The Israeli military says it is expanding its ground operations against Hamas’s strongholds to cover the whole of the Gaza Strip, vowing that its battles in the south will be of ‘no less strength’ than its offensive in the north.
Israeli forces continued to bomb swathes of the territory on Sunday, killing and wounding dozens of Palestinians, with civilians seeking shelter in a shrinking area of the south.
For weeks, Israel has warned civilians in Gaza to move south in the enclave as their battles against Hamas raged in the north, and it continued to be labeled a ‘safe zone’ despite continuous Israeli bombing of Khan Younis and other areas.
Now, the IDF has declared that they are fighting ‘strongly and thoroughly’ in the south, a process Chief of General Staff Herzi Halevi said began on Saturday.
‘Yesterday, and today, we eliminated brigade commanders, company commanders, many operatives, and yesterday morning we started the same process in the southern Gaza Strip,’ he said.
‘It will be with no less strength than that, it will be with no less results than that, and Hamas commanders will meet the IDF everywhere in a very, very strong way.’
Hamas reported on Sunday that its fighters clashed with Israeli troops about one mile from the southern city of Khan Younis.
Residents, many of whom had moved there to flee earlier attacks in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, said they could hear tank fire and feared a new Israeli ground offensive was building.
The Israeli military earlier ordered people to evacuate some areas in and near the city, but made no announcement of any new southern ground assault.
‘The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) continues to extend its ground operation against Hamas centres in all of the Gaza Strip,’ spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters in Tel Aviv in the clearest sign its planned ground offensive in the south had begun. ‘The forces are coming face-to-face with terrorists and killing them.’
Fuelling fears the conflict could spread to destabilize the region, Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi movement said it attacked two Israeli ships in the Red Sea with an armed drone and a missile on Sunday, in a move to stand with the Palestinians.
The Pentagon also said it was aware of reports of an attack on an American warship, the USS Carney, without going into detail. There was no independent confirmation from Israel or the United States of the attacks or what damage they caused, if any.
The Jabalia refugee camp in the north of Hamas-ruled Gaza was among the sites reported hit from the air. A Gazan health ministry spokesperson said several people were killed by an Israeli air strike.
Footage obtained by Reuters showed a boy covered in grey dust, sitting weeping amid crumbled cement and rubble from collapsed buildings.
‘My father was martyred,’ he cried in a hoarse voice. A girl in a pink sweatshirt, also coated with dust, stood between piles of rubble.
Bombardments from warplanes and artillery were also concentrated on Khan Younis and Rafah, another city in Gaza’s south, residents said, and hospitals were struggling to cope with the flow of wounded.
Israel’s government spokesperson, Eylon Levy, said the military had struck more than 400 targets over the weekend ‘including extensive aerial attacks in the Khan Younis area’ and had also killed Hamas fighters and destroyed their infrastructure in Beit Lahiya in the north.
There was no immediate comment on the reports of specific attacks. The renewed warfare followed the end on Friday of a seven-day pause in the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas, which had allowed an exchange of 105 hostages held by Hamas, most of them Israelis, for 240 Palestinian prisoners.
The latest violence took place despite calls from the United States – considered Israel’s closest ally – for the country to limit harm to Palestinian civilians in the new phase of its offensive, focused on the south.