Israeli troops ‘in heart’ of Gaza’s second city as it intensifies aerial bombardment

The Israeli military says it has faced most intense day of fighting of ground offensive as it surrounds Khan Younis – and the UN warns an 'even more hellish scenario is about to unfold' for residents

Tom Bennett
Tel Aviv
Wednesday 06 December 2023 16:12 GMT
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Israel bombs south Gaza: Air strikes on civilian areas intensify

Heavy fighting is taking place across Gaza as Israel says its forces are now operating “in the heart of” the territory’s second-largest city as it steps up its war on Hamas.

Tanks were digging in on the outskirts of Khan Younis during what one commander called the most intense day of fighting since ground operations began against Hamas. It came as the United Nations warned that “an even more hellish scenario is about to unfold in the Gaza Strip” with Israeli airstrikes pummelling the area.

“Fear grips our heart,” Joumana Hussein, a 24-year-old resident of Khan Younis told The Independent. “The sound of warplanes and drones is very loud.”

“We are in the most intense day since the beginning of the ground operation,” said the commander of the Israeli army’s southern command, General Yaron Finkelman.

Israel’s top military commander, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, added that its forces are surrounding the southern city. “Sixty days after the war began, our forces are now encircling the Khan Younis area in the southern Gaza Strip,” said the chief of general staff.

Tanks crossed via Israel’s border fence and were seen on the eastern edges of Khan Younis, according to residents. The Israeli military has taken steps to secure the road leading out of the city, telling residents it now “constitutes a battlefield”.

Israeli forces said they were also continuing to strike in the north of the strip, where operations had been focused before the move south. The Israeli military said they had mounted an attack into the heart of Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, and that paratroopers and navy commandos had raided the Hamas general security headquarters there and were also fighting in the Gaza City district of Shijaiya.

“We are in the heart of Jabalia, in the heart of Shijaiya, and now also in the heart of Khan Younis,” Gen Finkelman said.

After days of ordering residents to flee the area around Khan Younis, Israeli forces dropped new leaflets on Tuesday with instructions to stay inside shelters during the assault.

“In the coming hours, the IDF [Israeli military] will begin launching an intensive attack on your area of residence to destroy the terrorist organisation Hamas,” said the leaflet, addressed to residents of six eastern and northern districts, amounting to around a quarter of Khan Younis.

“Don’t move out yet. For your safety, stay in the shelters and the hospitals where you are. Don’t get out. Going out is dangerous. You have been warned,” it read.

Thousands have already fled, many of them walking by foot to the southernmost city of Rafah, carrying their possessions on their backs. Parts of Rafah have been declared “safe zones” by the Israeli military.

Palestinians fleeing Khan Younis arrive in Rafah, which lies further south

“There is a movement [of civilians] from Khan Younis to Rafah, to the safe area described by the [Israeli forces], but there is continuous bombing in Rafah,” Ms Hussein said.

“We have said it repeatedly. We are saying it again. No place is safe in Gaza, whether in the south, or the southwest, whether in Rafah or in any unilaterally so-called 'safe zone’,” said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza (Unrwa).

Describing the “safe zones” designated by the Israeli military, James Elder, spokesman for the UN children’s agency Unicef told reporters: “These are tiny patches of barren land, or they are street corners…There is no water, no facilities, no shelter from the cold and the rain [and] there’s no sanitation.”

“The situation is getting worse by the hour,” said Richard Peeperkorn, World Health Organisation representative in Gaza. “There’s intensified bombing going on all around, including here in the southern areas, Khan Younis, and even in Rafah."

Those fleeing Khan Younis join up to 1.8million other Gazan residents – 80 per cent of the territory’s population – who have already fled their homes for other areas of the strip since 7 October, when a Hamas attack inside Israel killed 1,200 people and saw around 240 taken hostage and transported to Gaza.

In response, Israel started a bombing campaign that health officials in Hamas-run Gaza say has killed almost 16,000 people. The aerial bombardment has been backed by a blockade that has left food, water, fuel and medical supplies running low. The only respite was a week-long truce that allowed for the exchange of more than 100 hostages for well over 200 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails. The ceasefire, which ended last Friday, also allowed more aid into Gaza and gave residents some respite from the bombardment.

Qatar is pressing for a comprehensive end to the war in Gaza and is working to repair a collapsed truce agreement between Israel and Hamas, its emir said on Tuesday.

“We are constantly working to renew [the truce] and to alleviate the burden of our people in the Gaza Strip, but truces are not an alternative for a comprehensive ceasefire,” Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said in a speech to Gulf leaders gathered in the Qatari capital Doha.

A Palestinian is brought into Nasser hospital in Khan Younis

The UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Lynn Hastings, said more than 700 Palestinians have reportedly been killed since the resumption of hostilities following the end of the truce. Palestinian officials in Hamas-run Gaza said on Tuesday morning that 349 Palestinians had been killed across the Strip and 750 injured in a 24-hour period to Monday afternoon, and more than 900 people had been killed since Friday.

“The conditions required to deliver aid to the people of Gaza do not exist,” Ms Hastings said. “If possible, an even more hellish scenario is about to unfold.”

Palestinian health officials said large numbers of people had been killed in a strike on houses in Deir al-Balah, north of Khan Younis. Dr Eyad Al-Jabri, head of the Shuhada Al-Aqsa Hospital, told Reuters at least 45 people had been killed.

Videos emerging from hospitals in Khan Younis have shown chaotic scenes as civilian vehicles and ambulances race to drop off the wounded, some with serious injuries.

Gaza health ministry spokesperson Ashra al-Qidra said at least 43 corpses had already reached Nasser hospital in southern Gaza by Tuesday morning. “Hospitals in the southern Gaza Strip are totally collapsing, they cannot deal with the quantity and quality of injuries that arrive at the hospitals,” he said.

Israel has so far shown little intent to slow its military operations now they have restarted, despite coming under international pressure from allies such as the US to do more to limit civilian casualties.

“We’re moving ahead with the second stage now. A second stage that is going to be difficult militarily,” Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday morning.

Sheikh Tamim called on the UN Security Council to force Israel to return to the negotiating table over the war in Gaza, saying the inaction by the international community in halting the conflict was “shameful”.

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