GAZA/CAIRO: Fighting between Israel and Hamas intensified across Gaza on Monday, fuelling fears flagged by the United Nations at the weekend of a breakdown in public order and a mass exodus of Palestinians into Egypt.
The narrow coastal strip has been under a full Israeli blockade since the start of the conflict more than two months ago and the border with Egypt is the only other way out.
Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes and residents say it is impossible to find refuge in the densely populated enclave, with around 18,000 people already killed and conflict intensifying.
Since the breakdown of a week-long ceasefire, Israel launched a ground offensive in the south last week and has since pushed from the east into the heart of the major city of Khan Younis, with warplanes attacking an area to the west.
On Monday, Hamas and some residents said fighters were preventing Israeli tanks moving further west through the city and there were also fierce clashes in parts of northern Gaza, where Israel had said its tasks were largely complete.
Israelis fled to shelters after new warnings of rocket fire from Gaza, including in Tel Aviv. Hamas said it was bombarding the city in response to “the Zionist massacres against civilians”.
In Jabalia in northern Gaza, Palestinians ran to escape smoke bombs fired near tents and other homes.
Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee issued a new call on X on Monday for Gaza residents to evacuate Gaza City and other areas of the north as well as Khan Younis in the south.
“Residents of the Gaza Strip, the IDF operates forcefully against Hamas and others in the Gaza Strip, especially in the Khan Yunis area and in the north of the Strip,” it said, urging civilians to leave for their own safety.
UN officials say 1.9 million people - 85 percent of Gaza’s population - are displaced and describe the conditions in the southern areas where they have concentrated as hellish.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who has unsuccessfully pushed for a ceasefire in Gaza, said on Sunday the enclave was in collapse.
“I expect public order to completely break down soon and an even worse situation could unfold including epidemic diseases and increased pressure for mass displacement into Egypt,” he told an international conference in Qatar.
Israel denies seeking to empty Gaza
Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of UNRWA, the UN body responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, said the Gazans driven from their homes were being pushed closer and closer to the border.
“The developments we are witnessing point to attempts to move Palestinians into Egypt, regardless of whether they stay there or are resettled elsewhere,” Lazzarini wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
The border with Egypt is heavily fortified, but Hamas blew holes in the wall in 2008 to break a tight blockade. Gazans crossed to buy food and other goods but quickly returned, with none permanently displaced.
Egypt has long warned it would not allow Gazans into its territory this time, fearing they would not be able to return.
Jordan, which absorbed the bulk of Palestinians after the creation of Israel in 1948, accused Israel on Sunday of seeking“ to empty Gaza of its people“.
Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy called the accusation “outrageous and false,” saying his country was defending itself “from the monsters who perpetrated the Oct. 7 massacre” and bringing them to justice.
Around 18,000 people have been killed by Israeli attacks, with 49,500 injured, according to Gaza health authorities. About 100 of the Israeli hostages were freed during a week-long truce that ended on Dec. 1.
The Israeli military said its troops in Jabalia had found weapons in an UNRWA bag and rocket launchers near a school and distributed a video showing explosive devices next to a bag marked UNRWA. Reuters was not able to independently verify the footage.
It also distributed video it said was from the Gaza City district of Shejaia, purporting to show armed Hamas men beating people and taking aid.
Global strike call
Palestinian activists called for a global strike on Monday to try to pressure Israel into a ceasefire.
Palestinians observed the strike in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but it was unclear whether the effort would catch on globally or have an impact on Israel’s war plans.
The Gaza health ministry said 32 Palestinians had been killed in Khan Younis since early Sunday evening and 15 others were wounded.
Hamas and residents said fighting was also fierce in Shejaia, east of the centre of Gaza City, the northwestern Sheikh Radwan district and the city of Jabalia further north. Hamas said they had inflicted losses on Israeli soldiers, without providing evidence.
In central Gaza, where Israel advised people to move on Monday towards “known shelters in the Deir al-Balah area” health officials said the Shuhada Al-Aqsa hospital had received 40 dead overnight.
Medics said an Israeli air strike had killed four in a house in Rafah, one of two places near Egypt where Israel says Palestinians should take refuge.
Israel said it would suspend military activities in the refugee camp in Rafah, one of several across the enclave housing refugees and their descendants from fighting before, during and after the creation of Israel in 1948 - for humanitarian purposes.