Israeli troops fought fierce battles with Hamas in southern Gaza on Wednesday after reaching the heart of the city of Khan Younis, forcing Palestinian civilians to seek refuge elsewhere as the number of safe areas decreases.
Israeli warplanes also bombarded targets across the densely populated coastal territory in one of the heaviest phases of fighting in the two months since Israel began its military campaign to eliminate the militant group.
Palestinian medics said hospitals were overflowing with dead and wounded, many of them women and children, and supplies were running out. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people driven out of the north were seeking shelter in the dwindling number of places in the south designated as safe areas by Israel.
In Geneva, the UN human rights chief said the situation was “apocalyptic” and there was a risk that serious rights violations were being committed by both sides. The UN said it was impossible to deliver aid through the Rafah border crossing from Egypt.
After largely gaining control of northern Gaza, Israeli troops and tanks pushed further south and encircled Khan Younis following the collapse of the seven-day truce last week.
Israel said its forces had struck hundreds of targets, including a militant cell near a school in the north. Hamas’ armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, said combat was fierce.
Residents said Israeli bombing intensified overnight, killing and wounding civilians, and that tanks were battling Palestinian militants north and east of Khan Younis. Some Palestinians described lucky escapes after their homes were destroyed in an overnight air strike on the al-Amal neighbourhood of Khan Younis.
“I swear we don’t even know how we made it out alive,” said Hamdi Tanira, describing an attack on a house where he said he and about 30 others were sleeping, including 20 children.
“We were peacefully sleeping, not bothering anyone,” said another survivor, Amal Mehdi. “All of a sudden, the bombardment hit us.”
In Gaza’s north, tanks, naval boats and war planes pounded areas of the Jabalia refugee camp as well as roads and houses, residents and Hamas media said. Tanks were stationed on the edge of the Khan Younis refugee camp, not far from the house of Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yehya al-Sinwar, they said. It was unclear whether anyone was there.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Hamas fighters were using improvised explosive devices and anti-personnel mines in a shift of tactics as the fighting moved to close ground combat.
Israel unleashed its military campaign in response to an attack on October 7 by Hamas fighters who rampaged through Israeli towns, killing 1 200 people and seizing 240 hostages, according to Israel’s tally.
Hamas’s media office said at least 16 248 people including 7 112 children and 4 885 women had been killed in Gaza since then. Those figures were not immediately verified by the Gaza health ministry. Israel said 84 of its soldiers had been killed since the ground operation began five weeks ago.
The handful of hospitals that remain open across Gaza are barely functioning. UN human rights chief Volker Turk said his colleagues had described the situation in the enclave as apocalyptic.
“In these circumstances, there is a heightened risk of atrocity crimes,” he said.
Colonel Moshe Tetro, an Israeli humanitarian affairs officer, said the military has been telling civilians in advance to evacuate from areas of Khan Younis where it plans to operate, using phone messages, online statements and leaflets.
The Israeli military said Hamas was using civilians as human shields and preventing civilians from moving to safe places. Hamas denies this.
Gazans say there is no safe place, with remaining towns and shelters overwhelmed, and Israel bombing areas where it is telling people to go.
Displaced people sheltering near the border said they feared Israel would try to force them into Egypt but they would not go.
Israel says some women and children hostages remain in Hamas’ hands and its goal is to find and free them.
During the pause in fighting, Hamas returned more than 100 hostages, but 138 captives remain. The US Israel’s closest ally, has urged Israel to do more to allow fuel and other aid into Gaza and reduce harm to civilians.
The UN’s Turk said the only way to end the conflict was to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and opt for a two-state solution with Israel and an independent Palestine.