Heavy fighting across Gaza halts most aid delivery, leaves civilians with few places to seek safety

The assault on the south threatens further mass displacement within the besieged coastal enclave, where the U.N. says some 1.87 million people — over 80% of the population — have already fled their homes

Updated - December 06, 2023 05:42 pm IST

Published - December 06, 2023 02:56 pm IST - DEIR AL-BALAH

A Palestinian woman stands in a destroyed room in a building as she inspects the site of Israeli strikes, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 6, 2023.

A Palestinian woman stands in a destroyed room in a building as she inspects the site of Israeli strikes, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 6, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Israeli forces battled Hamas militants across Gaza on December 6, 2023, after expanding their ground offensive to its second-largest city, further shrinking the area where Palestinians can seek safety and halting the distribution of vital aid across most of the territory.

The assault on the south threatens further mass displacement within the besieged coastal enclave, where the U.N. says some 1.87 million people — over 80% of the population — have already fled their homes.

This picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 5, 2023 shows an explosion in Khan Yunis as battles between Israel and Hamas militants continue. Israeli troops on December 5 were engaged in ground combat in the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, the army said as it expands operations in its war on Hamas.

This picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 5, 2023 shows an explosion in Khan Yunis as battles between Israel and Hamas militants continue. Israeli troops on December 5 were engaged in ground combat in the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, the army said as it expands operations in its war on Hamas. | Photo Credit: AFP

Much of the north, including large parts of Gaza City, has been completely destroyed, and Palestinians fear the rest of Gaza could suffer a similar fate as Israel tries to dismantle Hamas, which has deep roots in the territory it has ruled for 16 years.

Israel says it can no longer accept a Hamas military presence in Gaza after the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will maintain open-ended security control over the territory, something opposed by the United States and much of the international community.

Israel troops in Khan Younis

The Israeli military said Tuesday that its troops were “in the heart” of the southern city of Khan Younis after what it described as “the most intense day” of fighting since the start of the ground operation five weeks ago, with heavy battles in the north as well.

For the past three days, aid distribution — mainly just supplies of flour and water — has been possible only in and around the border city of Rafah, at Gaza’s southern edge, because of fighting and road closures by Israeli forces, the U.N.’s humanitarian aid office said.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders said fuel and medical supplies have reached “critically low levels” at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in the central town of Deir al-Balah, north of Khan Younis. Up to 200 wounded people have been brought in every day since Dec. 1, when a weeklong truce expired, it said.

“Without electricity, ventilators would cease to function, blood donations would have to stop, the sterilization of surgical instruments would be impossible,” said Marie-Aure Perreaut Revial, the aid group’s emergency coordinator in Gaza. She said the hospital is also running desperately low on surgical supplies and external fixators to hold broken bones together.

Gaza has been without electricity since early October, and Israel has severely limited fuel imports, forcing several hospitals to shut down because they cannot operate emergency generators.

The war has killed more than 16,200 people in Gaza — 70% of them women and children — and wounded more than 42,000, according to the territory’s Health Ministry, which released new figures late Tuesday. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but its overall tally tracks with a figure released by the Israeli military this week.

The ministry says hundreds more have been killed since the cease-fire ended Friday, and many still are trapped under rubble.

The military accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields when the militants operate in residential areas. But Israel has not given detailed accounts of individual strikes, some of which have levelled entire city blocks.

Military Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said militants keep weapons in homes and other buildings so fighters in civilian clothes can use them to fire on troops.

“Striking them requires significant use of fire, both to target the enemy but also to, of course, protect our forces,” he said on Tuesday.

.The military says 88 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza offensive. A military official said this week that at least 15,000 Palestinians have been killed, including 5,000 militants, but did not explain how the army arrived at those figures.

Even after weeks of bombardment, Hamas’ top leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar — whose location is unknown — was able to conduct complex cease-fire negotiations and orchestrate the release of scores of hostages last week. Palestinian militants have also kept up their rocket fire into Israel.

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