Israeli troops fought fierce battles with Hamas in south Gaza on Wednesday in the heart of the city of Khan Yunis, forcing Palestinian civilians, many already displaced from the north, to search for refuge elsewhere with their options dwindling, Reuters reports.
Israeli warplanes also bombarded targets across the densely populated coastal strip in one of the heaviest phases of the war in the two months since Israel began its military campaign to eliminate Hamas, Gaza’s ruling Palestinian group.
Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israeli forces were encircling the Khan Yunis house of the enclave’s Hamas leader, Yahya Al-Sinwar. “His house may not be his fortress and he can escape but it’s only a matter of time before we get him,” Netanyahu said in a recorded video statement.
Residents in Khan Yunis told Reuters that Israeli tanks had neared Sinwar’s home but it was not known whether he or any of his family was there. Israel has said it believes many Hamas leaders and fighters are holed up in underground tunnels.
As Israel expanded a ground offensive into southern Gaza after largely taking control of the northern half, Palestinian medics said hospitals were overflowing with dead and wounded, many of them women and children, and supplies were running out.
Nine Palestinians were killed and several others injured on Wednesday in an Israeli bombardment of a house in Rafah, city in Gaza’s far south near the border with Egypt, according to Palestinian medical sources.
Hundreds of thousands of people made homeless in the north were desperately seeking shelter in the diminishing number of places in the south designated as safe areas by Israel.
Gazans say there are no truly safe places left, with remaining towns and shelters swamped by displaced people, and Israel bombing areas where it is telling people to go.
Israel says it does its utmost to avoid civilian casualties but that Hamas combatants use civilian residential buildings for cover. Hamas denies this.
In Geneva, the UN Human Rights chief said the situation was “apocalyptic” with the risk that serious rights violations were being committed by both sides. The United Nations said it was impossible to deliver emergency aid through Gaza’s southern Rafah Border Crossing from Egypt.
Armoured Israeli forces have thrust southward and surrounded Khan Yunis since the collapse of a seven-day truce on 1 December.
Israel said its forces had struck hundreds of targets, including a militant cell near a school in the north. Hamas’s armed wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, said combat was fierce.
Residents said Israeli bombing intensified overnight, killing and wounding civilians, and that tanks were battling Palestinian militants north and east of Khan Yunis.
Some Palestinians described lucky escapes after their homes were destroyed in an overnight air strike on the Al-Amal neighbourhood of Khan Yunis.
“I swear we don’t even know how we made it out alive,” said Hamdi Tanira, describing an attack on a house where he said he and about 30 others were sleeping, including 20 children.
Another survivor, Amal Mehdi, said: “All of a sudden, the bombardment hit us, you wouldn’t know where it came from, it was a miracle that we were pulled from under the rubble.”
In Gaza’s heavily urbanised north, tanks, naval boats and war planes pounded areas of the Jabalya Refugee Camp as well as roads and houses, according to residents and Hamas media.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Hamas fighters were using improvised explosive devices and anti-personnel mines in a shift of tactics as the fighting transitioned to close ground combat.
Israel unleashed its military campaign in response to an attack on 7 October by Hamas fighters who rampaged through Israeli towns, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages, according to Israel’s tally.
Figures relayed by Gaza’s Health Ministry put the death toll in Gaza since then at 16,015, including 43 reported by one hospital on Tuesday and 73 by another on Wednesday. But Reuters has, since Monday, been unable to reach the Ministry spokesperson who has provided daily casualty updates for all of Gaza, leaving it unclear whether the new overall toll was comprehensive.
Israel said, on Wednesday, 85 of its soldiers had been killed since its armoured forces invaded Gaza five weeks ago.
Colonel Moshe Tetro, an Israeli humanitarian affairs officer, said the military had been telling civilians in advance to evacuate from areas of Khan Yunis where it plans to operate, using phone messages, online statements and leaflets.
Displaced people sheltering near the border said they feared Israel would try to force them into Egypt but that they would not go.
“This is the last destination, if they want to deport us by force, we will not leave. We would rather die in our place,” said one man who, with his companions, was sleeping rough. They did not even have tents.
Israel says some women and children hostages remain in Hamas hands and its goal is to find and free them. During the pause in fighting, Hamas returned more than 100 hostages, but 138 captives remain.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has urged Israel to do more to allow fuel and other aid into Gaza and reduce harm to civilians.