The move followed heavy bombardment of the southern city of Khan Younis over the weekend, with the Israeli military renewing calls for mass evacuations from the area, where tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought refuge in recent weeks.
“No one can describe the fear, horror and the suffering we are facing right now,” Khalid Mohammed, a 22-year-old computer science graduate based near Khan Younis told The Independent. “All we can do is try to prepare ourselves by storing some food and other essential needs for a couple of days ahead.”
According to those on the ground, armoured personnel carriers and bulldozers were also seen entering the area surrounding Khan Younis.
Resident Amin Abu Hawli, 59, told AFP the Israeli vehicles were “two kilometres (1.2 miles) inside” southern Gaza in the village of Al-Qarara near Khan Younis.
Residents said they heard airstrikes and explosions in and around the city overnight. The Israeli military has ordered the evacuation of nearly two dozen neighbourhoods in and around the area, dropping leaflets ordering residents to move south towards the border with Egypt. A map created by the military showed 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.
Desperate families – most of them on foot – packed their belongings and headed towards Rafah. But Rafah itself was coming under Israeli fire. The head of the United Nations agency in Gaza (UNWRA), Thomas White, said people there were themselves being forced to flee. “People are pleading for advice on where to find safety. We have nothing to tell them,” he said on X, formerly Twitter.
The Israeli military also started warning civilians to avoid the main north-south highway between Khan Younis and the central town of Deir al-Balah, saying the road had become a “battlefield” and was “extremely dangerous”. This indicated that Israeli troops were approaching Khan Younis from the northeast, possibly with plans to cut central Gaza off from the south.
“We’re fearing that the Israeli tanks will cut the roads towards us and we [won’t be able to] find anything to eat,” said Mr Mohammed.
Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas following the attack inside Israel on 7 October that killed 1,200 people and saw around 240 people taken hostage into Gaza. Israel responded with an intense aerial bombardment and a blockade that has left stores of fuel, food, water and medical supplies running low. Ground operations have followed, at first focusing on northern Gaza, but now pushing south. “The goals in the northern section have almost been met,” Brigadier-General Hisham Ibrahim told Israel’s Army Radio. “We are beginning to expand the ground manoeuvre to other parts of the Strip.”
Health officials in Hamas-run Gaza say that almost 16,000 people have died since Israel began its military operations, with 70 per cent of them women and children.
Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesperson, said the army was pursuing Hamas with “maximum force” in the north and south, hitting “approximately 200 Hamas terror targets”. The official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, reported that at least 50 people were killed on Monday in an Israeli airstrike that hit two schools sheltering displaced people in the north of the Strip. The Israeli military said it was looking into the report.
In his early briefing, before that report, Rear Admiral Hagari said Israel was trying to minimise harm to civilians, pointing to the map created by the Israeli military that divides Gaza into hundreds of blocks, with the aim of enabling the Israelis to give precise instructions to civilians on where to evacuate to.
Many Palestinians, however, say they are struggling to access online versions of the map, due to frequent internet blackouts throughout Gaza. When they are able to arrive in the areas where they have been instructed to seek refuge, they say they do not feel any safer – with most of Gaza having been repeatedly bombed.
“Of course we don’t trust [the map system]. Why would I trust it?” said Mr Mohammed. “Israel told us once to go south and bombed us in the south. Unfortunately, we don’t have any other solution except to do what the system told us.”
“The level of human suffering is intolerable,” Mirjana Spoljaric, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said during a rare visit to Gaza. “It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza, and with a military siege in place, there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible.”
A week-long truce to facilitate the release of hostages in exchange for Palestinians being held in Israeli jails ended on Friday, with Israel seeking to push quickly into southern Gaza. The pause had also allowed the first respite from the bombing campaign for Gaza’s residents.
During the truce, Hamas released 105 of its hostages in return for 240 Palestinian detainees. But with most women and children hostages now believed to be free, the truce collapsed over terms for releasing more, including Israeli men and soldiers. Israel says 136 hostages are still being held, with Ms Spoljaric calling for their immediate release.
Israeli military chiefs believe the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, as well as the head of its military wing, Mohammed Deif, are hiding out in Khan Younis. They also believe some of the remaining Israeli hostages are held there, in Hamas’s complex network of tunnels deep underground.
Doctors have said the situation inside Nasser Hospital – one of the few functioning hospitals in Khan Younis – is “catastrophic”. Infectious diseases such as pneumonia are spreading rapidly as hygiene levels plummet amid extreme overcrowding. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described conditions as “unimaginable”.
On Saturday, US vice-president Kamala Harris told Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: “Under no circumstances will the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, the besiegement of Gaza, or the redrawing of the borders of Gaza.”
On Monday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he believes Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be tried as a war criminal. Mr Netanyahu has previously dismissed such rhetoric and said that Israel has a right to defend itself. Speaking at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) committee, Mr Erdogan said Gaza is Palestinian land and will always belong to the Palestinians.
As pressure mounts on the world stage, Mr Netanyahu also faces trouble internally. This morning, his trial on corruption charges restarted for the first time since the beginning of the war, at Jerusalem District Court.
In a corruption saga which rocked Israeli politics for months prior to 7 October, Mr Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in one case, and charges of fraud and breach of trust in two other cases. He denies any wrongdoing.