By Victoria Kim and Shashank Bengali
Israeli troops are fighting in the heart of southern Gaza’s largest city, a military commander announced Tuesday, describing some of the heaviest combat of the two-month war amid growing concerns that there is almost nowhere left for civilians to flee.
After days of warning civilians to leave the city, Khan Younis, Israeli forces stepped up their attacks overnight. Intense bombing was heard early Tuesday from inside Nasser Hospital, the city’s largest, where many Palestinians who have sought shelter were sleeping in hallways.
“We are in the most intense day since the beginning of the ground operation — in terms of terrorists killed, the number of firefights and the use of firepower from the land and air,” the commander of Israel’s southern military command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, said in a statement. “We intend to continue to strike and secure our accomplishments.”
He said that Israeli forces continued to penetrate deeply into areas around Gaza City and were “now also in the heart of Khan Younis.”
Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the chief of the general staff in the Israeli military, said Tuesday evening that Israeli forces had encircled Khan Younis in the south and were continuing to fight to consolidate control over Gaza City and other places in the north.
“We have secured many Hamas strongholds in the northern Gaza Strip, and now we are operating against its strongholds in the south,” he said. He said the fighting had often been house-to-house, and that adversaries were sometimes wearing civilian clothes. “Our forces find in nearly every building and house weapons and in many houses terrorists, and engage them in combat,” he said.
It was not possible to independently confirm Israel’s account of the combat. The United Nations’ humanitarian office said that the period from Sunday to Monday afternoon “saw some of the heaviest shelling in Gaza so far.”
After Israeli forces ordered civilians to leave northern Gaza in the first month of war, before their ground invasion, the military has issued new evacuation orders for large parts of southern Gaza, including areas of Khan Younis. The warnings have led human rights groups and aid agencies to warn that beleaguered civilians are being pushed into a patchwork of smaller and smaller areas. Even then they have no guarantee that they will be spared from airstrikes.
Thomas White, the Gaza director of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said early Tuesday that neighborhoods that are home to some 600,000 people were ordered to be emptied.
The evacuation could drive an additional half-million people to Rafah, along the southern border with Egypt, doubling the number of the displaced sheltering in the already brimming city, he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The U.N. humanitarian office said Monday that some of the shelters Israel had told people to flee to were “already overcrowded.” With the shelters in Rafah already well beyond capacity, the new arrivals were erecting tents and fashioning makeshift shelters in the streets or whatever empty spaces they can find around the city, according to the daily report from the U.N. office for humanitarian affairs.
Many Palestinians in Gaza were struggling with the question of where to go. Khalil Ahmed, 53, a chemistry teacher, said in an interview that before the war he was in Egypt with his wife for medical treatment. They decided to return to their house in the Nuseirat refugee community, just south of Gaza City, because they were worried about their children and grandchildren.
They crossed the border on the third day of a seven-day truce, he said, carrying as much food as they could. Their community, a former U.N. refugee camp that has been built up over decades, was nearly destroyed, he said. Two buildings next to his were bombed out. The windows of his house had been smashed. No cars were moving on the streets.
Everywhere he looked he saw refugees from other parts of Gaza, who had taken shelter in four U.N. run schools there. Pale, shocked people wandered about searching for food and water. There was no internet, and so no news.
Since the war resumed last week, he said, the sounds of bombing from drones and warplanes has been incessant, accompanied by the din of combat from tanks and infantry. He has weighed fleeing Nuseirat with his family but so far they have stayed put.
“As long as so many people remain, I am staying here,” he said. “They are bombing everywhere and where we are seems to be less dangerous than in Khan Younis and Deir El Balah. They are hitting there very hard.”