(MENAFN- Jordan Times) GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories - Israeli occupation forces battled fighters of Hamas in Gaza's main southern city on Wednesday in some of the most intense combat of the nearly two-month war sparked by the October 7 surprise attacks.
Israeli troops, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and bulldozers have rolled into Khan Yunis in the south, Gaza's second-largest city, forcing already displaced civilians to pack up and flee again, witnesses told AFP.
The focus of the conflict has shifted into the besieged Palestinian territory's south following fierce fighting and bombardment that reduced much of the north to rubble and forced an estimated 1.9 million people to flee.
The streets of Khan Yunis were almost empty on Wednesday morning as residents tried to take shelter from shelling and artillery fire, said AFP journalists, while the dead and wounded continued to pour into the city's hospitals.
Israel declared war on Hamas after the resistance group's October 7 sudden attacks. The latest toll from the Gaza government's media office said 16,248 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, had been killed.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and free 138 hostages still held in Gaza after scores were released during a short-lived truce.
The mass casualties in Gaza have sparked global concern, heightened by dire shortages brought by an Israeli siege that has seen only limited supplies of food, water, fuel and medicines enter.
Hassan Al Qadi, a displaced Khan Yunis resident, said“the whole city is suffering from destruction and relentless shelling”.
“Many people arriving from northern Gaza are facing dire circumstances. Many are homeless and some are searching for their missing children.”
“We are not mere numbers. We are human beings,” he said, speaking in the southern city of Rafah.
Sources in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, told AFP their fighters were battling Israeli forces early Wednesday in a bid to prevent them from breaking into Khan Yunis and surrounding areas.
According to the Hamas media office, dozens were killed and injured in heavy strikes on areas east of Khan Yunis.
The health ministry in Gaza said air strikes on the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza killed six people and wounded 14 others.
Israel had previously told civilians in the north of the densely populated Gaza Strip to seek shelter in the south of the territory, with many fleeing to Khan Yunis believing it would be safer.
The violence in Gaza“now ranks amongst the worst assaults on any civilian population in our time and age”, charged aid group the Norwegian Refugee Council, which also warned of the dire public health threat of the approaching winter.
Israeli warnings telling people to move even further south have sparked“panic, fear and anxiety”, according to Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
People were being pushed into an area that is less than one-third of the Gaza Strip, he said.
International aid groups have condemned the succession of orders to flee from one area to another, saying that civilians were running out of options.
“Palestinians in Gaza are living in utter, deepening horror,” UN human rights chief Volker Turk told a press conference, calling for an urgent ceasefire and charging that Gazans are being“collectively punished” for the Hamas attacks.
Following demands to create areas where civilians could shelter, Israel's army published a map it said was intended to enable Gazans to“evacuate from specific places for their safety if required”.
But the UN children's agency UNICEF criticised the map, saying it was“not possible” to create safe zones for civilians to flee to inside Gaza.
According to UN figure, some 1.9 million people are displaced in Gaza, roughly 80 per cent of the narrow coastal territory's population.
Fighting resumed after the collapse on Friday of a Qatar-mediated truce that saw scores of Israeli and other hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
Israeli forces said on Wednesday that the number of its troops killed inside Gaza since the war began had risen to 83.
The war has sparked fears of a wider regional conflict, with frequent exchanges of fire with Iran-backed Hizbollah across Israel's border with Lebanon and a surge of deadly violence in the occupied West Bank.
A Lebanese soldier was killed by Israeli fire on a military post near the country's southern border on Tuesday, the army said.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops raided the northern Faraa refugee camp early Wednesday, sparking clashes that killed two people, one of them aged 16, Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.
According to Palestinian authorities, during the Israeli war on Gaza, more than 250 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, by Israeli fire or in settler attacks.
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