Thousands of Palestinians flee central Gaza as Israeli troops advance

By Yolande Knell in Jerusalem & David Gritten in London

BBC News

An estimated 150,000 Palestinians are being forced to flee areas of central Gaza, the UN has said, as Israeli forces advance on refugee camps there.

Witnesses and Hamas’s armed wing reported that tanks had reached the eastern outskirts of Bureij camp.

Israel’s military recently expanded its ground offensive to target Bureij and nearby Nuseirat and Maghazi camps.

Israeli bombardment also killed dozens of people across Gaza on Thursday, the Hamas-run health ministry said.

Egypt has confirmed that it has put forward a three-stage proposal to stop the fighting which ends with a ceasefire.

A Hamas delegation is said to have arrived in Cairo to give its response to the plan.

The war was triggered by an unprecedented cross-border attack by Hamas gunmen on southern Israel on 7 October, in which 1,200 people were killed – most of them civilians – and about 240 others taken hostage.

More than 21,300 people have been killed in Gaza – mostly children and women – during 11 weeks of fighting, according to the health ministry.

The Israeli military has called for the evacuation of a strip of land stretching across central Gaza that includes Bureij and Nuseirat camps, and told the almost 90,000 residents and 61,000 displaced people in the affected areas to move southwards to the town of Deir al-Balah.

However, the UN warned on Thursday that they had nowhere to go because Deir al-Balah was already overcrowded, with several hundred thousand displaced people sheltering there.

The UN says that Rafah – which had already become the most densely populated town in Gaza – has seen about 100,000 new arrivals in recent days as Israeli ground forces have pushed into new neighbourhoods.

Omar, 60, said he had been forced to flee Bureij along with at least 35 members of his family.

“That moment has come, I wished it would never happen, but it seems displacement is a must,” he told Reuters news agency by phone. “We are now in a tent in Deir al-Balah because of this brutal Israeli war.”

Tom White, Gaza director for UN relief agency UNRWA, said more and more people were being pushed into the southern Gaza town of Rafah, “so more people into a very small strip of land that cannot support them”.

On Thursday evening, Gaza’s health ministry reported that 20 people had been killed in an Israeli air strike on a building in Rafah that was reportedly housing displaced civilians.

Map showing Israeli ground operations and evacuation zones in the central Gaza Strip (28 December 2023)

On Thursday morning, the ministry’s spokesman announced that 50 people had been killed in Israeli strikes in Maghazi, the northern town of Beit Lahia and in the southern city of Khan Younis.

The deadliest incident was in Beit Lahia, where Palestinian media reported that 30 were killed when a block of four residential buildings was destroyed.

A local TV journalist, Bassel Kheir al-Din, told the Associated Press news agency that 12 members of his family were buried beneath the rubble of one of the buildings and presumed dead, and that nine of their neighbours were missing.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said 10 people had been killed when Israeli shellfire hit an apartment near al-Amal hospital in Khan Younis, a day after a similar incident in front of the facility reportedly left 31 dead.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters on Wednesday that the city was “a main Hamas terror centre”.

He also said troops were fighting in the Bureij area for a third day, adding that they were “eliminating many terrorists and destroying terrorist infrastructure”.

Residents told Reuters that the heavy fighting continued on Thursday, with Israeli tanks advancing on the densely populated Bureij camp from the north and east. Hamas posted a video showing what it said was its fighters targeting Israeli soldiers and vehicles.

In a separate development, the IDF said it regretted the “harm caused to uninvolved civilians” resulting from an air strike in Maghazi on Sunday that killed at least 70 people, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Its statement said fighter jets had “struck two targets adjacent to which Hamas operatives were located”.

In Israel, thousands of teenagers took part in a march to demand a new deal to return the more than 100 hostages still being held by Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza. Many of the demonstrators were from the communities worst affected by the 7 October attacks.

“I’m from Kibbutz Kfar Aza,” Shiri Khiyali told the BBC. “I was there on 7 October. My people were kidnapped. We want them back. We want them back now.”

Separately, there was a new call from UN human rights chief Volker Türk urging Israel to stop what he called “unlawful” killings in the occupied West Bank.

A report said the UN had verified the killing of 300 Palestinians by Israeli forces and settlers in the West Bank since 7 October.

A spokeswoman for Israel’s prime minister dismissed the report as quite ridiculous and said it belittled the major security threats to Israelis.

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