© Reuters. Flares burn in the sky over the northern Gaza Strip, part of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Sderot in southern Israel on November 7 2023. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maytaal Angel
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Thousands of Palestinian civilians marched in a desperate procession out of northern Gaza on Wednesday, seeking refuge from Israeli airstrikes and heavy ground fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.
The exodus took place within a four-hour window of opportunity announced by Israel, which asked residents to evacuate the north surrounded by its armored forces or risk being trapped in violence.
But central and southern parts of the small, besieged Palestinian enclave also came under fire again as the war between Islamist leaders Hamas and Israel entered its second month.
Palestinian health officials said an airstrike that hit homes in the Nusseirat refugee camp killed 18 people Wednesday morning. In Khan Younis, six people, including a young girl, were killed in an airstrike.
“We were sitting peacefully when all of a sudden an F16 airstrike landed on a house and blew it up, the whole block, three houses side by side,” said a witness, Mohammed Abu Daqah.
“Civilians, all civilians. An old woman, an old man and there are others still missing under the rubble.”
Gaza City, the main stronghold of the Hamas militant group in the territory, is now surrounded by Israeli forces. The army said its troops had advanced into the heart of the city, while Hamas says its fighters inflicted heavy casualties.
The Israeli army’s chief military spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said combat engineers used explosive devices to destroy a network of Hamas tunnels that stretches hundreds of kilometers beneath Gaza .
In a statement on Wednesday, the army said it had destroyed 130 tunnel shafts so far. “Combat engineers fighting in Gaza destroy enemy weapons and locate, expose and detonate tunnel shafts,” the statement said.
Airstrikes also killed a Hamas weapons manufacturer, Mahsein Abu Zina, and several fighters, the Israeli military said.
Israeli tanks encountered heavy resistance from Hamas fighters who used the tunnels to set up ambushes, according to sources from the Iranian-backed Hamas and various Islamic Jihad militant groups. Israel says 33 of its soldiers were killed.
U.N. officials and G7 world powers have stepped up calls for a humanitarian pause in the war to help ease the suffering of civilians in Gaza, where entire neighborhoods have been razed by Israeli bombardment and supplies of base runs out.
“It is (…) important to make Israel understand that it is against (its) interests to see every day the terrible image of the dramatic humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people,” the UN secretary general said on Wednesday. , Antonio Guterres, during a Reuters NEXT conference. “This does not help Israel in relation to world public opinion.”
Palestinian officials said 10,569 people were killed, 40 percent of them children. The level of mortality and suffering is “difficult to grasp”, declared the spokesperson for the UN health agency, Christian Lindmeier, in Geneva.
Israel struck Gaza in response to a Hamas cross-border raid on southern Israel on October 7, in which gunmen killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 hostages, according to Israeli counts .
Israel says it will not agree to a ceasefire until the hostages are released. Hamas says it will not stop fighting as long as Gaza, one of the world’s most densely populated regions, is under attack.
FLEE THE BOMBS
Thousands of Palestinians fleeing the north wearily followed a long line past destroyed and bomb-scarred buildings, witnesses said.
The Israeli army had told them to move south of the Wadi Gaza wetlands, along the main Salah al-Din road. Large numbers of displaced people among Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are already crowded into schools, hospitals and other sites in the south.
Thousands more remain in the encircled north, including at Gaza City’s main Al Shifa hospital, where Um Haitham Hejela was sheltering with her young children in a makeshift tent.
“The situation is getting worse every day,” she said. “There is no food, no water. When my son goes to get water, he queues for three or four hours. They hit the bakeries, we have no bread.”
Israel’s stated intention is to annihilate Hamas, pounding Gaza by air, land and sea, while ground troops have moved to divide the narrow coastal strip in two in fierce urban fighting amid ruins of buildings.
Palestinian media reported clashes between militants and Israeli forces near the al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp in Gaza City. Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said its fighters destroyed an Israeli tank in Gaza City.
Reuters was unable to verify either side’s battlefield claims.
There was no further news from Israel on the possible fate of Yahya Sinwar, the top Hamas leader in Gaza and considered one of the main organizers of the October 7 attacks. Israel said Tuesday he had been trapped in his bunker.
THE ISRAELI PRESENCE “NEITHER UNLIMITED NOR FOREVER”
Israel has so far remained vague about its long-term plans if it achieves its stated goal of defeating Hamas.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday evening that Israel did not intend to reoccupy the Gaza Strip or control it for “a long period of time.”
“We believe our current operations are effective and successful, and we will continue to apply pressure,” the official said. “It is neither unlimited nor eternal.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ABC News earlier this week that Israel would seek to assume responsibility for Gaza’s security “for an indefinite period of time,” prompting U.S. officials to warn of an Israeli “reoccupation.”