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Israel continues bombardment, ground assault in southern Gaza

Israel continues bombardment of southern Gaza
World Health Organization says situation in Gaza "getting worse by the hour" 02:49

Israeli warplanes heavily bombarded an area around Khan Younis in southern Gaza on Monday as the military ordered mass evacuations from the town in the face of a widening ground offensive that is pushing Palestinians into a progressively shrinking portion of the besieged territory.

The expanded assault posed a deadly choice for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — either stay in the path of Israeli forces or flee within the confines of southern Gaza with no guarantee of safety. Aid workers warned that the mass movement would worsen the already dire humanitarian catastrophe in the territory.

"Another wave of displacement is underway, and the humanitarian situation worsens by the hour," the Gaza chief of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, Thomas White, said in a post on X.

Adding to the chaos, phone and internet networks across Gaza collapsed again Monday evening, the Palestinian telecom provider PalTel reported. The network has broken down multiple times during the war, making it largely impossible for residents to communicate with each other or the outside world for hours or sometimes several days until it is repaired.

A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 4, 2023, shows smoke billowing over the Palestinian territory following Israeli bombardment amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Israel has vowed to eliminate Gaza's Hamas rulers, whose Oct. 7 attack into Israel killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and triggered the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades. The war has already killed thousands of Palestinians and displaced over three-fourths of the territory's population of 2.3 million people. Palestinian health officials say bombardment has killed several hundred civilians since a weeklong truce ended Friday.

Already under mounting pressure from its top ally, the United States, Israel appears to be racing to strike a death blow against Hamas — if that's possible, given the group's deep roots in Palestinian society — before any new cease-fire. But the mounting toll is likely to further increase international pressure to return to the negotiating table.

Airstrikes and the ground offensive in northern Gaza have reduced large swaths of Gaza City and nearby areas to a rubble-filled wasteland. Hundreds of thousands of residents fled south during the assault.

Now around 2 million people — most of the territory's population — are crowded into the 230 square kilometers (90 square miles) of southern and central Gaza, where Israel's ground offensive is now moving, threatening to render even larger areas uninhabitable.

Since the truce's collapse, the military has ordered the population out of an area of about 62 square kilometers (24 square miles) in and near Khan Younis, according to the evacuation maps issued by the Israeli military. That further reduces the space available for Palestinians by more than a quarter.

Fighting in central Gaza

Constant bombardment on the edges of Khan Younis, Gaza's second-largest city and the home of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, lit up the sky over the town Monday evening, and a stream of ambulances carrying wounded, including several women and children, flowed to the main hospital.

Two-month-old Adnan was fighting for his life in one of the city's hospitals following an airstrike. His father told CBS News they fled south as Israel instructed, only to get caught in the bombardment.

The Israel Defense Forces have issued an interactive map outlining "evacuation zones" that residents can access via a QR code. But many Palestinians have been cut off from electricity and internet access, making it impossible for them to know where to go.

Forced displacement of Palestinians in Gaza
Palestinians begin to migrate to areas in the southern part of the city due to Israeli attacks in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on December 4, 2023. Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu via Getty Images

Over the past few days, Israeli strikes have been "on a ferocious scale," said Mohammed Aghaalkurdi, an aid worker with the group Medical Aid for Palestinians in Khan Younis. "Barely has any kind of aid been delivered to the people, nor is there any food left in shops."

He said neighborhoods and shelters were emptying as people fled. Leaflets dropped by the Israeli military warn people to go south toward the border with Egypt, but they are unable to leave Gaza, as both Israel and neighboring Egypt have refused to accept any refugees.

Dalal, a young Palestinian, told CBS News her family was forced to flee southward from Gaza City to Rafah, where they are living in a makeshift shelter by the road.

The area that Israel ordered evacuated covers about a fifth of Khan Younis. Before the war, that area was home to some 117,000 people, and now it also houses more than 50,000 people displaced from the north, living in 21 shelters, the U.N. said.

It was not known how many were fleeing. Some Palestinians have ignored past evacuation orders, saying they do not feel any safer since areas where they are told to flee have also been bombed. Many also fear they will never be allowed back to their homes.

It was not clear where Israeli troops have moved into southern Gaza, but the military told people to stay off the main road between Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah, suggesting forces were moving between the two towns.

Israeli media also reported intense fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants in northern Gaza — in the Jabaliya refugee camp and the Gaza City district of Shijaiya, both scenes of intense bombardment and battles in recent weeks.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, said the army is pursuing Hamas with "maximum force" in the north and south while trying to minimize harm to civilians.

He pointed to a map that divides southern Gaza into dozens of blocks in order to give "precise instructions" to residents on where to evacuate. Most are urged to flee south, but, confusingly, a map posted on X by the military Monday urged people to flee into Fakhari, a district east of Khan Younis that the military ordered evacuated a day before.

"The level of human suffering is intolerable," Mirjana Spoljaric, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said during a rare visit to Gaza. "It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza, and with a military siege in place, there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible."

She also called for the immediate release of scores of hostages still held by Palestinian militants since the Oct. 7 attack.

In a letter to the Red Cross chief, a group of released Israeli hostages asked to meet her while she is visiting the region and called for more help from the organization to free the remaining 137 captives.

"Every day that passes could be their last, and the suffering they endure is inhuman," wrote the eight freed captives and 102 relatives of hostages still in captivity.

Among the remaining hostages are eight Americans, including 19-year-old U.S.-Israeli citizen Itay Chen.

"We do not have proof of life, even after 59 days," his father, Ruby Chen, told CBS News.

Itay Chen is an IDF soldier who was serving in a tank unit when he was taken hostage during Hamas' Oct. 7 assault, his father said. 

"You wake up and you get that slap in the face. You spent 18, 20 hours a day to find a way to get a chance to see my son and hug him again," Ruby Chen said. 

Both he and his wife, Hagit Chen, worry the resumption of fighting has put their son in danger.

"I'm just a mom who wants her son back home where he belongs," Hagit Chen said.

Rising death toll

The Health Ministry in Gaza said the death toll in the territory since Oct. 7 has surpassed 15,890 people – 70% of them women and children — with more than 42,000 wounded. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.

Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said hundreds have been killed or wounded since the cease-fire's end, with many still trapped under rubble.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah received 32 bodies overnight after Israeli strikes across central Gaza, said Omar al-Darawi, an administrative employee. Associated Press footage showed women in tears, kneeling over the bodies of loved ones and kissing them.

Hamas Israel Conflict
Mourners reciting prayers over the bodies of victims killed in an Israeli bombing in Deir el-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, on December 4, 2023. Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Israeli military said aircraft struck some 200 Hamas targets overnight, with ground troops operating "in parallel," without elaborating. It said troops in northern Gaza uncovered two militant tunnel shafts that held explosives and weapons in a school after coming under attack.

It is not possible to independently confirm battlefield reports from either side.

Death toll rose to 15,523 in Gaza
Infographic created in Ankara, Turkey, on December 4, 2023. Elif Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images

Israel says it targets Hamas operatives and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighborhoods. Still, it does not provide accounting for its targets in individual strikes.

Israel claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence. The military says at least 81 of its soldiers have been killed.

U.S. pressure

The U.S. is pressing Israel to avoid more mass displacements and civilian deaths, a message underscored by Vice President Kamala Harris during a visit to the region.

"Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed," Harris said in Dubai over the weekend. "Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating. ... As Israel pursues its military objectives in Gaza, we believe Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians."

She also said the U.S. would not allow the forced relocation of Palestinians out of Gaza or the occupied West Bank, or the redrawing of Gaza's borders.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted that international forces took steps to protect civilians while fighting ISIS.

"Like Hamas, ISIS was deeply embedded in urban areas. And the international coalition against ISIS worked hard to protect civilians and create humanitarian corridors, even during the toughest battles," Austin said in California over the weekend. "So the lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians."

"In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population," he added. "And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat."

So I have repeatedly made clear to Israel's leaders that protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.

But it's unclear how far the Biden administration is willing or able to go in pressing Israel to rein in the offensive, even as the White House faces growing pressure from its allies in Congress.

The U.S. has pledged unwavering support to Israel since the Oct. 7 attack, including rushing munitions and other aid to the country.

Israel has rejected U.S. suggestions that control over postwar Gaza be handed over to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority as part of a renewed effort to resolve the overall conflict by establishing a Palestinian state.

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