saturday, the military listed more than two dozen parcel numbers in areas around Gaza City in the north and east of Khan Younis. Separately, it dropped leaflets with evacuation orders over towns east of Khan Younis.
One Khan Younis resident said a neighbor received a call from the Israeli army warning that houses in the area would be hit and everyone should leave. “We told them, ‘We have nothing here, why do you want to strike it?’” said the resident, Hikmat al-Qidra. Al-Qidra said the house was destroyed.
The maps and leaflets generated panic and confusion, especially in the crowded south. Unable to go to northern Gaza or neighboring Egypt, their only escape is to move around within the 220-square-kilometer (85-square-mile) area.
“There is no place to go,” said Emad Hajar, who fled from the north a month ago to Khan Younis. “They expelled us from the north, and now they are pushing us to leave the south.”
Mark Regev, a senior advisor to Netanyahu, said Israel was making “maximum effort” to protect civilians and the military has used leafleting, phone calls, and radio and TV broadcasts to urge Gazans to move from specific areas.
Regev added that Israel is considering a future 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 77 of its soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive in northern Gaza.
Also Saturday, the Palestinian Red Crescent said it had received the first convoy of aid trucks through the Rafah crossing with Egypt since fighting resumed. Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority, said a convoy of 100 trucks entered Gaza, including three carrying 150,000 liters (nearly 40,000 gallons) of fuel.
Meanwhile Harris said in a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi that “under no circumstances” would the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, an ongoing siege of Gaza or redrawing of its borders, according to a U.S. summary. President Joe Biden’s administration has emphasized the need for an eventual two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian state coexisting.
The renewed hostilities have heightened concerns for 137 hostages who, according to the Israeli military, are still held by Hamas and other militants after 105 were freed during the truce. A 70-year-old woman held by Hamas was declared dead on Saturday, according to her kibbutz, bringing the number of known dead hostages to eight.
At a rally of tens of thousands in Tel Aviv, released hostages called for the rest to be freed. In a video adress, Yaffa Adar, 85, spoke up specifically for children being held, saying, “I want to see them now — not when I’m in a coffin.”
Hamas and Israel differed on who was still being held.
Hamas’ deputy leader, Saleh Arouri, told broadcaster Al-Jazeera that any remaining hostages are men, “all of whom served in the (Israeli) army.” Arouri contradicted another top Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, who told The Associated Press on Friday that the group was willing to trade more hostages but rebuffed an Israeli demand to release 10 female soldiers.
Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Hamas violated the truce agreement by refusing to return two children and 15 women it is holding.
During the truce, Israel freed 240 Palestinians from its prisons. Most of those released by both sides were women and children.
Mroue reported from Beirut and Anna reported from New York. Associated Press writers Julia Frankel and Iris Samuels in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war