HomeNewsIsrael warns it will expand ground offensive beyond northern Gaza

Israel warns it will expand ground offensive beyond northern Gaza

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JERUSALEM — Israel signaled Friday that it was preparing to intensify military operations in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, foreshadowing a new phase of its war against Hamas in an area where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had fled in search of safety.

The Israel Defense Forces are “determined” to push forward the offensive, military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a briefing Friday. “It will happen wherever Hamas exists, including in the south of the strip,” he said.

For weeks, the IDF and senior Israeli officials urged civilians to leave Gaza City and other urban areas in the north, describing the region as a crucial base for Hamas operations. Close to half a million people heeded the calls and fled south, according to the United Nations, where they have packed into homes, schools, shelters and camps.

Aid agencies have warned of the spread of disease and a worsening humanitarian crisis exacerbated by severe fuel shortages and rolling communications blackouts.

In recent days, Israel’s air force began dropping leaflets near the southern city of Khan Younis, warning residents that anyone who is close to militants or their positions is “putting their life in danger.” But it is unclear where Palestinians, many of whom are already displaced, would go if heavy fighting expanded to the south.

“Many of them have fled southward in search of relative safety, only to be now told to relocate — many of them for the second time,” the head of the U.N. aid coordination agency, Martin Griffiths, told a session of the General Assembly on Friday.

Much of the north has been leveled and Israeli troops now control key parts of Gaza City. On Friday, satellite imagery collected by space technology company Maxar showed a vast crowd of people in northern Gaza attempting to flee south on foot along an evacuation corridor.

Israel’s top general, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said late Thursday that the army was “close to dismantling” Hamas’s military capabilities in the north. After that, the military’s activity would expand to “more and more regions” in Gaza, he said.

Amid the fierce bombardments and communications outages, Gaza’s Health Ministry said it could no longer count the number of dead, which stood at about 11,100 when the toll was last updated on Nov. 10. On Friday, the U.N. provided the Jawwal telecommunications company with a limited amount of fuel to help partially restore services in Gaza, a spokeswoman said.

A near-total depletion of fuel stocks across the territory has intensified the suffering in Gaza on almost every level: The main power station went dark and backup generators are out of diesel, leaving many hospitals out of service. The bakeries that have not been destroyed by Israeli airstrikes are also struggling to make enough bread.

On Friday under U.S. pressure, Israel’s war cabinet agreed to allow 70,000 liters of fuel into southern Gaza each day, said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks with Israel’s government.

Most of the fuel — about 60,000 liters per day — is earmarked for basic humanitarian needs across southern Gaza. That includes the network of trucks delivering aid and other supplies to hospitals and bakeries. The remainder is intended for Paltel, Jawwal’s parent company, which maintains cellphone and internet services in Gaza.

It is highly unusual for a foreign government to publicize the details of decisions made by another country, even if the two nations are allies. But the debate over whether to provide Gaza with fuel is politically divisive inside Israel — and the Biden administration has grown increasingly concerned about being too closely associated with Israeli actions that are causing harm to civilians, U.S. officials have said in recent weeks.

The head of Israel’s National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi, said Friday that “no drop of fuel” would go to northern Gaza. He warned that the recent operations were “only the beginning,” and said that Israel “won’t stop until all of the military and control abilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are neutralized.”

On Friday night, Israeli soldiers were still combing the al-Shifa hospital complex in Gaza City for evidence of militant activity. The IDF stormed the hospital grounds on Wednesday after accusing Hamas of using the facility as cover for its command-and-control operations. But so far, Israel has produced little evidence of significant Hamas infrastructure at the hospital.

At a news conference, IDF spokesman Col. Richard Hecht played drone footage he said showed a shaft within the al-Shifa complex leading to a Hamas tunnel. It was not possible, however, to independently verify the location where the footage was shot.

“We’re now focusing very much to understand what this tunnel is,” Hecht said, adding that the efforts involved combat engineers and canine units.

“Everybody was expecting, okay, you entered Shifa, where’s the big headquarters? Where’s Mr. Sinwar’s offices?” Hecht said, referring to Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar.

“This is going to take time,” he said, calling reporters “impatient.”

According to Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra, the hospital complex now resembles a “military barracks, with the army stationed outside and free access to enter and exit.”

Israeli forces “recently explored various areas of the complex, including the basement, kitchen and MRI rooms,” Qudra said in a phone interview Friday. “However, since morning, they have not ventured inside the hospital.”

The picture emerging from doctors there was one of terror and privation. Muhammad Abu Salmiya, the hospital’s director, told Al Jazeera on Friday that patients in the intensive care unit who depended on oxygen had died. Ahmed Mokhallalati, who heads the hospital’s burn unit, said that without electricity to power their incubators, three dozen premature babies were suffering from “intestinal inflammation and severe diarrhea.” Four of them had died, Qudra said.

The doctors estimated that some 7,000 people were trapped inside the buildings — the wounded and their families, displaced civilians, and medical staff. Because the area is not accessible to foreign reporters, it was not possible to verify their claims.

Qudra said that hospital employees were detained Friday morning as part of an Israeli investigation and later released. “The inquiry focused on their observations inside the hospital,” he added.

The IDF said that operations in the area were “ongoing” but that operational security prevented it from sharing details at this time.

The IDF said Friday that the bodies of two hostages were found in buildings near the hospital, although the military did not clarify whether there was any apparent connection with the facility. Hamas and allied militants in Gaza seized more than 200 hostages during their raid on communities in southern Israel.

Israeli troops found the body of 19-year-old Cpl. Noa Marciano, and her funeral took place on Friday. On Thursday, the body of Yehudit Weiss, a 65-year-old who had been taken hostage from the Be’eri kibbutz, was recovered. Israeli media reported that her husband was found slain in the safe room of their building after the attack and that Weiss had been battling cancer at the time of her abduction.

The Gaza war also has sparked conflagration in the occupied West Bank. Extremist settlers have used the conflict as a cover to seize rural Palestinian lands. In crowded refugee camps, Palestinian militants say they are preparing escalation of their own as Israeli security forces step up raids in their communities. Several thousand Palestinians have been detained since Oct. 7, with rights groups warning that many of the arrests are arbitrary and that abuse of Palestinians in custody is spiking.

Three Palestinians were killed in an Israeli drone strike during a raid in the city of Jenin, according to WAFA, the official state news agency of the Palestinian Authority, which has jurisdiction in parts of the West Bank. In its own statement on the strike, Israel maintained that five were killed by an IDF “aircraft.”

The IDF described the target as “an armed terrorist cell that fired at Israeli security forces” and said that several “fled the area of the raid in vehicles and ambulances” toward Ibn Sina Hospital, where they were pursued and arrested by border police.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said ambulance crews at the hospital were detained and searched, “impeding their ability to aid the injured and transport patients.”

Dadouch reported from Beirut, Balousha from Amman, Jordan, and Birnbaum from Washington. Victoria Bisset in London, Carrie Keller-Lynn in Tel Aviv and Cate Brown and Jonathan Baran in Washington contributed to this report.

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