Gunfire from all sides, a besieged town, people surrounded with no way to leave: The images and testimonies we have just received from Khan Younis reflect the aggression enacted upon this town.
The Israeli army said on Tuesday that it had surrounded this densely populated area, where many Gazans had taken refuge after the ground incursion into the north of the enclave.
Israel has been conducting an offensive around Khan Younis for several weeks, but the violence has escalated in recent days, resulting in intense fighting, incessant shelling, targeted civilian infrastructure and populations left with nowhere safe to go.
It is an “indescribable” situation, said the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday, referring to the state of the city's hospitals.
Despite the recent announcement of a new, lower-intensity phase of the war, Israel has kept at least three brigades, including the 98th Parachute Division, at the head of the operation, and additional special forces inside the enclave. Israeli army spokesperson Daniel Hagari said on Tuesday that he wanted to “concentrate activities” on Khan Younis.
“An important Hamas stronghold”
To Israel, this large-scale operation marks a strategic objective in the war against Hamas, which has claimed 25,700 Palestinian civilians, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Washington is stepping up the pressure on its ally to reduce the intensity of the fighting and reach an agreement on the hostages.
The army considers Khan Younis to be an “important stronghold” of Hamas, where its Khan Younis brigade operates, which is one of Hamas's two most powerful and important brigades. Some twenty hostages abducted on Oct. 7 were held in the city's underground tunnels before being released, while others were dispersed to various parts of Gaza, according to the Israelis.
Israel also suspects that the area is a refuge for the architects of Operation al-Aqsa Flood: Mohammad Deif, commander of the al-Qassam Brigades, and Yahya Sinwar, current head of the Islamist organization in Gaza, who is believed to be in Khan Younis, according to the Israeli army, having fled northern Gaza by hiding in a humanitarian convoy heading south at the start of the war.
Israel vowed to “annihilate” Hamas, putting its leaders on a list of targets to be eliminated.
“Rockets ready to be launched, military installations, tunnels and numerous weapons were discovered during the operation,” the Israeli military announced in a statement on Tuesday, after claiming to have killed around 40 Hamas members in the last 24 hours. This information has not been confirmed by any other source.
Civilian infrastructure were not spared. The Israeli army claims to be targeting these establishments because of their use by Hamas for military purposes, an argument that Israel regularly uses to justify its attacks on these buildings, which are generally protected under international law.
According to Hamas, Palestinian fighters used schools and hospitals in the city to attack Israeli soldiers and fire rockets into Israeli territory. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, an influx of tanks was less than 500 meters from al-Amal hospital on Wednesday evening, preventing ambulances from rescuing the wounded in the town. The organization also reported that anyone moving in the area was targeted by artillery fire and drone attacks.
Humanitarian zone bombarded
The Hamas media office reported on Wednesday that the Nasser hospital, one of the last two in southern Gaza still able to treat severely wounded patients, was surrounded by dozens of tanks “from all sides.”
A “corridor” was reportedly created to allow civilians to evacuate, while thousands of displaced people are inside the hospital, including 850 patients.
On Tuesday, Doctors Without Borders, whose staff are based in Khan Younis, relayed the Israeli announcement that several residential areas of the city, including the one where Nasser Hospital is located, had until 5:30 p.m. to evacuate before the start of operations in the surrounding area.
Claiming it is minimizing civilian casualties, the Israeli army said that areas occupied by non-combatants had been pre-identified to “mitigate damage to those not involved,” and had issued warnings to some residents to leave their homes.
According to the UN, “88,000 residents and around 425,000 displaced persons” were called upon by Israel on Tuesday to evacuate the area, although the bombardment made movement extremely dangerous.
Some have moved to the seaside village of Mawasi, designated on Monday as a “safer"” area by Israeli forces, who have repeatedly advised civilians to go to this narrow “humanitarian zone” of some 8.5 square kilometers since the start of the war.
At least seven people were killed on Tuesday in a strike targeting makeshift tents, according to the director of Rafah's al-Najjar hospital, where the dead and wounded were transported.
The border town with Egypt, to which another part of the displaced population fled, sometimes on foot, appears to be the next target for the Israeli army, which is seeking to regain control over the only crossing point between Gaza and the outside world that is not under its complete surveillance.
This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour.