By Andrés R. Martínez
As Israel widened its military campaign against Hamas into the southern Gaza Strip, it redoubled its orders Monday for people to leave parts of Khan Younis, the area’s largest city, and head to shelters farther south including to Rafah, on the Egyptian border.
But aid agencies warned that the shelters there were already overcrowded, and Israeli warplanes struck the Rafah area early Monday, according to Palestinian news outlets and photos, which showed people carrying bodies swaddled in blankets away from scenes of destruction.
The Israeli warnings, and the heavy bombardment of southern Gaza, confronted hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with the urgent and frightening choice of whether to stay in areas that the Israeli military has signaled will be the focus of the next phase of its war or to heed its orders to evacuate to places that were already coming under attack.
Israel has signaled that it is preparing a ground invasion of the south, with the military’s chief spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, saying late Sunday that it “continues and expands its ground operations against Hamas strongholds all across the Gaza Strip.”
A senior official with Hamas, the armed group that controls much of Gaza, said late Sunday that Israeli ground troops had not entered the south. But Hamas’ military wing said its fighters had targeted a tank and personnel carrier north of Khan Younis and several Israeli military vehicles in central Gaza. The claims could not be verified, and with communications networks disrupted, it was not possible to gain an independent assessment of the fighting.
The Israeli military has expanded its evacuation orders in the south, echoing similar orders it gave before sending troops into northern Gaza in late October. The military has said it intended to move civilians out of harm’s way.
Many Palestinians in Gaza were confused by the announcements, which were posted on social media in Arabic and accompanied by a map of Gaza that divided the territory into nearly 2,400 zones. On Monday, a spokesperson for the Israeli military posted a map calling on people to move to areas southeast of Khan Younis and in Rafah, which the United Nations’ humanitarian office said “are already overcrowded.”
The Israeli military advised residents to pay attention to announcements about whether their zone was being evacuated, but the United Nations said it was unclear whether many Palestinians were able to see the online map, given disruptions in electricity and communications.
After more than a month of fighting concentrated in northern Gaza — and a weeklong cease-fire that expired Friday — Israel believes the Hamas leaders who planned the Oct. 7 attacks that officials say left at least 1,200 people dead in Israel are hiding in the south. Israel’s military has responded to the attacks with nearly two months of airstrikes and a ground invasion of northern Gaza that have killed more than 15,000 Palestinians, according to health officials in Gaza, and pushed an estimated 1.75 million Palestinians south.
Hundreds of people have been killed since hostilities resumed Friday, according to health officials in Gaza, who have warned that medical facilities remain desperately short of supplies, as Israel has sharply restricted the amount of humanitarian aid allowed to enter the enclave.
“The level of human suffering is intolerable,” said Mirjana Spoljaric, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who visited Gaza on Monday. In a statement, she said, “It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza, and with a military siege in place there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible.”
Fighting has continued elsewhere in the enclave. The Israeli military reported the deaths of three of its soldiers Sunday, two in battles in northern Gaza and one in a battle in the central part of the strip.