Israel-Hamas war: House-to-house fighting in Khan Younis in southern Gaza

A Palestinian woman stands in a destroyed building amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Khan Younis, Gaza, on December 6, 2023. [Reuters]

Israeli troops and Hamas militants battled Wednesday in house-to-house fighting for control of Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-biggest city, as Palestinian civilians faced increasing difficulty finding shelter and access to humanitarian aid.

Israel’s military said Wednesday it had carried out airstrikes on about 250 targets in the Gaza Strip during the past day, in some of the heaviest fighting of the two-month-old war.

Hamas said it killed 10 Israeli soldiers in Khan Younis and injured several more, a claim that could not be immediately verified.

The United Nations reported a significant intensification of Israeli bombardments of Gaza since Monday afternoon, along with the intense ground fighting, as well as increased Hamas rocket fire targeting Israel.

Hundreds of thousands of Gazans continued to flee to the west and south of Khan Younis, including to Rafah, which is on the border with Egypt. But the United Nations said shelters there were far beyond capacity, forcing the displaced Palestinians to sleep in the streets or in empty lots.

Israeli officials warned Gaza civilians not to approach Salah al-Din Road, the main highway that connects Khan Younis to northern Gaza, calling it “a battlefield” and “extremely dangerous.” Instead, the officials said the displaced civilians attempting to head north should use the main coastal road, but fighting continued there, too.

The U.N. said that, as of Tuesday night, Rafah was the only area in Gaza where any humanitarian aid was being distributed. With the expiration of the seven-day truce last Friday, the remainder of the narrow territory along the Mediterranean Sea was largely unreachable from the border crossing.

Israel in recent days has issued evacuation orders to an estimated 600,000 residents of areas where the Israeli military expected fighting to ensue, but it urged them to go to places ill-equipped to handle a surge of people.

“Under international humanitarian law, the place where you evacuate people to must, by law, have sufficient resources for their survival — medical facilities, food and water,” James Elder, a spokesman for the United Nations Children’s Fund, told reporters via video link from Cairo after visiting Gaza, according to Reuters.

"I've seen for myself these are entirely, entirely absent. ... These are tiny patches of barren land, or they're street corners. They're sidewalks. They're half-built buildings. There is no water,” he said. “The common thing they have is no water, no facilities, no shelter from cold and rain, and particularly no sanitation.”

Shifting territorial focus

The expansion of the war in southern Gaza follows an initial focus on areas in the north, including Gaza City. It also follows weeks of Israeli military orders for civilians to move to the south to stay away from the fighting.

But with the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and closed borders with Egypt and Israel to the south and east, the space available for people to flee to is shrinking.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees says an estimated 1.9 million people are displaced within Gaza, amounting to nearly 85% of the population, and 1 million of them are registered at U.N. shelters in southern Gaza.

U.N. human rights chief Volker Turk said at a briefing Wednesday that Palestinians in Gaza “are living in utter, deepening horror” and that civilians are being deprived of food, water and medical supplies.

"Military operations, including bombardments by Israeli forces, continue in north, middle and south Gaza, affecting people who have already been displaced multiple times, forced to flee in search of safety,” he said. “But no place is safe."

Israel has accused Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, of embedding itself in and underneath hospitals and other civilian areas and encouraging civilians to ignore Israeli warnings to evacuate ahead of airstrikes - in effect, using them as human shields - an accusation Hamas has denied.

Israel began its military campaign to end Hamas’ rule of Gaza after Hamas fighters crossed into southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking about 240 people as hostages.

In its military offensive, Israel has killed at least 16,240 people in Gaza, 70% of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.

Post-war buffer zone

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected a reported Israeli proposal for a post-war buffer zone in Gaza to help prevent future attacks on Israel.

Israel had conveyed the post-war proposal to several Arab states and other countries, with the plan involving the buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the Gaza border, not including Israeli land.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby says the U.S. opposes the idea.

“We don’t support any reduction of the geographic limits of Gaza,” Kirby told reporters when Israel first broached the idea. “Gaza must remain Palestinian land and cannot be reduced.”

Turkish media cited Erdogan saying that Gaza’s future would be decided by the Palestinian people and that the Israeli plan was “disrespectful.”