The Israeli offensive in the southern Gaza Strip has set off another mass displacement, as tens of thousands of distressed people flee to areas west and south of the main southern city, only to find shelters packed beyond capacity and a lack of basic necessities like food, medicine and water, aid agencies and the United Nations said Wednesday.
Humanitarian conditions in southern Gaza have grown increasingly dire as Israeli troops and Hamas fighters battle for control of Khan Younis, the region’s largest city. Having told Palestinian civilians since October to evacuate all of northern Gaza, the Israeli military is again urging them to move away from the fighting and into shrinking patches of land.
Israel has instructed people in an area that includes part of Khan Younis to leave for the southern border city of Rafah, already overcrowded with displaced people, or Al-Mawasi, an agricultural area near the Mediterranean Sea. But Palestinians in Gaza have seen deadly Israeli airstrikes in areas they were told would be safer, and aid groups say that Al-Mawasi, in particular, does not have the infrastructure necessary to ease the crisis.
Both sides reported intense gunbattles in Khan Younis, as well as continued air and artillery strikes – some of the heaviest combat in two months of war. An Israeli military spokesperson, Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee, on Wednesday warned civilians not to approach Salah al-Din Road, the main route connecting the city to northern Gaza, calling it “a battlefield” and “extremely dangerous.”
But with most of Gaza’s 2.2 million people displaced from their homes, and electricity and internet access in short supply, it is not clear how many of them can receive such messages.
The Israeli military on Tuesday released an annotated photo of senior Hamas military leaders, with five of the 11 labeled “eliminated,” including the head of Hamas’ aerial division, two battalion commanders, a brigade commander and a deputy brigade commander. The Israelis did not say when the photo was taken.
Satellite images captured Wednesday and analyzed by the New York Times show dozens of tanks on either side of Salah al-Din Road north of Khan Younis, as well as to the east of the city.
Underscoring the sense that no place in Gaza is safe, an airstrike Wednesday hit Rafah, on Egypt’s border, where thousands of civilians have sought refuge, and many are sleeping on streets or in empty lots in tents and makeshift shelters. A television station run by the Palestinian Authority reported that 18 people had been killed.
The U.N. said that, as of Tuesday night, Rafah, with Gaza’s only open border crossing, was the only place in the territory where any humanitarian aid had been distributed after the collapse of a weeklong truce last Friday led to the resumption of intense combat and aerial bombardment.
The number of civilians on the move in recent days could not be confirmed, but the latest migration came after Israel called Sunday for the evacuation of an area that was home to more than 620,000 people, according to the U.N.
“Under international humanitarian law, the place where you evacuate people to must, by law, have sufficient resources for their survival – medical facilities, food and water,” said James Elder, a spokesperson for UNICEF.
“That is absolutely not the case,” he said. “They are these patches of barren land, they are streets or corners or any space in a neighborhood, half-built buildings. The common thing they have is no water, no facilities, no shelter from cold and rain, and particularly no sanitation.”
Desperate people who arrived in Al-Mawasi found little more than open ground, said Yousef D. Hammash, an employee of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He said people scrounged for supplies to build rickety improvised shelters, fearful of the approach of winter.
“Thousands of people are building tents made of wood and plastic,” said Hammash, who fled Khan Younis with his family. “It doesn’t give any kind of protection but it gives them a sense of safety.”
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on Wednesday renewed his call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, but sought to draw more attention to it by invoking Article 99, a rarely used U.N. rule that allows the secretary-general to bring to the Security Council’s attention any matter that “may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”
The article had not been invoked in decades, and Guterres’ call set up a showdown with the United States, which has opposed a broad cease-fire and has veto power on the Security Council.
The Israeli military has said it is determined to eliminate Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza, after it led an attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.
Israel’s release of the photo of Hamas leaders underscored the military’s determination to track them down. The military said the picture was taken while the group hid in a tunnel underneath a residential neighborhood near the Indonesian hospital in the northern Gaza city of Beit Lahiya.
Israeli forces have in recent days advanced into southern Gaza in an attempt to find and kill top Hamas leaders believed to be hiding there, including Yehia Sinwar, the top Hamas official in Gaza, and Mohammed Deif, the head of the Qassam armed wing.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in a video posted on social media: “Our forces are encircling Sinwar’s house. He can escape, but it is only a matter of time until we reach him.”
While vowing to destroy Hamas, Israeli leaders have also come under increasing pressure to secure the release of the 138 hostages that they say are still being held in Gaza. More than 100 were released last week in exchange for more than 300 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
On Tuesday, some of the freed hostages and families of some of those still in captivity had a heated meeting with Netanyahu and members of his war Cabinet, imploring them to do more to bring all of the kidnap victims home.
”We have to figure this out as fast as we can,” said Idit Ohel, whose 22-year-old son, Alon, is a hostage.
Speaking at a news conference after the meeting, Netanyahu attributed the release of the hostages last week to both the Israeli ground incursion into Gaza as well as “a continuous diplomatic effort.”
”And I tell you,” he said, “this is the only way to also return the hostages who are still in Hamas captivity. And we are committed to doing so.”
Since the war began, more than 15,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the territory’s health officials, and much of the region’s housing stock has been damaged or destroyed. Nearly 1.9 million people, or about 85% of the total population of Gaza, have fled their homes, squeezing into an area covering less than one-third of the territory, according to the U.N.
The war has also put an immense strain on the territory’s battered health care system. A major hospital in Khan Younis, Nasser Hospital, has run out of space and supplies to treat injured patients in its emergency room, said Dr. Mohammad Abu Moussa, a radiologist.
“The wounded come in the dozens, and it’s impossible for us to treat all these victims,” Abu Moussa said. “It’s not only that we can’t treat them; we can’t even diagnose them.”
No aid has arrived in Khan Younis and the surrounding area because of the fighting, the U.N. said, while areas immediately north of the city have been cut off because of Israeli restrictions on movement on the main roads. It said all access to northern Gaza, including Gaza City, ended when the truce collapsed.
The Biden administration has urged Israel to exercise more restraint and to do more to avoid civilian casualties, but it has refused to criticize Israel’s conduct of the war.
Hoping to ease some of the humanitarian crisis, the United States on Tuesday pledged an additional $21 million for food, shelter, medical care and other necessities in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, on top of the $100 million that President Joe Biden announced in October.
”Civilians are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the war, and food, water, and fuel remain inadequate, and that is unconscionable,” Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said at a news conference Tuesday, after she arrived in El-Arish, Egypt.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.