© Reuters. People walk among debris at the site of an Israeli strike on the building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on 18 November 2023. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
By Jonathan Saul and Nidal al-Mughrabi
LONDON/GAZA (Reuters) – An Israeli military offensive in the populated south of the Gaza Strip, expected in the coming days, could prove more complicated than its ground offensive in the north, with casualties among civilians and soldiers likely. soldiers, a senior Israeli official said. said a security source and two former senior officials.
An Israeli army spokesperson said Friday that the military operation against Hamas would advance in southern Gaza, but gave no indication of the timetable. A wave of bombings Thursday in southern Gaza, around the town of Khan Younis, raised fears among displaced Palestinians taking refuge there that the expected military offensive was imminent.
Hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled to the south of the enclave in recent weeks after Israel asked them to leave the north. Many are now afraid after leaflets were dropped near Khan Younis on Thursday asking them to move again, this time to the west.
“They asked us, the citizens of Gaza, to go south. We went south. Now they are asking us to leave. Where are we going?” » said Atya Abu Jab, in front of his tent where his family who fled Gaza City now live, one of the long rows of makeshift houses.
The leaflets in areas around Khan Younis were dropped before intense bombardment, the kind of pattern that heralded the start of Israel’s ground assault three weeks ago.
On Saturday, Israel issued a new warning to Palestinians in Khan Younis to move away from the line of fire and closer to humanitarian aid, before airstrikes continue.
Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said a ground campaign could take three to four weeks to subdue Hamas resistance in the south, where its leaders are now concentrated.
“One of the most difficult situations is the simple fact that most of the people in the Gaza Strip are now concentrated in the south,” he told Reuters. “There will likely be more civilian casualties… This is not going to deter us or prevent us from moving forward.”
The offensive’s escalating civilian toll has already sparked outcry across the Middle East and among Western countries, including the United States, Israel’s closest ally.
Gaza health authorities say more than 12,000 people have been killed so far in the Israeli campaign, launched in retaliation for an October 7 attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip. Hamas gunmen killed around 1,200 people and took some 240 hostages during the raid.
A senior U.S. official told Reuters that because the south was densely populated, an Israeli campaign there would likely place less emphasis on airstrikes and focus more on ground forces, comments that concurred with the assessments from Israeli sources.
The US official also said Israel had no choice but to launch an offensive in the south if it wanted to defeat Hamas – the campaign’s stated goal.
Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel’s chief military spokesman, told a regular news briefing on Friday that an expanded offensive would continue whenever the armed forces deemed it appropriate.
“We are determined to advance our operation. This will happen wherever Hamas exists, including in the southern Gaza Strip,” Hagari said, without providing further details.
US CALLS FOR HUMANITARIAN CORRIDORS
Washington has supported the Israeli campaign to wipe out Hamas but, without going so far as to seek a ceasefire, it has called for pauses to allow aid to arrive to the 2.3 million inhabitants of Gaza and said there had already been too many civilian deaths.
“We have had conversations with them to make them understand that as they continue to consider expanded military operations or ground operations in other parts of Gaza, they need to make sure that there is… .humanitarian corridors for civilians,” the US State Department said. spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Thursday.
Israel says it is doing everything it can to minimize civilian casualties in its military operations, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday those efforts were “not successful,” calling any civilian deaths a tragedy.
With the Palestinians now effectively cornered, the second stage of Israel’s military campaign carries even greater risks than the first. The United Nations estimates, based on Palestinian figures, that around 400,000 displaced Gazans have moved south.
Israel’s top security source said fighting in the south was expected to be tougher and more intense, with higher casualties on both sides. Khan Younis is a power base of Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, the source said.
In Khan Younis, Ahmed, 23, said many fighters from Hamas – known as the resistance – had survived the northern assaults. “They (the Israelis) want to come to the south? They can. The resistance will fight back because no one welcomes the occupiers,” he said.
Assessing Israel’s progress so far, Eiland said he believed the IDF had handled “something like 50 percent” of Hamas’ military capacity.
But Hamas officials outside Gaza – who, given the collapse of communications inside the enclave, are now the Islamist group’s main voice – insist their force is far from that. ‘to be exhausted.
“The resistance still believes that it is only at the beginning of operations to confront the occupiers and insists on the continuation of the confrontation,” Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official based in Beirut, told the Hamas agency. Iranian press IRNA.
COMPLICATIONS IN THE SOUTH
As of Thursday, Israeli military figures indicate that more than 50 soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began, compared to 66 killed during its last major incursion in 2014.
“Khan Younis will be very tough because a lot of terrorists have fled there and are operational there,” said the Israeli security source, who requested anonymity, adding that the campaign in the south would likely begin in earnest. here a few days and could take a while. months to arrive at the Egyptian border.
The Israeli source and former officials said the population concentration in the south meant an airstrikes campaign was unlikely to be as intense as in the north.
They also said the military could seek to encourage civilians to move toward U.N. encampments for security reasons.
But U.N. agencies say their operations in Gaza are virtually paralyzed by the Israeli blockade and their schools and other facilities are already bursting at the seams with displaced people.
At the start of the conflict, the Israeli army urged displaced Palestinians to head towards Al Mawasi, a sandy area with some orchards near the southern coast. But it is vulnerable to flooding. The rains – some already torrential – have already started.
Fleeing south to Egypt is not an option. The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, the only exit that does not lead to Israel, is firmly closed to everyone except foreigners, dual citizens and patients in need. Hospitals in Gaza are closed due to lack of fuel.
Egypt and other Arab states – and even many states in Gaza – say Palestinians should not leave, for fear of repeating the dispossession faced by hundreds of thousands who crossed the border to never return when Israel was created in 1948.
But even if the campaign in the south requires a slower pace and three to four weeks to achieve the same objectives as in the north, according to Eiland, Israel will not be deterred.
“I’m not sure that all foreigners understand the Israeli mindset: Israel will not stop the operation until the hostages return,” Eiland said.