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 Palestinian 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 United Nations human rights chief said the situation was “apocalyptic” and there was a risk that serious rights violations were being committed by both sides. The U.N. 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 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 were 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, you wouldn’t know where it came from, it was a miracle that we were pulled from under the rubble.”
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.