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Thousands flee as Israel launches new Gaza City operation

4 days ago 29

Israel launched a new military offensive in Gaza City on Monday, with evacuation orders sowing confusion as tens of thousands of Palestinians fled the war-ravaged northern city amid what residents described as some of the worst bombardment since the start of the war.

Israeli negotiators were set to travel to Egypt for a round of cease-fire talks aimed at bringing some respite in the nine-month-long war with Hamas, a conflict that has devastated the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military said intelligence indicated the presence of Hamas “terrorist infrastructure, operatives, weapons, and investigation and detention rooms” in areas of Gaza City, including at the headquarters of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which aids Palestinian refugees.

Residents and U.N. and civil defense workers described chaos as tanks moved into neighborhoods where some families had just arrived after following evacuation orders in other parts of the city a day earlier.

“The extent of fear and terror cannot be described,” said Zahia Odeh, 59, who fled her house in the Tuffah neighborhood two days ago. But she said she was considering going back. “The noise of bombs is very loud,” she said, describing conditions in the house she was sheltering in with 45 other people north of Gaza City.

“Food and water are scarce,” she said. “I don’t know how we can live in this situation. Every time we are told to evacuate, we don’t know where to go.”

The great majority of Gaza’s population of more than 2 million people is now displaced, many residents multiple times. Around 200,000 to 300,000 people are estimated to have remained in Gaza City and in the north of the enclave, where the humanitarian situation has been most acute.


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According to U.N. estimates, about 81,000 people who lived in areas of Gaza City were told to move to shelters in the west of the city Sunday. But many of those who did were caught in the battle zone as Israeli forces then began their operation at dawn on Monday.

“The population that followed evacuation orders and moved to the west have inadvertently put themselves in active fighting areas,” said Georgios Petropoulos, the head of the Gaza office for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Later on Monday, the Israel Defense Forces issued orders for residents in the area of the operation to move south of the Israeli line of control that splits Gaza in two.

“When the IDF is making its plans for its operations, there is clearly very little regard for their responsibility to enable and facilitate the commensurate aid for the volume of people who will be affected by the operation, and who are affected over, and over, and over,” Petropoulos said.

Petropoulos said tens of thousands have been forced to flee in the past 24 hours, with some displaced three times in the past 10 days.

New evacuation orders over the past two weeks have covered 70 percent of the city, according to Mahmoud Bassal, a civil defense spokesman.

“Last night was extremely difficult,” Bassal said. “Most people spent the night in the streets and on the roads, sleeping in unsuitable areas amid fear, terror and missiles.”

Juliette Touma, an UNRWA spokeswoman, said she had no information on operations at the headquarters, which the agency’s staff evacuated in October. It has since been used by displaced Palestinians seeking shelter, as well as by the IDF as a base of operations, she said.

“We are in the street now, as there is no place to go,” said Reem, a 38-year-old resident of the Rimal neighborhood who spoke on the condition that she not be identified by her full name for security reasons. She said she fled with her family Monday afternoon after they received a call notifying them to move south. But as they left the area, it was under heavy bombardment, she said.

“We had no safe streets or area to walk through,” Reem said, describing climbing walls to try to find cover from the shooting. “They were shooting anything moving,” she said.

It is a crunch moment for cease-fire talks as the United States, Egypt and Qatar continue attempts to broker a hostage release deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu injected new uncertainty into the negotiations late Sunday, insisting that Israel should be able to resume fighting as part of any deal accepted by negotiators.

His statement appeared to raise the bar for what Israel would accept in a deal and further tempered any lingering expectations of an imminent peace.

Netanyahu stipulated that “any deal will allow Israel to resume fighting until all of the objectives of the war have been achieved.” A statement issued by his office suggested that the prime minister would be unwilling to fully commit to a permanent cease-fire until the complete elimination of Hamas in Gaza — something he has repeatedly described as a key aim of the war, alongside the release of the hostages and the ensuring of Israel’s security.

Netanyahu’s office also said that any deal would need to prevent the smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza and “maximize the number of living hostages” released by Hamas — rather than the return of all the hostages.

The statement was criticized by Netanyahu’s domestic political opponents as well as Israeli demonstrators campaigning for a hostage release deal.

“With his irresponsible statement, Netanyahu once again proved himself to be the one who obstructed [the deal],” said Einav Zangauker, a mother of one of the hostages who suspended herself in a cage above the demonstration in Tel Aviv in protest.

Thousands of Israelis gathered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on July 7, calling for members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to resign. (Video: Reuters)

In May, President Biden outlined a three-phase plan that includes a six-week initial stage with a cease-fire and a surge in humanitarian aid, forming the basis of the current round of talks.

CIA Director William J. Burns, a key U.S. participant in past cease-fire negotiations, is returning to the Middle East this week as the Biden administration seeks to nudge the process forward, according to a Middle East government official familiar with the arrangements.

Burns will arrive in Cairo on Tuesday and travel onward to Qatar for meetings with Israeli, Qatari and Egyptian officials and intelligence counterparts on Wednesday, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations. The CIA declined to comment on Burns’s travel.

On Monday, Israeli media reported that an Israeli delegation led by intelligence chief Ronen Bar would continue negotiations in Egypt.

Preparatory meetings between U.S. and Egyptian officials took place on Monday, one former Egyptian official familiar with the cease-fire negotiations said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.

The former official said he was not hopeful for a deal. “The ball is in Netanyahu’s court,” he said. “He is finding excuses in order not to implement a cease-fire.”

Israeli forces said they struck multiple Hezbollah military targets across southern Lebanon. In a statement Monday, the Israel Defense Forces said its fighter jets hit a weapons storage facility and other targets on Lebanese territory and fired artillery to “remove a threat” in other parts of the country’s south.

Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox, outgoing chief of the IDF Central Command, lambasted settler leadership for failing to thwart attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank. Fox said nationalist crime has risen in recent months and that the “cover of war and the desire for revenge” have “sown chaos and fear among Palestinian residents who posed no threat.”

At least 38,193 people have been killed and 87,903 injured in Gaza since the war started, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, including more than 300 soldiers, and it says 323 soldiers have been killed since the start of its military operations in Gaza.

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