DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of Palestinian families fled Wednesday under the weight of Israel’s growing ground offensive toward the few survivors in Gaza, overcrowded sheltersas the army launched heavy strikes in the center and south of the territory, killing dozens of people, Palestinian health officials said.
On foot or on donkey carts loaded with goods, a stream of people flocked to Deir al-Balah, a town that normally has a population of around 75,000. It was overwhelmed by several hundred thousand people driven from northern Gaza as the region was reduced to rubble.
With UN shelters often filled beyond capacity, new arrivals set up tents on sidewalks for the cold winter nights. Most gathered in the streets around the city’s main hospital, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, hoping it would be safer from Israeli strikes.
Yet no place is safe in Gaza. Israeli offensives concentrate most of the population in Deir al-Balah and Rafah, on the southern edge of the territory, as well as in a small rural area on the southern coast. But these areas continue to be affected by Israeli strikes which regularly destroy houses full of people.
The newly displaced were fleeing several refugee camps built in central Gaza, targeted during the last phase of the Israeli ground attack. One of the camps, Bureij, was subjected to heavy shelling throughout the night as Israeli troops arrived there.
“It was a hell of a night. We have not seen such bombings since the start of the war,” said Rami Abu Mosab, speaking from Bureij, where he has been sheltering since fleeing his home in northern Gaza.
He said warplanes were flying over the camp and gunfire and explosions were echoing from the camp’s eastern edge. A house near his shelter was hit, but no one could reach the area, he said.
The Bureij camp, like others in Gaza, houses refugees from the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel and their descendants and now resembles other densely populated neighborhoods.
While much of northern Gaza has been razed, Palestinians fear a similar fate awaits other areas, including Khan Younis, just south of Deir al-Balah, where Israeli forces have launched land operations in early December.
In Khan Younis, Israeli shelling hit a residential building next to Al-Amal hospital on Wednesday, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, which runs the facility.
Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said at least 20 people had been killed and dozens more injured, and the death toll could rise. Footage from the scene showed several torn bodies lying in the street as emergency workers loaded a man whose legs had been severed below the knees onto a stretcher.
Israel said the bombing campaign and ground offensive were necessary to dismantle Hamas and prevent a repeat of the attacks. his attack of October 7 in which militants breached Israel’s formidable defenses and killed some 1,200 people – mostly civilians – and kidnapped around 240. An estimated 129 people remain in captivity after dozens were freed.
Achieving its goals, Israel said, will take “several months.”
DEATH, DISPLACEMENT AND FAMILY
Israel’s offensive is already one of most devastating military campaigns in recent history. More than 21,100 Palestinians, mostly women and children, were killed, including nearly 200 people in the past 24 hours, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.
About 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinian population have fled their homes, congregating in smaller and smaller areas in recent weeks as the ground offensive has spread. For many Palestinians, the exodus echoes the massive displacement in 1948 which they call the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Cellphone and internet services were disrupted for several hours before gradually being restored on Wednesday, the latest in a series of such outages that have complicated relief efforts.
The flight of people to Deir al-Balah took place after the Israeli army issued evacuation orders for Bureij and neighboring areas of central Gaza and then announced the arrival of troops. The area was home to nearly 90,000 people before the war and is now home to more than 61,000 displaced people, mainly from the north, according to the UN humanitarian office.
It was unclear how many people were evacuating. In Deir al-Balah, over the past two days, empty lots have filled with families living in tents or sleeping on blankets on the ground. Others wander the streets with their belongings looking for a free space.
Despite continued U.S. calls for Israel to move to a more precise attack, the army so far appears to be following the same pattern used in each previous phase of the ground assault, in northern Gaza and in Khan Younis. Before troops intervene, intense bombardments target what Israel considers to be Hamas’s tunnels and military infrastructure. Heavy urban fighting ensues as troops move block by block, supported by airstrikes and bombings that the military says are aimed at driving out pockets of militants.
The resulting devastation was massive. In the north and Khan Younis, large populations remained behind and were caught in the middle, unable to leave or convinced that no other place was safe.
U.N. officials say a quarter of the territory’s population is starving under the Israeli siege, which is letting in a trickle of food, water, fuel, medicine and other supplies. Last week, the UN Security Council called for immediately speeding up aid deliveries, but there have been few signs of change.
Israel blames Hamas for the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza because the militants operate in dense residential areas. The army claims to have killed thousands of militants, without presenting evidence, and that 164 of its soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began.
STRIKES IN LEBANON AND THE WEST BANK
The war sparked other fronts in the Middle East.
Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group have exchanged fire several times along the border. An Israeli strike on a family home killed a Hezbollah fighter, his brother and his sister-in-law overnight, local officials and state media said Wednesday. Another family member was injured.
In the occupied West Bank, Israeli forces killed at least six Palestinians during a nighttime raid in the refugee neighborhood of Nur Shams, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. More than 300 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank since the start of the war, mainly during clashes with Israeli forces during raids and demonstrations.
As fears of a broader conflict mount, the United States, Qatar and Egypt are working on a new deal to free more hostages. US President Joe Biden spoke with Qatar’s ruling emir on Tuesday.
Hamas says no more hostages will be released until Israel ends the war. He proposed exchanging the remaining prisoners for a large number of Palestinian prisoners, including prominent activists. Israel rejected the request.
Magdy and Keath reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Najib Jobain contributed from Rafah, Gaza Strip.
See more AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war
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