Two months into the invasion, Israel's incursion into southern Gaza was bringing to Khan Younis the same level of violence and intensified bombardment that obliterated much of Gaza City and the north of the territory in recent weeks.
But in the south, the areas where Palestinians can seek safety are rapidly shrinking. Ahead of the assault, Israel ordered residents to evacuate Khan Younis. But much of the city's population remains in place, along with large numbers who were displaced from northern Gaza and are unable to leave or wary of fleeing to the disastrously overcrowded far south.
Cut off from outside aid, people in United Nations-run shelters in Khan Younis are fighting over food, said Nawraz Abu Libdeh, a shelter resident who has been displaced six times.
“The hunger war has started,” he said. “This is the worst of all wars.”
The U.N. says some 1.87 million people — over 80% of the population of 2.3 million — have already fled their homes, many of them displaced multiple times. Almost the entire population is now crowded into southern and central Gaza, dependent on aid.
Late Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used a rarely exercised power to warn the Security Council of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza and urged members to demand a cease-fire. He invoked Article 99 of the U.N. Charter, a step no U.N. chief has taken in half a century, which says the secretary-general may inform the council of matters believed to threaten international peace and security.
Israel accused the U.N. chief of “a new moral low” and “bias against Israel.” The United States signaled it would not support Security Council action.
Earlier Wednesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said, “Palestinians in Gaza are living in utter, deepening horror." Speaking at a news conference in Geneva, he said that “my humanitarian colleagues have described the situation as apocalyptic.”
Israel has killed more than 16,200 people in Gaza — including 7,112 children and 4,885 women — and wounded more than 42,000, the Palestinian Health Ministry said late Tuesday. The agency has said many are also trapped under rubble.
URBAN WARFARE NORTH AND SOUTH
The Israeli occupation army said its special forces at Khan Younis had broken through defense lines of Hamas resistance fighters and were assaulting their positions in the city center. It said warplanes destroyed tunnel shafts and troops seized an outpost as well as several weapons caches.
The Israeli accounts of the battle could not be independently confirmed.
Video released by the resistance group showed commandos and troops moving amid sounds of gunfire down city streets strewn with wreckage and buildings with giant holes punched into them. Some took positions behind an earthen berm, while others inside a home fired out through a window.
Israeli occupation army spokesperson Daniel Hagari said heavy fighting was also continuing in the north, in the Jabaliya refugee camp and the district of Shujaiya.
Hamas posted a video it said showed its fighters in Shujaiya moving through narrow alleys and wrecked buildings and opening fire with rocket-propelled grenades on Israeli armored vehicles. Several of the vehicles are shown bursting into flames.
But Hamas ’ continuing ability to fight in areas where Israel entered with overwhelming force weeks ago signals that eradicating the group while avoiding further mass casualties and displacement — as Israel’s top ally, the U.S., has requested — could prove elusive.
The occupation says 88 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza ground offensive. It also says some 5,000 Palestinians resistance have been killed, without saying how it arrived at its count.
PUSHED TO THE EDGE
Tens of thousands of people have fled from Khan Younis and other areas to Rafah, on Gaza's southern border with Egypt, the U.N. said. Rafah, normally home to around 280,000 people, has already been packed with more than 470,000 who fled from other parts of Gaza.
On the other side of the border, Egypt has deployed thousands of troops and erected earthen barriers to prevent any mass influx of refugees, under the forced displacement by Israel. It says an influx would undermine its decades-old peace treaty with Israel, and it doubts Israel will let them back into Gaza.
Overcrowded shelters and homes are now overflowing, residents say.
“You find displaced people in the streets, in schools, in mosques, in hospitals … everywhere,” said Hamza Abu Mustafa, a teacher who lives near a school-turned-shelter in Rafah and is hosting three families himself.
For the past three days, aid groups have only been able to distribute supplies in and around Rafah — and mainly just flour and water, the U.N.’s humanitarian aid office said.
Access farther north has been cut off by fighting and road closures by Israeli forces.
The World Food Program warned of the worsening of “the catastrophic hunger crisis that already threatens to overwhelm the civilian population.”
Israeli strikes continued in Rafah, where the army has told evacuees to take refuge. One strike Wednesday evening leveled a home in the town's Shaboura district, where hours earlier Israel had announced a pause in operations to allow delivery of aid.
A wave of wounded flowed into a nearby hospital, including at least six children. Medics carried in the limp form of one little girl, her face bloodied.
“We live in fear every moment, for our children, ourselves, our families," said Dalia Abu Samhadaneh, now living in Shaboura with her family after fleeing Khan Younis. “We live with the anxiety of expulsion.”
She said diarrhea was rampant among children, with little clean water available.
A Palestinian woman who identified herself as Umm Ahmed said the harsh conditions and limited access to toilets are especially difficult for women who are pregnant or menstruating. Some have taken to social media to request menstrual pads, which are increasingly hard to find.
“For women and girls, the suffering is double,” Umm Ahmed said. “It’s more humiliation.”
Gaza has been without electricity since the first week of the war, and several hospitals have been forced to shut down for lack of fuel to operate emergency generators.
Israel barred the entry of food, water, medicine, fuel and other supplies, except for a trickle of aid from Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his Security Cabinet has approved small deliveries of fuel into the southern Gaza Strip “from time to time”. The “minimal amount” of fuel will be set by the war cabinet, a three-member authority in charge of managing the war, Netanyahu said.
The decision comes as Israel faces mounting pressure from the United States to ramp up aid to Gaza.
*This story was edited by Ahram Online