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Israel battles militants in Gaza’s main cities, with civilians still stranded near front lines

Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants in Gaza's two largest cities on Monday, but civilians were still being evacuated along the front lines after a wave of mass evacuations across the besieged area.

Israel has removed Hamas from power, dismantled its military, and released scores of prisoners still held by Palestinian militants after being captured in the October 7 surprise attack on Israel that triggered the war. He vowed to continue fighting until all the hostages were returned.

The United States has provided unwavering diplomatic and military support to the operation, while urging Israel to minimize civilian casualties and further mass evacuations.

The war has killed thousands of Palestinian civilians and forced nearly 85% of the territory's 2.3 million people to flee their homes.

Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip on December 10, 2023, outside a mortuary in Khan Yunis. AP

Residents say heavy fighting has broken out in and around the southern city of Khan Yunis, with Israeli ground forces opening a new line of attack last week, as well as parts of Gaza City and the Jabaliya refugee camp built in northern Gaza. The battle is still going on, and a wide area has been reduced to rubble.

“The situation is extremely difficult,” said Hussein al-Sayed, who fled Gaza City at the beginning of the conflict and is staying with relatives in Khan Younis. “I have a child and I don't know where to go. There is no safe place.”

He and his three daughters live in a three-story house with about 70 others, most of them evacuated from the north, and have been rationing food for days, he said. “I've been eating only one meal a day for many days to save food for the girls. They're still young,” he said.

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires artillery shells into the Gaza Strip from southern Israel at a position near the Israel-Gaza border on December 10, 2023. AP

Another Khan Yunis resident, Radwa Abu Freiyeh, has witnessed heavy Israeli attacks around the European Hospital, where tens of thousands of people have sought shelter, according to the UN humanitarian office. She said there was a strike at a house near her late Sunday.

“The building shook,” she said. “We thought this was the end and we were going to die.”

fear of permanent displacement

With limited aid granted, Palestinians face severe shortages of food, water and other necessities.

Israeli troops prepare weapons and military vehicles by the border fence before entering the Gaza Strip, December 10, 2023.
AFP (via Getty Images)

Some observers openly fear that Palestinians will be forced out of Gaza altogether, a repeat of the mass exodus from what is now Israel during the 1948 war over statehood.

“We can expect a complete breakdown of security in the near future, including the epidemic and increasing pressure for mass evacuation to Egypt,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said Sunday at a forum in Qatar, a major mediating country. , an even worse situation could develop.”

Israeli government spokesman Eilon Levy said claims that Israel intended a mass evacuation from Gaza were “outrageous and false.”

A Palestinian carries an injured girl after she was rescued from under the rubble of a building destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on November 1, 2023. AP

But other Israeli officials are also discussing such a scenario, alarming Egypt and other friendly Arab countries that have refused to accept the refugees.

At the same time, it is unclear when or if Palestinians will be allowed to return to Gaza City and many areas in the north, where some 1.2 million people lived before the war.

Fighting in and around Khan Yunis threatens to cause similar destruction in the south, with tens of thousands of people already flocking to the town of Rafah and other areas along the Egyptian border.

Israeli soldiers load shells into a tank on the outskirts of the northern Gaza Strip. Reuters

It has also disrupted the delivery of humanitarian aid to much of the Gaza Strip, putting further pressure on people to head south.

Tough situation in the south

Israel seeks to avoid harm to civilians, blaming Hamas for deaths, fighting in crowded areas and installing military infrastructure such as weapons, tunnels and rocket launchers in or near civilian buildings. They say this is putting residents at risk.

The military said on Sunday that its troops had killed the armed men as they were leaving a clinic, and that troops operating in Jabaliya had discovered a truck full of long-range rockets near a school.

Palestinians work among the rubble of a building that was targeted by an Israeli airstrike in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on November 1, 2023. AP

Soldiers said they found a rifle, two rocket-propelled grenade launchers and explosives in a house in Jabaliya.

Israel has urged its people to evacuate to what it considers safe areas in the south, but continues to attack suspected militant targets across the territory.

Associated Press reporters on Monday witnessed an overnight airstrike on a house in Rafah and nine bodies taken to a local hospital.

Aid group Médecins Sans Frontières says people in the south are also falling ill while crammed into crowded evacuation centers or sleeping in tents in the open.

Nicolas Papachrysostomou, MSF's emergency coordinator in the Gaza Strip, said “all the other patients” at the clinic in Rafah had respiratory infections caused by prolonged exposure to the cold and rain.

“In some evacuation centers, 600 people share one toilet. We are already seeing many cases of diarrhea. Children are often the most severely affected,” he said. said.

Three months into the war, more than 17,900 Palestinians have died in the Gaza Strip, the majority of them women and children, according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry.

The ministry does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths.

On the Israeli side, about 1,200 people were killed, most of them civilians, in the October 7 attack, while Hamas and other militants also captured more than 240 people, including infants, women and the elderly.

During a week-long ceasefire late last month, more than 100 prisoners were released in exchange for women and minors held in Israeli prisons.

Israel said Hamas still had 117 hostages and the bodies of 20 people captured or killed during the October 7 attack.

Most of the remaining hostages are soldiers and civilians, and the militants hope to exchange them for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

The military announced that 101 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the start of the ground offensive in Gaza.

Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets at Israel, but most are intercepted or land in open areas, causing no casualties or damage.

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