Tens of thousands forced to flee again as Israel expands Gaza offensive

Israel has escalated its unprecedented air and ground offensive in central Gaza forcing displaced Palestinians to flee again towards south.

Palestinians transport belongings on an animal-drawn cart, as they flee their houses after they were ordered by the Israeli army to evacuate the area, in Bureij in the central Gaza Strip December 26, 2023. [REUTERS/Mohammed Al-Masri]
Palestinians transport belongings on an animal-drawn cart, as they flee their houses after they were ordered by the Israeli army to evacuate the area, in Bureij in the central Gaza Strip December 26, 2023 [Mohammed al-Masri/Reuters]

Tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to flee again towards the south after Israel intensified assaults in the centre of the besieged enclave killing more than 180 people in the past 24 hours.

The Israeli army on Friday said in a post on X that it was “expanding the operation in the Khan Younis area” of Gaza, previously sheltering hundreds of thousands of people displaced from the north – initially the focus of Israel’s ground assault.

Israeli shelling near El Amal hospital in Khan Younis killed 41 people over the past two days, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) said on Thursday, adding that the casualties in repeated Israeli attacks near the facility include “displaced persons seeking shelter”.

The UN humanitarian office said an estimated 100,000 more displaced people had arrived in the already-teeming southern border city of Rafah in recent days following the intensification of fighting around both Deir el-Balah in central Gaza and Khan Younis to its south.

Earlier this week, Israeli forces ordered Palestinians out of the crowded central districts of Bureij, Maghazi and Nuseirat, as tanks advanced from the north and east.

Attacks on those areas have intensified in recent days, with many residents fleeing to the already-crowded Deir el-Balah, pitching makeshift tents made from sheets of plastic on whatever open ground they could find.

“We suffered a lot. We had the whole night without shelter, under rain and it was cold, we were with our kids and elderly women,” Um Hamdi, a woman cooking porridge over an open woodfire, surrounded by children, told the news agency Reuters.

Nearby, grey-bearded Abdel Nasser Awadallah stood inside a wooden frame set up to be wrapped in plastic to make a tent, and spoke of the family he had lost.

“I buried my children, a child 16-year-old, another one aged 18. Something I really can’t believe, I buried my children at 6:00am while their bodies were still warm. Also my nephew was two years old, I buried him, I buried my wife,” he said.

‘Death or displacement’

Addressing the UN Security Council on Friday, the Palestinian UN envoy Majed Bamya said the widescale destruction of Gaza by Israeli operations has made it clear their sole goal is forced displacement.

“They want to make sure that Palestinians in Gaza have no homes to return to,” he said. “They want to make sure they have no life to return.”

“They want to make sure that life in Gaza is no longer possible, with one aim, what they call ‘voluntary migration’ … the codename for forced displacement. These are the options for Palestinians: Destruction or displacement, death or displacement,” he said.

On Christmas Eve, the Maghazi refugee camp witnessed one of the deadliest attacks since Israel launched its military offensive on October 7. While the official number of those who were killed stands at 90, residents of the camp near Deir el-Balah told Al Jazeera that in reality, the figure is much higher as entire residential blocks were wiped out.

Israel issued a rare apology on Thursday for killing civilians in the massive air raid that triggered one of the biggest exoduses of the war so far, saying the munitions used were not appropriate for a packed refugee camp and that the high death toll “could have been avoided”.

Displaced Palestinians, who fled their homes due to Israeli strikes, shelter in a tent camp, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, December 29, 2023. [Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa]
Displaced Palestinians, who fled their homes due to Israeli attacks, shelter in a tent camp, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, December 29, 2023. [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

Rafah hit ahead of Egypt talks

The UN says more than 90 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced, and many are now fleeing for the third or fourth time.

Many now live in cramped shelters in the 365sq km (141sq miles) of land or in makeshift tents around the southern city of Rafah, on the border with Egypt – which has also not been immune from Israeli attacks.

Rafah was hit by new air raids on Friday as Egypt prepared to host a high-level Hamas delegation for talks to try and end the nearly 12-week war that has devastated the besieged Palestinian territory.

Reuters journalists at the scene of one air raid that obliterated a building in Rafah saw the head of a buried toddler sticking out of the rubble.

The child screamed as a rescue worker shielded his head with a hand, while another swung a sledgehammer at a chisel, trying to break up a slab of concrete to free him.

Neighbour Sanad Abu Tabet said the two-storey house had been crowded with displaced people. After morning broke, relatives came to collect the dead wrapped up in white shrouds.

Israel’s relentless aerial bombardment and ground invasion in Gaza have killed at least 21,507 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Egypt has taken more of a leading role in pushing for a ceasefire, including introducing a plan to end the fighting. It includes captive and prisoner exchanges between Israel and Hamas.

Egypt’s State Information Services chief Dia Rashwan said the plan was “intended to bring together the views of all parties concerned, with the aim of ending the shedding of Palestinian blood”.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said on Thursday that the group will not release more Israeli captives without a “complete and full ceasing of aggressive activities against our people through negotiations that are aligned with our people’s interest”.

UN convoy comes under fire

The director of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza (UNRWA), Thomas White, said on Friday that a UN aid convoy had come under fire by the Israeli military on Thursday. While there were no casualties, White condemned the attack on humanitarian workers.

“Essentially, we are delivering aid under fire,” White told Al Jazeera, explaining that the incident took place as a convoy was returning from northern Gaza along a route designated by the Israeli Army.

“They took that route, they encountered some tanks, and those tanks used heavy machine guns to fire at the vehicles,” White said, adding that while there was some damage to one of the vehicles, UNRWA staff was not injured.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UNRWA, on Friday slammed Israeli forces for firing at the aid convoy. In a post on X, Lazzarini said “shooting” and “other attacks” on aid workers and convoys obstruct “lifesaving” operations in the Strip.

A “total siege” imposed by Israel since the war began on October 7, and following years of crippling blockade, has deprived Palestinians in Gaza of food, water, fuel and medicine.

The severe shortages have been only sporadically eased by humanitarian aid convoys entering primarily via Egypt.

International bodies say supplies being let in through Israeli inspections are a small fraction of the enclave’s vast needs. Last week Israel bowed to international pressure to open a second crossing it said would double the number of supply trucks daily to 200, but just 76 were able to enter on Thursday, according to the United Nations, compared with 500 before the war.

Last week, a UN-backed report warned that the entire 2.3 million population of Gaza is facing crisis levels of hunger, with 576,600 people at catastrophic – or starvation – levels.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths described on social media what he called “an impossible situation for the people of Gaza, and for those trying to help them”.

“You think getting aid into Gaza is easy? Think again,” he wrote Friday on X.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies