By Liam Stack and Yara Bayoumy
As Israel’s offensive pushes Palestinian civilians into ever smaller pockets of land with scant supplies, the military said Thursday that Hamas militants fired rockets from what it called “humanitarian zones” in the southern Gaza Strip, adding to concerns that nowhere in the enclave was fully safe for civilians.
The Israeli military posted maps, satellite photos and a video that it said showed rockets had been fired toward Israel from multiple locations, including Al-Mawasi, a barren area in the Gaza Strip’s Rafah province that has become crowded in recent days, as Israeli forces have directed people fleeing fighting to go there.
The material and Israel’s account of them could not immediately be verified.
It was not clear whether Israel would now regard the area as a legitimate military target. An Israeli military spokesperson, Maj. Nir Dinar, said he could not discuss future operations. Palestinians were being “updated frequently in various ways” about Israeli military activities, Dinar said.
But the Israeli claims about Al-Mawasi underscored the risks of so-called safe zones in Gaza, which the United Nations has opposed on the grounds that no one party to a war can unilaterally declare places completely safe for civilians.
Attempting to establish such zones in Gaza, U.N. officials said last month, could “create unacceptable harm for civilians, including large-scale loss of life.”
U.N. officials have urged instead that Palestinians be allowed to take shelter in buildings such as schools and hospitals, which are protected under international humanitarian laws, and that Israel not strike such places.
But Israel has accused Hamas of concealing command centers within civilian buildings, including schools and hospitals, and has declared them to be legitimate targets.
Israel’s maps appeared to show different boundaries for the Al-Mawasi humanitarian zone than it had previously used. An earlier map showed a smaller zone that did not include what Israel said was the rocket launch site in Al-Mawasi; the new map shows an expanded humanitarian zone that encompasses the site.
When asked, the Israeli military did not explain the discrepancy.
Al-Mawasi and the surrounding Rafah area are among the few remaining places Israel’s military has told displaced Palestinians they can seek safety as it mounts an offensive in southern Gaza aimed at rooting out Hamas militants responsible for the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel.
An Israeli government spokesperson, Eylon Levy, said Thursday that its forces, including commando units, were pressing on with “close-quarter combat” in southern Gaza’s main city, Khan Younis. It was not possible to verify Israel’s account of the fighting.
But Israeli forces have continued to carry out strikes near where people are seeking shelter. On Wednesday, 18 people were killed by an Israeli airstrike in the city of Rafah, according to a television station run by the Palestinian Authority, a rival to Hamas.
The U.N. says that tens of thousands of people have fled to the city of Rafah in recent days and that it has been the only place in the Gaza Strip to receive any humanitarian aid in nearly a week.
In its statement Thursday, the Israeli military said that 14 rockets were fired from Al-Mawasi and surrounding areas “from near tents of evacuated Gazan civilians in Rafah in southern Gaza and from next to United Nations facilities,” the Israeli military said Thursday. It said Hamas “abuses the people of Gaza, utilizing them for its acts of terror.”
The U.N. has facilities in Rafah province. The U.N. could not immediately be reached for comment on Israel’s claims.
Nearly 1.9 million people, or about 85% of the total population of Gaza, have fled their homes so far during two months of war, squeezing into an area covering less than one-third of the territory, according to the U.N. The number of displaced people in Gaza is now larger than the population of Manhattan and more than four times the size of the population of Tel Aviv, Israel.
Discussions between American and Israeli officials have focused on creating safe places for Palestinians near U.N. shelters or areas where Israel would agree not to conduct air or ground operations.
But Israel has encouraged Palestinians to relocate to Al-Mawasi since the early days of the war, producing videos and releasing labeled maps of the area in both Arabic and English.
A senior U.S. official has said that the Biden administration believed that Israel was not compelling people to move to Al-Mawasi and that the area had only been mentioned as one place where the Israeli military would not be operating.
A large number of Palestinians have fled to Al-Mawasi and surrounding areas, but they have found little aid or shelter. Shaina Low, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Refugee Council, described the area Thursday as “a desolate coastal strip” that has experienced an “alarming increase in population density” in recent days.
“The Al-Mawasi area does not have facilities or accommodations for this influx of people,” Low said. She said Gaza was “spiraling into a humanitarian catastrophe that will take years, not months, to come back from.”
Asked earlier this week whether the U.N. would provide aid to Al-Mawasi, Andrea De Dominico, the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Palestinian territories, said, “The U.N. will deliver assistance, if we will be able to, wherever people are.”
“But the point is about delivering assistance wherever people are and not being forced by any party to do it in a specific area,” he said.