Gaza civilians find no good options to escape widening Israeli strikes

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AMMAN, Jordan — Israel on Sunday launched strikes in northern and southern Gaza, hitting densely populated areas where it says Hamas militants are hiding, and squeezing civilians into ever smaller patches of territory as options dwindle for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians seeking refuge.

Casualties appeared to be heaviest in the already hard-hit north, where fresh strikes on the Jabalya refugee camp came Sunday as residents were still reeling from a barrage the day before, according to local news reports. Meanwhile, Israel signaled a widening of operations with new evacuation warnings in the southern hub of Khan Younis, where Palestinians already displaced from the north had been instructed to move.

“The Israeli army is continuing and expanding the ground operation against the Hamas presence in every part of the Gaza Strip,” Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a briefing Sunday.

Earlier, the head of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, told reservists with the Gaza Division that the war against Hamas was moving south — and that the fight would be just as fierce as it was in the north. “Just as we did it strongly and thoroughly in the northern Gaza Strip, we are also doing it now in the southern Gaza Strip,” he said.

But aid agencies and fleeing Palestinians say the scattered strike locations and mixed messages from Israel about where to go have sown panic and confusion, leaving families no clear path to safety amid intense bombardment and a dire humanitarian crisis.

The Gaza Health Ministry on Sunday counted at least 316 people killed and another 664 wounded in the past 24 hours, adding that the number was likely to rise as bodies were retrieved from the rubble. More than 15,500 people have been killed and over 41,000 wounded in Gaza since the war began, the ministry said Sunday.

Why news outlets and the U.N. rely on Gaza Health Ministry for death tolls

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“We are killed twice: Once because of bombing and destruction, and again because of harsh living conditions, fear and terror,” said Emad, a 56-year-old schoolteacher who wouldn’t give his last name for security reasons. He said his large family, staying at a shelter in central Khan Younis, had already relocated four times. “They told us to move south, and we moved. Now there is no farther than that. Where do we go?”

Where to go is the key question for Palestinians in Gaza, with an estimated 1.8 million people – or 80 percent of the population – now internally displaced, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Tracking damage within the Gaza Strip through maps

Under increasingly public pressure from the Biden administration and other Western allies over the high civilian toll, Israel posted maps online that it said would better help Palestinians make their way to a “safer” zone. But aid groups and displaced families say the grids lack specifics and direct people to areas that are inaccessible, overcrowded or under attack.

The leaflets include a QR code for more information, but much of the enclave is operating in near-blackout conditions, with sporadic phone or internet service.

“I cannot overstate the fear, panic & confusion that these Israeli maps are causing civilians in #Gaza, including my own staff,” Melanie Ward, head of the relief group Medical Aid for Palestinians, posted on X, formerly Twitter. “People cannot run from place to place to try to escape Israel’s bombs, nor does international law expect them to. What is being done is unconscionable.”

In the maps, Israel designated about 25 percent of the Gaza Strip for evacuation, according to OCHA. The aid agency said one of the zones — a roughly 27-square-mile area east of Khan Younis — was home to about 352,000 people before the start of the conflict.

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In recent days, Biden administration officials have issued pointed calls for Israel to do more to avoid civilian casualties in the nearly two-month-old war, which erupted Oct. 7 after Hamas militants killed at least 1,200 people and abducted scores of others in a devastating attack inside Israel.

Israel responded with military operations that have turned Gaza into what U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has called “hell on earth,” with women and children making up around 70 percent of the death toll.

Israel laments the scale of the loss of civilian life in Gaza but holds Hamas responsible for it, government spokesman Eylon Levy said Sunday.

“The Israeli army has made every effort upholding our obligations under international law to get civilians out of harm’s way,” he said.

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On Sunday, local journalists in Khan Younis posted footage showing frantic efforts to retrieve casualties after strikes in the city. The videos showed collapsed buildings and homes sheared of their facades. Men with bloodied, limp children in their arms were filmed racing toward an ambulance.

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called the heavy bombardment “petrifying” in a post late Saturday on X, formerly Twitter. A WHO team that visited Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, he wrote, found the facility packed to three times its capacity, with patients “receiving care on the floor, screaming in pain.”

In northern Gaza, too, bloody scenes followed strikes on the Jabalya refugee camp and in the Shejaiya neighborhood east of Gaza City.

Al Jazeera reported that an entire residential block of the Jabalya camp was leveled Sunday, burying dozens of people. Footage from local journalists showed people at the camp, a frequent target of strikes, picking through the smoking wreckage for survivors or corpses.

In Shejaiya, residents and rescue workers were still working to retrieve casualties from strikes Saturday that killed or injured hundreds, Palestinian officials said. Israel said it killed a local Hamas military commander, Wissam Farhat, in the attack, and said on Sunday that it would continue operations there.

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Reached by phone, Mohammad, a 43-year-old resident who asked to have his last name withheld for security reasons, said his aunt and her family were among the dozens feared dead in Shejaiya. He recalled hearing a barrage of blasts so intense that his house “shook violently.”

After the strikes, Mohammad said, he ran to help and saw that the three-story house where his aunt was sheltering with around 40 other people was “entirely under rubble.” Dozens of other homes also were destroyed, he said, leading to fears about the extent of the dead or wounded who remain under the debris.

“The scene was frightening and terrifying — complete destruction,” Mohammad said. “People began digging out the bodies.”

Humanitarian officials for weeks have privately – and sometimes publicly – criticized the Biden administration for not leaning on Israel more to curb attacks they describe as disproportionate, indiscriminate, and a form of collective punishment, a violation of international law. Hundreds of new deaths have been reported since fighting resumed Friday after a brief pause for a hostage-swap deal.

Speaking on the sidelines of talks with Arab leaders in the United Arab Emirates over the weekend, Vice President Harris said, “Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed,” and called the scenes of carnage from Gaza “devastating.”

To some observers, U.S. acknowledgment of the steep losses is welcomed, if late.

“Finally, the US says what it should have much earlier,” Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, tweeted Sunday. “The bombardment was indiscriminate from week 1.”

Balousha reported from Amman, Jordan, Berger from Jerusalem and Allam from Cairo. Kareem Fahim in Beirut, Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo and Rachel Pannett in Sydney contributed to this report.

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