KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli warplanes heavily bombarded an area around Khan Younis in southern Gaza on Monday as the military ordered mass evacuations from the town in the face of a widening ground offensive that is pushing Palestinians into a progressively shrinking portion of the besieged territory.
The expanded assault posed a deadly choice for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — either stay in the path of Israeli forces or flee within the confines of southern Gaza with no guarantee of safety. Aid workers warned that the mass movement would worsen the already dire humanitarian catastrophe in the territory.
“Another wave of displacement is underway, and the humanitarian situation worsens by the hour,” the Gaza chief of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, Thomas White, said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Adding to the chaos, phone and internet networks across Gaza collapsed again Monday evening, the Palestinian telecom provider PalTel reported. The network has broken down multiple times during the war, making it largely impossible for residents to communicate with each other or the outside world for hours or sometimes several days until it is repaired.
Israel has vowed to eliminate Gaza’s Hamas rulers, whose Oct. 7 attack into Israel killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and triggered the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades. The war has already killed thousands of Palestinians and displaced over three-fourths of the territory’s population of 2.3 million people. Palestinian health officials say bombardment has killed several hundred civilians since a weeklong truce ended Friday.
Already under mounting pressure from its top ally, the United States, Israel appears to be racing to strike a death blow against Hamas — if that’s possible, given the group’s deep roots in Palestinian society — before any new cease-fire. But the mounting toll is likely to further increase international pressure to return to the negotiating table.
Airstrikes and the ground offensive in northern Gaza have reduced large swaths of Gaza City and nearby areas to a rubble-filled wasteland. Hundreds of thousands of residents fled south during the assault.
Now around 2 million people — most of the territory’s population — are crowded into the 230 square kilometers (90 square miles) of southern and central Gaza, where Israel’s ground offensive is now moving, threatening to render even larger areas uninhabitable.
Since the truce’s collapse, the military has ordered the population out of an area of about 62 square kilometers (24 square miles) in and near Khan Younis, according to the evacuation maps issued by the Israeli military. That further reduces the space available for Palestinians by more than a quarter.
FIGHTING IN CENTRAL GAZA
Constant bombardment on the edges of Khan Younis, Gaza's second-largest city, lit up the sky over the town Monday evening, and a stream of ambulances carrying wounded, including several women and children, flowed to the main hospital.
Over the past few days, Israeli strikes have been “on a ferocious scale,” said Mohammed Aghaalkurdi, an aid worker with the group Medical Aid for Palestinians in Khan Younis. “Barely has any kind of aid been delivered to the people, nor is there any food left in shops."
He said neighborhoods and shelters were emptying as people fled. Leaflets dropped by the Israeli military warn people to go south toward the border with Egypt, but they are unable to leave Gaza, as both Israel and neighboring Egypt have refused to accept any refugees.
The area that Israel ordered evacuated covers about a fifth of Khan Younis. Before the war, that area was home to some 117,000 people, and now it also houses more than 50,000 people displaced from the north, living in 21 shelters, the U.N. said.
It was not known how many were fleeing. Some Palestinians have ignored past evacuation orders, saying they do not feel any safer since areas where they are told to flee have also been bombed. Many also fear they will never be allowed back to their homes.
It was not clear where Israeli troops have moved into southern Gaza, but the military told people to stay off the main road between Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah, suggesting forces were moving between the two towns.
Satellite photos from Sunday, analyzed by The Associated Press early Tuesday, show Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers just under 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) north of the heart of Khan Younis. The AP analysis found some 150 armored personnel carriers, tanks and other vehicles in the area, at positions in four clusters.
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press regarding what the satellite photos showed and their strategy for the offensive.
Israeli media also reported intense fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants in northern Gaza — in the Jabaliya refugee camp and the Gaza City district of Shijaiya, both scenes of intense bombardment and battles in recent weeks.
Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, said the army is pursuing Hamas with “maximum force” in the north and south while trying to minimize harm to civilians.
He pointed to a map that divides southern Gaza into dozens of blocks in order to give “precise instructions” to residents on where to evacuate. Most are urged to flee south, but, confusingly, a map posted on X by the military Monday urged people to flee into Fakhari, a district east of Khan Younis that the military ordered evacuated a day before.
“The level of human suffering is intolerable,” Mirjana Spoljaric, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said during a rare visit to Gaza. “It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza, and with a military siege in place, there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible.”
The World Health Organization said it was told by Israel to empty its medical supplies warehouse in southern Gaza within 24 hours ahead of an advancing ground operation. COGAT, a body in Israel's defense ministry that deals with Palestinian civilian affairs, denied it had issued such an order.
Spoljaric, the Red Cross president, called for the immediate release of scores of hostages still held by Palestinian militants since the Oct. 7 attack.
In a letter to the Red Cross chief, a group of released Israeli hostages asked to meet her while she is visiting the region and called for more help from the organization to free the remaining 137 captives.
“Every day that passes could be their last, and the suffering they endure is inhuman,” wrote the eight freed captives and 102 relatives of hostages still in captivity.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said the death toll in the territory since Oct. 7 has surpassed 15,890 people – 70% of them women and children — with more than 42,000 wounded. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.
Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said hundreds have been killed or wounded since the cease-fire’s end, with many still trapped under rubble.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah received 32 bodies overnight after Israeli strikes across central Gaza, said Omar al-Darawi, an administrative employee. Associated Press footage showed women in tears, kneeling over the bodies of loved ones and kissing them.
The Israeli military said aircraft struck some 200 Hamas targets overnight, with ground troops operating “in parallel,” without elaborating. It said troops in northern Gaza uncovered two militant tunnel shafts that held explosives and weapons in a school after coming under attack.
It is not possible to independently confirm battlefield reports from either side.
Israel says it targets Hamas operatives and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighborhoods. Still, it does not provide accounting for its targets in individual strikes.
Israel claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence. The military says at least 81 of its soldiers have been killed.
The U.S. is pressing Israel to avoid more mass displacements and civilian deaths, a message underscored by Vice President Kamala Harris during a visit to the region. She also said the U.S. would not allow the forced relocation of Palestinians out of Gaza or the occupied West Bank, or the redrawing of Gaza’s borders.
But it’s unclear how far the Biden administration is willing or able to go in pressing Israel to rein in the offensive, even as the White House faces growing pressure from its allies in Congress.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that it was too soon to pass judgment on Israeli operations, but that it was unusual for a modern military to identify precise areas of expected ground maneuvers and ask people to move out.
“These are the kinds of steps that we have asked them to undertake." he said. "These are the conversations we’re having day in, day out.”
The U.S. has pledged unwavering support to Israel since the Oct. 7 attack, including rushing munitions and other aid to the country.
Israel has rejected U.S. suggestions that control over postwar Gaza be handed over to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority as part of a renewed effort to resolve the overall conflict by establishing a Palestinian state.
Magdy and Jeffery reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip; Lee Keath in Cairo; and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.
Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.
Najib Jobain, Samy Magdy And Jack Jeffery, The Associated Press