KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli forces dropped fliers warning Palestinians to flee parts of southern Gaza, residents said Thursday, signaling a possible expansion of their offensive to areas where hundreds of thousands of people following earlier evacuation orders have crowded into UN-run shelters and family homes.
Meanwhile, soldiers continued to search Shifa Hospital in the north, in a raid that began early Wednesday. They displayed weapons they say were found hidden in one building, but have yet to release any evidence of the central Hamas command center, which Israel has said is hidden beneath the complex. Hamas and staff at the hospital, Gaza’s largest, deny the allegations.
Expansion of operations to the south – with Israel already carrying out daily airstrikes – threatens to worsen an already serious humanitarian crisis in the besieged area. Over 1.5 million people have been internally displaced in Gaza, most of whom have fled to the south, where food, water and electricity are increasingly scarce.
It is not clear where else they could go, like Egypt refuses to allow a mass transfer on his land.
The war, now in its sixth week, was sparked by a large-scale Hamas attack into southern Israel on October 7, when the militants killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and captured about 240 men, women and children. Israel responded with a week-long air campaign and a ground invasion of northern Gaza, vowing to remove Hamas from power and crush its military capabilities.
More than 11,200 Palestinians have been killed, two-thirds of them women and minors, according to Palestinian health authorities. A further 2,700 have been reported missing, most of whom are believed to be buried under the rubble. The official count does not distinguish between civilian and militant deaths, and Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.
The war has fueled tensions elsewhere. On Thursday, gunmen shot and wounded four people at a checkpoint on the main road connecting Jerusalem with Israeli settlements in occupied the West Bank. Police said three attackers were killed and a search for others was underway.
SOME WEAPONS, BUT NO TUNNELS FOR LIDDEL
Israeli troops stormed into Gaza’s largest hospital Wednesday is looking for traces of Hamas inside and below the facility, where newborns and hundreds of other patients have suffered for days without electricity and other basic necessities.
Troops searched the hospital’s underground levels on Thursday and detained technicians responsible for operating its equipment, the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said in a statement.
The military said its soldiers were accompanied by medical teams bringing in incubators and other supplies.
After surrounding Shifa for several days, Israel is facing pressure to prove its claim that Hamas used the patients, staff and civilians sheltering there to provide cover for its fighters. The allegation – which the US has said it has intelligence to support – is part of Israel’s wider accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.
The military released a video from inside Shifa showing three duffel bags it said it found hidden around an MRI lab, each containing an assault rifle, grenades and Hamas uniforms, as well as a cabinet containing a number of assault rifles without ammunition clips. The Associated Press could not independently verify the Israeli claims that the weapons were found inside the hospital.
Hamas and Gaza health officials deny that militants are operating in Shifa – a hospital that employs about 1,500 people and has more than 500 beds. Palestinians and rights groups accuse Israel of recklessly endangering civilians.
Munir al-Boursh, a senior official with Gaza’s health ministry inside the hospital, said troops searched the basement and other buildings, questioning and scanning the faces of patients, staff and people housed in the facility.
Israeli forces battled militants outside the hospital for days, but there were no reports of militants firing from inside Shifa or of any fighting inside the hospital after Israeli troops entered.
The health ministry said 40 patients, including three babies, have died since Shifa’s emergency generator ran out of fuel on Saturday. There was no word on the condition of another 36 babies the ministry previously said were at risk of dying.
The leaflets, dropped in areas east of the southern city of Khan Younis, warned civilians to evacuate and said anyone near militants or their positions “puts his life at risk.” Similar leaflets were dropped over northern Gaza in the weeks prior to the ground invasion.
Two journalists who live east of Khan Younis confirmed they had seen the leaflets. Others shared photos of the leaflets on social media. The military declined to comment.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday that the ground operation will ultimately “include both the north and the south. We will attack Hamas wherever it is.”
Although Israel is signaling a broader offensive, it has yet to outline a long-term plan, other than to say it will maintain security controls over Gaza indefinitely.
The US has urged Israel not to reoccupy the territory from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005, and supports the eventual creation of a Palestinian state including Gaza and the occupied West Bank – also the long-held aspiration of the Palestinians. The government of Israel was strongly opposed to the Palestinian state even before the war.
The military says it has largely consolidated its control over the north, including seizing and demolishing government buildings. Video released by the army on Thursday showed soldiers moving between heavily damaged buildings through holes blown in their walls.
The military said it had blown up a residence belonging to Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader based abroad. It was unclear if anyone was inside the building.
With most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people penetrated into the south of the territory, residents say bread is scarce and supermarket shelves are bare. Families cook on firewood due to lack of fuel. Central electricity and running water have been out for weeks.
The worsening fuel shortage threatens to paralyze the delivery of humanitarian services and shut down mobile phone and internet services.
Israel on Wednesday allowed a small amount of fuel to enter Gaza for the first time since the war began, so that the UN agency for Palestine refugees could continue to bring limited supplies of aid.
The fuel cannot be used for hospitals or water desalination, and covers less than 10% of what the agency needs to sustain “life-saving activities,” said Thomas White, the agency’s Gaza director.
Chehayeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Amy Teibel and Melanie Lidman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.