Israel issued new evacuation orders to displaced Palestinians in southern Gaza on Sunday as fighting intensified after the collapse of the cease-fire with Hamas militants Friday.
In Arabic-language accounts on the Facebook and X social media platforms, Israel told the Palestinians that “obeying evacuation instructions is the safest way to preserve your safety, your lives and the lives of your families.” Many of the Palestinians had already been ordered by Israel to evacuate northern Gaza earlier in the nearly two-month war with Hamas.
In advance of likely more attacks in the region, Israel told the Palestinians to leave 34 areas, all located southeast of the city of Khan Younis, and head to already-overflowing shelters or what it called the “humanitarian zone” in Al-Mawasi, an agricultural area closer to the Mediterranean Sea.
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The Israeli military marked a map in southern Gaza with nearly 2,400 “blocks,” and told the Palestinians to pay attention to Israeli announcements about whether their block was being evacuated. Some families thought they could stay where they were, but later said they received recorded calls ordering them to leave.
“I cannot overstate the fear, panic & confusion that these Israeli maps are causing civilians in Gaza, including my own staff,” Melanie Ward, head of the humanitarian organization Medical Aid for Palestinians, wrote on social media, adding, “People cannot run from place to place to try to escape Israel’s bombs.”
The new evacuation orders came as Israel faces growing calls from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to do more to prevent the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Khan Younis has come under an unrelenting attack from the Israeli military, where it believes more Hamas militants are hiding.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that the campaign would last until all hostages seized by Hamas during the militant group’s October 7 attack on Israel are returned and Hamas is eliminated.
“A tough war is ahead of us,” he said.
But U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said Saturday at the COP 28 climate conference in Dubai, “Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and video coming from Gaza are devastating.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said while U.S. “support for Israel’s security is non-negotiable,” he has personally warned Israel that if it did not take steps to protect civilians, it risked their radicalization.
“In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” Austin said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
At the forum of political and military leaders and others, he pressed Israel to dramatically expand Gaza's access to humanitarian aid and renewed U.S. calls for a two-state solution to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told NBC’s “Meet the Press” show “there are no official negotiations going on right now” to resume release of Hamas-held hostages in exchange for Palestinians jailed by Israel.
Kirby blamed Hamas. He said Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries, “failed to come up with yet another list of women and children that could be released and we know they're holding additional women and children – not combatants, not female [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers but innocent civilians, women and children that they have that they couldn't put on a list and turn that in.”
“So, unfortunately, the negotiations have stopped,” Kirby said. “That said, what hasn't stopped is [U.S.] involvement, trying to get [negotiations] back on track...”
“We are still working it really hard hour by hour to see if we can get the sides back to the table and see if we can get something moving,” Kirby said. “We would like that to happen today. But honestly, I just don't know.”
Kirby said the U.S. believes “there are still [eight] Americans that are being held hostage. But it’s difficult for us to know where they all are” or “what their condition is.”
At least 200 Palestinians have been killed since the collapse of the Israel-Hamas truce Friday morning, raising the death toll in Gaza since the October Hamas attack to more than 15,200 people with more than 40,000 wounded, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza. The ministry says 70% of them are women and children.
About 2 million Palestinians, almost the entire population of Gaza, are now crammed into the territory's southern half. They are running out of space where they can flee and seek shelter. The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that nearly 80% of Gaza’s population has been internally displaced.
The Israeli military said Saturday it hit more than 400 Hamas targets across Gaza over the previous day, using airstrikes and shelling from tanks and navy gunships. It included more than 50 strikes on Khan Younis and surrounding areas in the southern half of Gaza.
In northern Gaza, an airstrike destroyed a residential building hosting displaced families in the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya on the outskirts of Gaza City. The strike on the multistory building left dozens dead or wounded, said residents Hamza Obeid and Amal Radwan.
Israel began its military campaign to wipe out Hamas after Hamas fighters crossed into southern Israel in October. Israel said 1,200 people were killed and some 240 captives taken.
“We will continue the war until we achieve all its goals, and it’s impossible to achieve those goals without the ground operation,” Netanyahu also said Saturday.
Hamas has fired more than 250 rockets on southern Israel since the cease-fire ended, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesperson.
In southern Israel, sirens were heard in communities near the Gaza Strip but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.
Israel has accused Hamas of embedding itself in and underneath hospitals and other civilian areas and encouraging civilians to ignore Israeli warnings to evacuate ahead of airstrikes, using them in effect as human shields, an accusation Hamas has denied.
The Reuters news agency said it could not confirm the battlefield accounts.
After the breakdown of the truce, Netanyahu’s office announced it has instructed its negotiating team in Doha, Qatar to return to Israel.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.