Israel hints at expanding ground offensive to the south of Gaza

Israel hints at expanding ground offensive to the south of Gaza
Israel hints at expanding ground offensive to the south of Gaza
The bodies of victims of Israeli bombings are being recovered in Khan Younis.Image Getty Images

Three weeks after the start of the Israeli ground offensive against Hamas in the northern half of the Gaza Strip, army spokesman Daniel Hagari has announced a new phase in the battle. The Israeli ground offensive “is everywhere Hamas is, and it is in the south of the strip,” Hagari said at a news conference late Friday evening. The army operates with ‘clear goals’, but he did not want to reveal anything about those goals.

During the night from Friday to Saturday, several bombings resulted in deaths in the southern half of the Gaza Strip. The director of Nasser Hospital in the city of Khan Younis told the AFP news agency that 26 people were killed in an attack on an apartment complex. 23 people were also injured from the same explosion. An airstrike on a house in the southern town of Deir Al-Balah is said to have left 6 dead.

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Carlijn van Esch is foreign editor of de Volkskrant. She lives and works in Sierra Leone.

The Israeli army has not responded to the reports, but in recent days it has distributed leaflets over Khan Younis and other parts of the southeastern region calling on civilians to move west. ‘We’re asking people to move. I know it’s not easy for many of them, but we don’t want civilians to be caught in the crossfire,” Mark Regev, an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told American news channel MSNBC on Friday.

Impending famine

The threatened expansion of the ground offensive raises the question of where civilians in the Gaza Strip can still go. For weeks, Israel called on civilians from northern Gaza to flee to the south because they would be safe there. The southern half of the densely populated coastal strip has now been flooded with hundreds of thousands of refugees, who can hardly find shelter, food, clean drinking water or medical care. The World Health Organization warns of famine and disease outbreaks.

Regev says he is “pretty sure” that civilians will not need to move again once they go west, where “hopefully there will be tents and a field hospital.” Netanyahu’s aide explained that Israeli forces need to enter Khan Younis to drive Hamas fighters out of underground bunkers and tunnels, but that such “massive infrastructure” does not exist in the less built-up areas in the west of the territory.

Israel promised on Friday to allow two trucks of fuel per day, intended to restart sewage and water treatment in southern Gaza. The White House welcomed the gesture, but stressed that “larger quantities” of fuel are needed “on a regular basis” to deliver humanitarian aid. A spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees indicated early on Saturday that no fuel had entered Gaza at all at that time. However, the communication networks in Gaza were partly restored on Saturday.

Evacuation Al-Shifa Hospital

Israel claims to have full control over northern Gaza. It is not clear how many Hamas fighters are still hiding in the many underground cellars and tunnels. One of the main targets in this region was Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip. According to Israel, Hamas used the hospital to hide a command center, but the army has not yet been able to provide convincing evidence of this.

The raid on the hospital, which has attracted much international criticism from Israel, has been going on for four days. On Saturday morning, conflicting reports emerged about the evacuation of the several thousand patients, healthcare workers and refugees still stuck in the hospital. Hospital officials are calling it a forced evacuation that could be fatal for some patients, but Israel says the hospital itself has requested the evacuation.

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