Israel has dropped leaflets into southern Gaza telling Palestinian civilians to leave four towns on the eastern edge of Khan Younis, raising fears that its war against Hamas could spread to areas it previously said were safe.
The flyers told civilians in Bani Shuhaila, Khuza’a, Abassan and al-Qarara that anyone in the vicinity of militants or their positions was “putting his life in danger”, local people told Reuters.
Tens of thousands of people have fled from north to south Gaza in recent weeks, crowding into UN-run shelters and family homes in Khan Younis, the biggest city in the south.
The UN’s human rights chief, Volker Türk, said that five weeks into the war, “massive outbreaks of infectious disease, and hunger” seemed inevitable in the densely populated Palestinian territory. He predicted catastrophic consequences if fuel supplies ran out, including the collapse of sewage systems and healthcare and an end to the already scarce supplies of humanitarian aid.
In Gaza City, IDF troops were searching the underground levels of al-Shifa hospital and detaining technicians responsible for running its equipment, the Hamas-run health ministry said.
Munir al-Boursh, a senior official inside the hospital, said troops ransacked the basement and other buildings and questioned and face-screened patients, staff and people sheltering in the facility, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which is separate from Hamas, said its fighters were involved in “fierce clashes” with Israeli forces near the hospital complex, the BBC reported.
Hundreds of patients, including newborn babies inside Shifa, have suffered for days without electricity and other basic necessities.
The hospital has become a strategic objective for Israel, which says there is a Hamas command centre in bunkers underneath, which Hamas and hospital staff deny.
An IDF official said on Thursday that troops were still inside the hospital complex, searching one building at a time in “a discrete, methodical and thorough manner”.
The official said the IDF had located weapons, intelligence material, military technologies and equipment, command and control centres and communications equipment belonging to Hamas. They added that information and footage about the hostages abducted from Israel were found on computers and other technological equipment. The official did not provide evidence.
On Wednesday, Hamas described Israel’s claims that military equipment had been found as “nothing but a continuation of the lies and cheap propaganda, through which [Israel] is trying to give justification for its crime aimed at destroying the health sector in Gaza”.
Hamas militants stormed southern Israeli towns and kibbutzim on 7 October, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostages.
On Thursday morning, the IDF said Israeli fighter jets had struck the house of the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, in Gaza. In a social media post that included a video said to show the strike, the IDF said the home “was used as terrorist infrastructure and a meeting point for Hamas’s senior leaders to direct terrorist attacks against Israel”.
On Wednesday, Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said the IDF’s ground operation would eventually “include both the north and south”. “We will strike Hamas wherever it is,” he said.
Two reporters who live east of Khan Younis confirmed seeing the leaflets, and others shared images of the leaflets on social media, Reuters reported. The military declined to comment.
The leaflets read: “For your safety, you need to evacuate your places of residence immediately and head to known shelters … Anyone near terrorists or their facilities puts their life at risk, and every house used by terrorists will be targeted.”
Two-thirds of the Gaza Strip’s population of 2.3 million have been made homeless by the war and every available space in Khan Younis and other southern towns is crammed.
Mohammed Ghalayini, 44, a civil servant from Manchester who is in the centre of Khan Younis, said there was a housing crisis across the city.
“There’s been a massive influx of people,” he said. “It’s the biggest place and it’s the place where there’s more potential to find somewhere to stay.
“There’s a massive housing crisis. Every day three people that I know call me saying ‘can you help me find a place?’ and it’s really hard, because there are no places. Even if you have the space, it’s whether it can support people in terms of water and sanitation.”
More than 11,200 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Palestinian health authorities. Another 2,700 have been reported missing, with most believed to be buried under the rubble.
The Israeli army on Thursday announced the deaths of two more soldiers in Gaza, increasing the number of troops killed in the territory to 50 since the start of the war.
On Wednesday, three suspected Palestinian assailants opened fire at a checkpoint on a road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, wounding six security force members before the assailants were shot dead, Israeli police said.