Israel Expands Gaza Ground Offensive, Vows To Hit The South With 'nO Less Strength' Than The North

Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to the hospital in Deir al Balah on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/ Hatem Moussa)
Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to the hospital in Deir al Balah on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/ Hatem Moussa)
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KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel's ground offensive expanded to every part of the Gaza Strip, its military said Sunday, as it ordered more evacuations and vowed to hit south Gaza with “no less strength” than the fight that has reduced large parts of north Gaza to a moonscape.

Heavy bombardment followed the evacuation orders, and Palestinians in the sealed-off territory bordering Israel and Egypt said they were running out of places to go.

Many of Gaza's 2.3 million people fled to the south after Israel ordered civilians to leave the north in the early days of the war, which was sparked by the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack in Israel that killed about 1,200, mostly civilians.

After dark, gunfire and shelling were heard in the central town of Deir al-Balah as flares lit the sky. Israeli drones buzzed overhead in Gaza’s second-largest city, Khan Younis. U.N. human rights chief Volker Türk urged an end to the war, saying civilian suffering was “too much to bear.”

Residents said the military dropped leaflets calling Khan Younis “a dangerous combat zone” and ordering them to move to the border city of Rafah or a coastal area in the southwest.

Halima Abdel-Rahman, a widow and mother of four, said she's stopped heeding such orders. She fled her home in October to an area outside Khan Younis, where she stays with relatives.

“The occupation tells you to go to this area, then they bomb it,” she said by phone. “The reality is that no place is safe in Gaza. They kill people in the north. They kill people in the south.”

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said the death toll in the territory since Oct. 7 has surpassed 15,500, with more than 41,000 wounded. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but said 70% of the dead were women and children.

A Health Ministry spokesman asserted that hundreds had been killed or wounded since a weeklong cease-fire ended Friday. “The majority of victims are still under the rubble,” Ashraf al-Qidra said.

Ballistic missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels struck three commercial ships in the Red Sea on Sunday, the latest in a series of maritime attacks in the Mideast linked to the war. The Iranian-backed Houthis claimed two of the attacks. A U.S. warship also shot down three drones in self-defense during the hourslong assault, the U.S. military said.

Hopes for another temporary truce in Gaza faded as Israel called its negotiators home, and senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said talks on releasing further more hostages must be tied to a permanent cease-fire.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the war will continue until “all its goals” are achieved. One is to remove Hamas from power in Gaza.

The earlier cease-fire facilitated the release of 105 of the roughly 240 Israeli and foreign hostages taken to Gaza during the Oct. 7 attack, in exchange for 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Most of those released by both sides were women and children.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told NBC’s “Meet the Press” the U.S. was working "really hard” for a resumption of negotiations.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has urged Israel to avoid significant new mass displacement and to do more to protect civilians. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told Egypt's president that “under no circumstances” would the U.S. permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, an ongoing siege of Gaza or the redrawing of its borders.

As Harris flew from Dubai and an appearance at the U.N. climate conference back to Washington, she spoke by phone with Israeli President Isaac Herzog. They discussed the situation in the West Bank, with Harris reiterating U.S. concerns with steps being taken that could escalate tensions — including extremist settler violence, according to a summary provided by Harris’ office.

Harris also spoke by phone during the flight to Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, and again stated U.S. support for the Palestinian people's right to security, dignity and self-determination, according to the summary.

On the ground in Gaza, there was fear and mourning. Outside a Gaza City hospital, a dust-covered boy named Saaed Khalid Shehta dropped to his knees beside the bloodied body of his little brother Mohammad, one of several bodies laid out after people said their street was hit by airstrikes. He kissed him.

“You bury me with him!” the boy cried. A health worker at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital said more than 15 children were killed.

Israel's military said its fighter jets and helicopters struck targets in Gaza including “tunnel shafts, command centers and weapons storage facilities." It acknowledged "extensive aerial attacks in the Khan Younis area."

The bodies of 31 people killed in the bombardment of central Gaza were taken to the Al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah, said Omar al-Darawi, a hospital administrative employee. One woman wept, cradling a child’s body. Another carried the body of a baby. Later, hospital workers reported 11 more dead after another airstrike. Bloodied survivors included a child carried in on a mattress.

Outside a hospital morgue in Khan Younis, resident Samy al-Najeila carried the body of a child. He said his sons had been preparing to evacuate their home, “but the occupation didn’t give us any time. The three-floor building was destroyed completely, the whole block was totally destroyed.” He said six of the bodies were his relatives.

“Five people are still under the rubble,” he said. “God help us.”

In a video from the same crowded al-Nasser hospital, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder said: “I feel like I’m almost failing in my ability to convey the endless killing of children here.”

Israel says it does not target civilians and has taken measures to protect them, including its evacuation orders. In addition to leaflets, the military has used phone calls and radio and TV broadcasts to urge people to move from specific areas.

Israel says it targets Hamas operatives and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighborhoods. It claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence. Israel says at least 78 of its soldiers have been killed.

The widening offensive likely will further complicate humanitarian aid to Gaza. Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority, said 100 aid trucks entered Sunday, but U.N. agencies have said 500 trucks per day on average entered before the war.

The United Nations estimates that 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced. Nearly 958,000 of them are packed into crowded U.N. facilities in the south, said Juliette Toma, director of communications at the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

Elsewhere in the region, Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group said it struck Israeli positions near the tense Lebanon-Israel border. Eight soldiers and three civilians were wounded by Hezbollah fire in the area of Beit Hillel, army radio reported. The military said its artillery struck sources of fire from Lebanon and its fighter jets struck other Hezbollah targets.

Iraqi militants with the Iran-backed umbrella group the Islamic Resistance in Iraq said they struck the Kharab al-Jir U.S. military base in Syria with rockets. A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said rockets hit Rumalyn Landing Zone in Syria but there were no reports of casualties or damage.

Later Sunday, officials with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq said five militia members were killed in an airstrike blamed on the U.S. near Kirkuk. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a military operation not yet made public said the U.S. had carried out a “self-defense strike” near Kirkuk targeting a drone staging site.

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Chehayeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo; Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad; Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece; Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.