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Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel. Alamy Stock Photo
Khan Yunis

UN warns Gaza to become 'even more hellish' as Israeli troops continue to push south

International aid organisations have warned that civilians in the densely populated Strip are running out of places to flee to.

LAST UPDATE | Dec 5th 2023, 8:15 PM

ISRAELI FORCES HAVE battled Hamas militants in southern Gaza today, prompting a UN warning of an “even more hellish scenario” as fighting pushes civilians into a steadily shrinking area of the besieged territory.

After an air and ground assault that has displaced hundreds of thousands and reduced much of northern Gaza to rubble, Israel has now sent tanks and troops into the south as well, including the second-largest city Khan Yunis.

Israel says it aims to destroy Hamas and free hostages taken in unprecedented 7 October cross-border attacks.

“We are in the heart of Jabalia, in the heart of Shejaiya (in northern Gaza), and now also in the heart of Khan Yunis,” the army’s Southern Command chief Major General Yaron Finkelman said on what he called “the most intense day since the beginning of the ground operation” in late October.

Israeli tanks, armoured personnel carriers and bulldozers were seen near Khan Yunis, forcing already displaced civilians to pack up and flee again, witnesses told AFP.

The Gaza health ministry said 25 people died in a strike on a school where displaced people were sheltering.

Ambulances, trucks and other vehicles delivered bloodied, dust-covered casualties to Khan Yunis’s Nasser hospital, including children.

With Hamas leaders still at large and 138 hostages still in militant hands according to Israel, army chief Herzi Halevi said “military pressure … is severely damaging Hamas” and helping the push to free captives.

Israel declared war on Hamas after the militant group’s 7 October attacks that it says killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and saw around 240 hostages taken.

palestinians-wounded-in-the-israeli-bombardment-of-the-gaza-strip-are-brought-to-the-hospital-in-deir-al-balah-on-tuesday-dec-5-2023-ap-photo-hatem-moussa Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to the hospital in Deir al Balah Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The latest toll from the Hamas-run government media office said 16,248 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, had been killed.

Hamas is an Islamic militant group who are deemed a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and the EU, among other powers. It has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007 after winning the 2006 Palestinian elections and taking power by force.

“The situation is getting worse by the hour,” said Richard Peeperkorn, the World Health Organization’s representative in the Palestinian territories, urging “a sustained ceasefire” after almost two months of war.

“We are close by humanity’s darkest hour,” Peeperkorn told reporters via video link from Rafah in southern Gaza.

‘Panic and anxiety’

International aid organisations have warned that civilians in the densely populated Strip are running out of places to flee to.

“Nowhere is safe in Gaza and there is nowhere left to go,” said Lynn Hastings, UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories.

“If possible, an even more hellish scenario is about to unfold, one in which humanitarian operations may not be able to respond,” Hastings said in a statement.

The Norwegian Refugee Council aid group said the violence in Gaza “now ranks amongst the worst assaults on any civilian population in our time and age”.

“Countries supporting Israel with arms must understand that these civilian deaths will be a permanent stain on their reputation,” the organisation’s chief Jen Egeland said in a statement, also warning of the dire public health ramifications of the rainy season.

Their belongings piled onto donkey carts, battered vehicles and even camels, Gazans headed south to try to escape the expanding Israeli offensive.

palestinians-fleeing-the-israeli-ground-offensive-arrive-in-rafah-gaza-strip-tuesday-dec-5-2023-ap-photohatem-ali Palestinians fleeing the Israeli ground offensive arrive in Rafah, Gaza Strip Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

An estimated 1.8 million people are displaced in Gaza – roughly three-quarters of the population, according to UN figures.

An Israeli order for people to move from Khan Yunis to the southern city of Rafah “created panic, fear and anxiety”, according to Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

People were being pushed into an area that is less than one-third of the Gaza Strip, with roads to the south clogged, he said.

In northern Gaza, the military said it had encircled the Jabalia refugee camp and also raided a Hamas Internal Security Forces command and control centre.

It said the number of Israeli soldiers killed since the war began had risen to 82.

And in Israel, sirens blared in the commercial hub of Tel Aviv warning of incoming rocket fire.

Communications ‘return’

US President Joe Biden called for the condemnation of “sexual violence” committed by Hamas, after allegations of rape during the 7 October attacks, which the militant group denies.

The United States has also cautioned Israel to do more to avert civilian casualties.

And US aid chief Samantha Power announced $21 million in new assistance for Gazans during a visit to neighbouring Egypt, including hygiene shelter and food supplies.

Israel yesterday said it was not seeking to force Palestinian civilians to permanently leave their homes, and was seeking support from aid groups to provide shelter in a tiny coastal area of Gaza named Al-Mawasi.

Fighting has resumed after the collapse on Friday of a Qatar-mediated truce that saw scores of Israeli and other hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

palestinians-fleeing-the-israeli-ground-offensive-arrive-in-rafah-gaza-strip-tuesday-dec-5-2023-ap-photohatem-ali Palestinians fleeing the Israeli ground offensive arrive in Rafah, Gaza Strip Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Marking the 60th day since the hostages were taken, a group of former captives met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I heard heartbreaking stories, of hunger and thirst, of children whispering in fear,” Netanyahu told reporters.

On the fighting, he hailed the “immense power” of the military campaign, saying “the earth shook in Khan Yunis and Jabalia”.

An Israeli official claimed Hamas drugged hostages with sedatives so they appeared “calm and happy” when released.

Hamas has ruled out further releases until a permanent ceasefire is agreed.

Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, said his country was “constantly working to renew” the truce and denounced what he called “shameful” international inaction over the war.

The conflict has sparked fears of a wider regional conflict, with frequent exchanges of fire with Iran-backed Hezbollah across Israel’s border with Lebanon.

The occupied West Bank has also seen a surge in violence.

The killing of a 25-year-old, Mohammed Youssef Manasra, in an Israeli raid on Qalandia refugee camp added to more than 250 Palestinians killed in the West Bank since October, according to Palestinian authorities.

Journalists have paid a heavy price too, with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists saying it had documented 63 media workers killed in the war: 56 Palestinians, four Israelis and three Lebanese.

© AFP 2023