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Palestinians flee Israeli military push into southern Gaza

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AMMAN, Jordan — Israeli ground forces tightened their grip on the southern part of the Gaza Strip on Monday, establishing a new checkpoint outside the key city of Khan Younis as residents scrambled to stay clear of the advancing army and intense bombardment Israel says is aimed at ousting Hamas from power.

A focal point of the operations Monday was Gaza’s Salah al-Din Road, which Israel had previously designated as an evacuation route for civilians fleeing from the north to the south. The Israel Defense Forces, for the first time, announced Monday that a segment of the road, north of Khan Younis, was a “battlefield,” and that residents should no longer approach it.

The IDF identified “bypass” roads it said residents should travel on instead, adding to the thicket of evacuation orders Israel has issued in recent days that it says are aimed at reducing civilian casualties. But aid groups have warned the directives are becoming impossible to navigate, while Palestinians in Gaza say the guidance is of little use in a place where most everywhere is filled with peril.

“The level of human suffering is intolerable,” Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a statement Monday as she visited Gaza. “It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza, with a military siege in place there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible.”

Since a week-long humanitarian pause ended Friday, with Hamas and Israel blaming each other for its collapse, Israel has “entered a new phase in our war against Hamas,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, said Monday.

“We pursued them in northern Gaza, we are now pursuing them in southern Gaza too,” Hagari said in a recorded press statement. “We will operate in maximum force against Hamas terrorists and infrastructure while minimizing harm to the civilians that Hamas places around them as shields.”

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Separately, the Israeli army announced in a statement Monday that it had targeted hundreds of locations in Gaza by ground, air and sea, including a weapons storage facility, and a vehicle containing mortar shells, missiles and other weapons. The statement did not say when the strikes occurred.

Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes since Friday, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which said Monday that at least 15,899 people had been killed since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a deadly attack into Israel that killed at least 1,200 people.

The latest strikes included a suspected Israeli attack near the northern gate of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza that killed at least six displaced Palestinians, according to the hospital director, Ahmed Kahlout.

At night, Gazans displaced from their homes have sought shelter in the medical complex, compounding pressures on the facility, which has limited stores of water, food and fuel, Kahlout said.

“They gather inside the hospital, in its courtyard, and along its internal and external walls,” he said. “The numbers have been rising since the morning hours due to bombings throughout the northern Gaza Strip.”

As the fighting intensified across the enclave, the dangers for civilians accumulated along Salah al-Din Road, the main thoroughfare linking northern and southern Gaza.

Intense shelling in the area started Friday, soon after the pause ended, according to Hani Abu Mustafa, 39, who lives near the road north of Khan Younis. “We were being bombed in such a devastating and frightening way by F-16 planes that we thought it would be our last night,” he said.

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By Saturday morning, large numbers of residents were fleeing, after the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning them to evacuate, he said. Abu Mustafa’s family had been loath to leave. They stayed in their house throughout the last few weeks, wary of the “bitterness” that awaited them in evacuation shelters, he said. They only left their home, he added, when he saw Israeli tanks with his own eyes on Saturday morning.

“We did not have time to carry any of our personal belongings,” he said. On Sunday, he said, “We received news from neighbors who live near our house that the army had turned it into a military barracks, and was shooting at passersby on Salah al-Din Street.”

Witnesses said Monday that Israel had established a checkpoint at the intersection of Al-Matahen and Salah al-Din streets. Israeli forces previously operated a checkpoint in the same area when they occupied Gaza before withdrawing in 2005.

Sondos Daloul, 25, who is staying in a school with her family on Salah al-Din Road in the Deir al-Balah area, said tanks had taken up positions in the area over the last few days. Artillery shelling had wounded people sheltering there, she said. She was staying with her six sisters. They had lost contact several days ago with their parents, who were displaced to another school outside Gaza City.

“The sounds of clashes do not stop, and the artillery shells do not stop,” she said.

Gaza’s main telephone and internet provider, Paltel, announced Monday night local time that telecommunication services were down across the territory. “We regret to announce the complete cessation of the communications and Internet services with the Gaza strip,” the statement said.

The internet-monitoring group NetBlocks said the incident mirrored “previous outages in scale and impact.”

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“We believe most residents will be cut off from internal and external communications as a result,” said Isik Mater, the group’s director of research.

Almost 1.9 million people in Gaza — over 80 percent of its population — have been internally displaced since Oct. 7, according to figures released Monday by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNWRA.

The Israeli evacuation instructions issued Monday did not give specific directions for civilians heading south from Gaza City and northern Gaza, areas that Israeli forces have largely cut off since Israeli forces launched a ground invasion in late October.

Beginning Nov.10, under pressure from the Biden administration, Israel agreed to hold several hours-long “tactical, localized” daily pauses along Salah al-Din Road during which residents could leave the north.

In the weeks that followed, hundreds of thousands of Gazans traveled on foot through the corridor, which was lined in places by Israeli snipers and tanks. Israeli forces set up a checkpoint and apprehended an unknown number of Palestinians along the route, according to interviews with family members of the detained.

Nir Dinar, an IDF international spokesman, told The Washington Post by WhatsApp on Monday that “there is still an open corridor from the north to the south” along Gaza’s coastal road, west of Salah al-Din, which he said was open Monday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The IDF and Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, an arm of Israel’s Defense Ministry, typically publish evacuation routes on social media, but none were shared on Monday. Dinar said civilians were notified of the route through recordings, leaflets and text messages, though he said no recordings were issued Monday and did not immediately respond to a request for copies of text messages and leaflets.

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Muhammad al-Natour, 42, a displaced Gazan who is staying north of Khan Younis near Salah al-Din Road, said he received Israeli evacuation notices: a call to the owner of the house where he was staying, demanding they leave, and leaflets dropped from planes, telling them to go to Rafah, on the border with Egypt.

But the demands to flee — which had stoked “fear and anxiety” — were not the only problem. His ailing 67-year-old mother required oxygen supplied by canisters that needed to be refilled daily. His car had no petrol. He had been using a taxi, but the driver over the last few days had also run out of fuel. So he walked — or took a donkey cart.

“Otherwise my mother will die, not because of the bombing, but because I failed to provide her with the oxygen she needs to survive under the bombing,” Natour said, adding that his sister, 45, has cancer.

His family complied with the evacuation orders, moving west, away from the Israeli army. “If military operations extend to this area, we may suddenly be displaced for a third time,” he said.

“Then, how will I get oxygen?”

Harb reported from London, Fahim from Beirut and Berger from Jerusalem. Cate Brown in Washington contributed to this report.

Source: Washington Post

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