Israel orders evacuations as it widens offensive


DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel's military renewed calls Monday for mass evacuations from the southern town of Khan Younis, where tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought refuge in recent weeks, as it widened its ground offensive and bombarded targets across the Gaza Strip.

The expanded operations, following the expiration of a weeklong cease-fire, are aimed at eliminating Gaza's Hamas rulers, whose Oct. 7 attack into Israel triggered the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades. The war has already killed thousands of Palestinians and displaced over three-fourths of the territory's population of 2.3 million people.

Airstrikes and the ground offensive have transformed much of the north, including large areas in Gaza City, into a rubble-filled wasteland. Around 2 million people are now crowded into the 90 square miles that make up Gaza’s south, where Israel’s focus is starting to shift.

Residents said Monday they heard airstrikes and explosions in and around Khan Younis overnight after the military dropped leaflets warning people to relocate farther south toward the border with Egypt. The military has ordered the evacuation of nearly two dozen neighborhoods in and around the town.

Later in the day, the military warned civilians to avoid the main north-south highway between Khan Younis and the central town of Deir al-Balah, saying the road had become a “battlefield” and was “extremely dangerous.” That indicated Israeli troops were approaching Khan Younis from the northeast, possibly with plans to cut central Gaza off from the south.

Al-Jazeera television aired footage of medics rescuing people wounded by what appeared to have been a strike on a car on that stretch of highway. An Israeli tank could be seen just up the road.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, said the army is pursuing Hamas with “maximum force” in the north and south, and said it was trying to minimize harm to civilians.

He pointed to a map that divides southern Gaza into dozens of blocks in order to give “precise instructions” to residents on where to evacuate.

Many Palestinians, however, have ignored past evacuation orders, saying they do not feel any safer in the areas where they are told to seek refuge — which have also been repeatedly bombed. The military has meanwhile barred those who fled the north from returning, even during the cease-fire.

The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza said the death toll in the territory since Oct. 7 has surpassed 15,500, with more than 41,000 wounded. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.

The military said aircraft struck some 200 Hamas targets overnight, with ground troops operating “in parallel,” without elaborating. It said troops in northern Gaza uncovered a militant hideout in a school after coming under attack. Inside, they found two tunnel shafts, one of which had been booby-trapped, as well as explosives and weapons, the military said.

Israel says it targets Hamas operatives, not civilians, and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighborhoods.

It adds that it takes measures to protect civilians. In addition to leaflets dropped over Gaza, the military has used phone calls and radio and TV broadcasts to urge people to move from specific areas.

Israel claims to have killed thousands of militants. Israel says at least 81 of its soldiers have been killed.

The U.S. is pressing Israel to avoid more mass displacements and the killing of civilians.

The U.S. has pledged unwavering support to Israel since the Oct. 7 attack, which killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, including rushing munitions and other aid to Israel.

Hopes for another temporary truce faded after Israel called its negotiators home over the weekend. Hamas said talks on releasing any more of the scores of hostages seized by Palestinian militants on Oct. 7 must be tied to a permanent cease-fire.

The earlier truce facilitated the release of 105 of the roughly 240 Israeli and foreign hostages taken to Gaza during the Oct. 7 attack, and the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Most of those released by both sides were women and children.