Tens of thousands of newly displaced Gazans huddled under tarpaulins on Friday in the centre of the enclave after fleeing the latest offensive by Israeli tanks, while warplanes targeted the south, flattening homes and burying families as they slept. Israel is closing the year with new assaults in central and southern Gaza, unleashing a fresh exodus of people already driven from other areas, in what Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called an essential stage of its mission to destroy Hamas.
In the south of the strip in Rafah, Reuters journalists at the scene of one air strike that obliterated a building saw the head of a buried toddler sticking out of the rubble. The child screamed as a rescue worker shielded his head with a hand, while another swung a sledgehammer at a chisel, trying to break up a slab of concrete to free him. Neighbour Sanad Abu Tabet said the two-story house had been crowded with displaced people. After morning broke, relatives came to collect the dead wrapped up in white shrouds. A man partly unwrapped one, to stroke the face of a dead child.
Tens of thousands of Gazans have been fleeing the crowded central districts of Bureij, Maghazi and Nusseirat, ordered out by Israeli forces whose tanks advanced from the north and east. Most have made their way south or west to the already overwhelmed city of Deir al-Balah, pitching makeshift tents made from sheets of plastic on whatever open ground they could find. “We suffered a lot. We had the whole night without shelter, under rain and it was cold, we were with our kids and elderly women,” said Um Hamdi, cooking porridge in a pot over an open woodfire, surrounded by children.
Nearby, grey bearded Abdel Nasser Awadallah stood inside a wooden frame that would be wrapped in plastic to make a tent, and spoke of the family he had lost. “I buried my children, a child 16 year old, another one aged 18. Something I really can’t believe, I buried my children at 6:00 am while their bodies were still warm. Also my nephew he was 2 years old, I buried him, I buried my wife,” he said.
“I never thought in my life that I will bury my children, I thought they would bury me.” NO SIGN OF SCALING DOWN ISRAELI ASSAULT
Twelve weeks after Hamas militants stormed Israeli towns, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages, Israeli forces have laid much of the Gaza Strip to waste. Nearly all its 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes at least once, and many are now fleeing for the third or fourth time. Gaza health authorities say more than 21,000 people are confirmed killed – about 1 percent of the enclave’s population – with thousands more bodies feared unrecovered in the ruins. The United Nations says many thousands more may die from severe shortages of food, medicine, clean water and adequate shelter.
Israel says it is doing what it can to protect civilians and blames Hamas fighters for harm to them, for operating among them, which Hamas denies. Israel’s closest ally the United States has publicly called this month for it to scale down the full-blown war in coming weeks and transition to targetted operations against Hamas leaders.
But so far Israel shows no sign of doing so, launching a new assault in the final week of the year that began with intense bombing of central areas. Israel issued a rare apology on Thursday for killing civilians in a huge air strike on Christmas Eve that Palestinian authorities say killed scores of people and triggered one of the biggest mass exoduses of the war so far. Residents say Israeli forces have fought their way deep into Bureij in the battle in central Gaza in the past two days, with intense fighting still taking place on the eastern outskirts. Bombing has been particularly intense there, and in adjacent Nusseirat and Maghazi.
Footage filmed by a Palestinian Red Crescent volunteer in Maghazi showed dead and wounded being carried from ruined buildings there. Palestinian media reported strikes in Nusseirat had killed at least 35 people overnight. In the south, Israeli forces have also been pounding Khan Younis, in preparation for an anticipated further advance into the main southern city, swathes of which they captured in early December.
Gallant, the Israeli defence minister, described the advance there as “a task that has never been done before” and said troops were reaching Hamas command centres and arms depots. “Our operations are essential to achieving the goals of the war. We see the results and the destruction of enemy forces.”
Israel says it will fight on until it annihilates Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction. Palestinians say such an aim is unachievable because of the militant group’s diffuse structure and deep roots in a territory it has ruled since 2007. Israel’s Western allies, led by Washington, have defended its right to defend itself by retaliating against Hamas, but have grown increasingly alarmed by the high death toll and humanitarian devastation.
Efforts by mediators Egypt and Qatar to negotiate a ceasefire have so far been fruitless since a week-long truce collapsed at the end of November. Egypt, which hosted the leaders of Hamas and smaller militant group Islamic Jihad in the past week, said on Thursday it was awaiting responses from both sides to a proposed peace plan.