Correspondent in Jerusalem
Believing that the Hamas staff has taken refuge in the south of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army seems determined to repeat a scenario that it has already applied in the North. Always focused on the two objectives of the war, the eradication of the terrorist movement and the release of the hostages, it intensified the fighting there.
They resumed late last week, when Hamas broke a seven-day truce during which 110 captives, including 86 Israelis, were freed. Around 137 people kidnapped in the October 7 attack are believed to remain detained in the Gaza Strip. On Monday, after intense bombardments, Israeli troops continued their advance towards Khan Younes, advancing slowly, powerfully and at the cost of massive destruction. But this time, there is almost no escape for the hundreds of thousands of civilians taking refuge in Khan Younes or Rajah, the two large cities in the south of the Palestinian enclave.
Around Khan Younes, the Israeli army claims to act “with force”. The first tanks were seen south of Deir al-Balah, that is to say well below the line formed by Wadi Gaza, north of which they had been operating until now. The army banned the Salah ad-Dine road, considered a “battlefield”. Videos circulating on social media indicate that fighting raged on Monday on this road which crosses the Gaza Strip from north to south. “The fighting and the ground advance of the Israeli army in the Khan Younes area do not allow civilians to move on the Salah ad-Dine axis, in the north and east of the city,” he said. the army said in a press release, according to AFP.
Contacted via a social network, a resident of Khan Younes affirms that the intense bombings hit the outlying villages, but also the center of the city, where many buildings were destroyed. At the end of the day, the bombings increased in intensity in the very heart of Khan Younes, where more than 100 explosions were counted in around ten minutes.
On Sunday, city residents were ordered to evacuate their neighborhoods. Published by the Arabic communications service of the Israeli army, a map divides the Gaza Strip into 2,400 zones. “We all know where we live, we are waiting for the evacuation order,” explains a resident of Gaza City taking refuge in al-Nasser hospital. Flyers dropped by plane indicate, using QR Codes, which locations are affected. The messages are also broadcast by the spokesperson for the Israeli army in Arabic, on social networks.
According to Ocha, the United Nations agency for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, 20% of the city of Khan Younes, where 117,000 inhabitants and 50,000 refugees lived until Sunday, are affected. In addition, towns located east of Khan Younes were also designated as areas to be evacuated: according to Ocha, 352,000 people lived there before the war. “Instructions accompanying the map call on residents to move to areas of Rajah that are already overcrowded,” says Ocha, noting that “the amount of displacement resulting from this order is unclear.” “As a result, thousands of refugees have arrived in Rajah governorate, further increasing humanitarian pressure,” said the UN agency.
In total, the UN estimates that 1.8 million people have been displaced in the Gaza Strip since the start of the war, representing around 80% of the Palestinian territory's population. UNRWA centers accommodate around 1.1 million people, the rest have found shelter in public schools, hospitals or with relatives.
Interviewed Monday on this subject by the American channel CNN, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a spokesperson for the Israeli army, denounced the use of civilian populations “like human shields” by Hamas. “It is very difficult for us to destroy Hamas and not have civilian casualties,” he admitted, explaining that orders to evacuate civilians “outside areas where there will be fighting” are “the best possible way” to limit them as much as possible. Certainly, the soldier recognizes, the “humanitarian zone”, where civilians must take refuge, is not “perfect”, but he believes that it remains “the best solution at the moment. Evacuate and we will tell you when you can return to your neighborhood,” concludes the soldier.
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“People ask us where they should go to safety, we have nothing to tell them,” laments Thomas White on X. Director of UNRWA, the United Nations agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, he denounces "a new wave of displacements", after that launched at the start of the war by the order to evacuate the northern part of the strip from Gaza. “The roads leading south are clogged with cars and donkey carts on which people have piled their meager possessions,” says Thomas White.
The humanitarian situation seems destined to deteriorate inexorably. The return of fighting leads to a new influx of wounded into hospitals. Despite the entry of trucks during the truce, NGOs report an increase in illnesses caused by promiscuity and lack of hygiene: hepatitis A, chronic diarrhea, respiratory infections, lice.