Israel ordered people out of swathes of the main southern city in the Gaza Strip on Monday as it pressed its ground campaign deep into the south, sending desperate residents fleeing even as it dropped bombs on areas where it told them to go.
Israel’s military posted a map on X on Monday morning with around a quarter of the city of Khan Younis marked off in yellow as territory that must be evacuated at once. Three arrows pointed south and west, telling people to head towards the Mediterranean coast and towards Rafah, near the Egyptian border.
The Israeli military’s chief Arabic-language spokesperson later said in a post on X that the central road out of Khan Younis to the north “constitutes a battlefield” and was now shut. Access would be permitted on the western outskirts of the city, while in Rafah, a short “tactical suspension of military activities” would allow access until the early afternoon.
In Rafah, bombing at one site overnight had torn a crater the size of a basketball court out of the earth. A dead toddler’s bare feet and black trousers poked out from under a pile of rubble. Men struggled with their bare hands to move a chunk of the concrete that had crushed the child.
Later they chanted “God is Great” and wept as they marched through the ruins carrying the body in a bundle and that of another small child body wrapped in a blanket.
“We were asleep and safe, they told us it was a safe area, Rafah and all,” said Salah al-Arja, owner of one of the houses destroyed at the site.
“There were children, women and martyrs,” he said. “They tell you it is a safe area, but there is no safe area in all of the Gaza Strip, it is all lies and manipulations.”
Israel blames Hamas for putting civilians in danger by operating from civilian areas, including in tunnels which can only be destroyed by large bombs. Hamas denies it does so.
As many as 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes in an Israeli bombing campaign that has reduced much of the crowded coastal strip to a desolate wasteland. Medical officials in the enclave say bombing has killed more than 15,500 people, with thousands more missing and feared buried in rubble.
Israel launched its assault to annihilate Gaza’s ruling Hamas in retaliation for an October 7 cross-border attack by its gunmen, who killed 1,200 people and seized 240 hostages according to Israeli tallies.
Israeli forces largely captured the northern half of Gaza in November, and since a week-long truce collapsed on Friday they have swiftly pushed deep into the southern half.
Tanks driving into Gaza from the border fence in the east along the road that divides Khan Younis from the city of Deir al-Balah further north have reached a flour mill halfway to the Mediterranean coast, cutting off the main north-south route, residents say.
ISRAEL’S GOALS IN NORTH ‘ALMOST MET’
“The goals in the northern section have almost been met,” the commander of Israel’s armoured corps, Brigadier-General Hisham Ibrahim, told Israel’s Army Radio. “We are beginning to expand the ground manoeuvre to other parts of the Strip, with one goal: to topple the Hamas terrorist group.”
The military released footage of troops patrolling in tanks and on foot, in fields and in badly damaged urban areas, and firing from weapons, without specifying the location in Gaza.
Israel says its evacuation orders are aimed at protecting civilians from harm, and called on international organisations to help encourage Gazans to move to the areas labelled safe on Israeli maps.
The United Nations said the areas in the south that Israel has ordered evacuated in the three days since the truce had housed more than 350,000 people before the war - not counting the hundreds of thousands now sheltering there from other areas.
In Khan Younis, many of those taking flight on Monday were already displaced from other areas. Abu Mohammed told Reuters it was now the third time he had been forced to flee since abandoning his home in Gaza City in the north.
“Why did they eject us from our homes in Gaza (City) if they planned to kill us here?” he said.
At a home in Khan Younis that was struck overnight, flames licked the collapsed masonry and grey smoke billowed out from the rubble.
A child’s stuffed toy of a sheep lay in a pile of dust. Boys were picking through the wreckage. Next door, Nesrine Abdelmoty stood amid damaged furniture in the rented room where she lives with her divorced daughter and two-year-old baby.
“We were sleeping at 5am when we felt things collapse, everything went upside down,” she told Reuters. “They told (people) to move from the north to Khan Younis, since the south is safer. And now, they’ve bombed Khan Younis. Even Khan Younis is not safe now, and even if we move to Rafah, Rafah is not safe as well. Where do they want us to go?”
Israel’s closest ally the United States has publicly called on it to do more to safeguard civilians in the southern part of Gaza than in last month’s campaign in the north, especially as there are so many people already homeless there.
Israel permitted additional humanitarian supplies to enter the enclave during the truce, but the United Nations says this was paltry compared to the territory’s vast humanitarian need, and has now been interrupted by the renewed fighting.
During the truce, Hamas released 105 of its hostages in return for 240 Palestinian detainees. But with most women, and children hostages now believed free, the truce collapsed over terms for releasing more, including Israeli men and soldiers. Israel says 136 hostages are still being held.