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Israel pounds southern Gaza after US warning on civilian deaths -Dlight News

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Israel has ordered Palestinians in Gaza to evacuate a large area of land in the south of the coastal enclave, while stepping up an aerial bombardment that has killed hundreds of people since a fragile truce with Hamas broke down on Friday.

The evacuation order appeared to signal preparations for a new Israeli offensive against Hamas in and near Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city and now the largest population centre in the south. Leaflets have been dropped and text messages have warned of heavy military activity to come.

Israel’s military operation in southern Gaza would replicate an earlier one against Hamas in the northern part of the enclave, Herzi Halevi, chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, suggested on Sunday.

“We fought strongly and thoroughly in the northern Gaza Strip, and we are also doing it now in the southern Gaza,” Halevi was quoted by Reuters as saying.

The fighting escalated even after US officials, from secretary of defence Lloyd Austin to vice-president Kamala Harris, warned Israel to take more steps to protect civilians in Gaza. The US pays for as much as a fifth of Israel’s defence budget — currently pegged at $3.8bn a year — under an Obama administration agreement.

“In this kind of a fight, the centre of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” Austin said in a speech to the Reagan National Defense Forum in California at the weekend.

Asked on Sunday about the US concerns, Eylon Levy, Israeli government spokesperson, said: “We completely agree that far too many people have been killed in this war. It’s a sad fact that everyone who has been killed since October 7 . . . would still be alive if Hamas had not decided to launch this war.”

Responding to Harris’s comments that the civilian death toll in Gaza was too high, Levy insisted that “the Israeli army has made every effort [in] upholding our obligations under international law to get civilians out of harm’s way”.

Israel and Hamas returned to fighting when a week-long truce brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the US collapsed on Friday.

The pause in hostilities allowed for the release of about 100 Israeli women and children and foreigners held hostage by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. In return, Israel freed about 240 Palestinian women and children from Israeli jails, and there was a fresh influx of humanitarian aid into Gaza, which has been controlled by Hamas since 2007.

More than 15,520 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to Palestinian officials. Israel estimates that 1,200 people were killed by Hamas during its attack on October 7, when the group also took about 240 hostages.

Palestinian officials said on Sunday that 316 people had been killed since hostilities resumed on Friday.

But they added this counted only those who had been brought to hospitals, estimating that many more were under the rubble.

The UN said dozens of people had been killed in a Saturday air strike on a six-storey building in a refugee camp in northern Gaza, after residents were given an hour and a half’s notice to evacuate it.

A block in Gaza City was hit later on Saturday, destroying 50 residential buildings, the UN added. The number of casualties caused by this incident is not yet known.

After concerns about the civilian toll were also conveyed by US secretary of state Antony Blinken to Israel’s war cabinet, the IDF made public plans for neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood evacuation orders to be issued to Palestinians ahead of military operations.

But the UN, human rights groups and Palestinians said the orders were impractical, especially when almost the entire 2.3mn population of the besieged enclave was already crowded into the southern part of Gaza.

Israel has suggested, but has yet to enforce, a 14 sq km so-called safe zone in southern Gaza, an area slightly larger than London’s Heathrow airport. UN officials have said that safe zones cannot be unilaterally declared in a war zone.

Along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the IDF said an anti-tank missile targeted an Israeli military vehicle, injuring soldiers with shrapnel. The IDF struck back with artillery.

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