By Bassam Massoud and Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli forces stormed the main city in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday and hospitals struggled to cope with scores of Palestinian dead and wounded.
In what appeared to be the biggest ground assault since a truce collapsed last week, residents said Israeli tanks had entered the eastern parts of Khan Younis for the first time, crossing from the Israeli border fence and advancing west.
Some took up positions inside the town of Bani Suhaila on Khan Younis’ eastern outskirts, while others continued further and were stationed on the edge of a Qatari-funded housing development called Hamad City, residents said.
After days of ordering residents to flee the area, Israeli forces dropped new leaflets on Tuesday with instructions to stay inside shelters during the assault.
“In the coming hours, the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) will begin launching an intensive attack on your area of residence to destroy the terrorist organization Hamas,” said the leaflets, addressed to residents of six districts amounting to around a quarter of Khan Younis.
“For your safety, stay in the shelters and the hospitals where you are. Don’t get out. Going out is dangerous. You have been warned.”
The Israelis, who seized the northern half of Gaza last month before pausing for the week-long truce, say they are now extending their ground campaign to the rest of the enclave as they try to annihilate its Hamas rulers.
“We’re moving ahead with the second stage now. A second stage that is going to be difficult militarily,” government spokesperson Eylon Levy said.
Israel is open to “constructive feedback” on reducing harm to civilians as long as the advice is consistent with its aim of destroying Hamas, he added.
Israel started its campaign in retribution for an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas fighters who rampaged through Israeli towns, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages, according to Israel’s tally.
According to Gaza health officials, more than 15,900 Palestinians are confirmed to have been killed in Israeli air strikes and other actions, with thousands more missing and feared buried under rubble.
Israeli bombardments have driven 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents from their homes, most fleeing south. The enclave is more densely populated than London and crowded southern areas are now sheltering triple their usual population.
CHILDREN’S BODIES ON THE FLOOR
At Khan Younis’ main Nasser hospital, the wounded arrived by ambulance, car, flatbed truck and donkey cart after what survivors described as a strike on a school being used as a shelter for the displaced.
Inside a ward, almost every inch of floor space was taken up by the wounded, medics hurrying from patient to patient while relatives wailed.
A doctor carried the small limp body of a dead boy in a track suit and placed him in a corner, arms splayed across the blood-smeared tile. On the floor next to him, surrounded by discarded bandages and rubber gloves, lay a wounded boy and girl, their limbs tangled with the stands holding the IV drips in their arms.
Two young girls were being treated, still covered in dust from the collapse of the house that had buried their family.
“My parents are under the rubble,” sobbed one. “I want my mum, I want my mum, I want my family.”
Outside, men carried corpses in white and bloodied shrouds to be taken away for funerals. Around a dozen bodies lay on the ground. Five or six were taken away in a motorcycle cart.
Aisha al-Raqb, a 70-year-old woman, said her son Iyad was among the dead.
“This is his blood,” she said holding out a bloodstained hand. “This is his precious blood. May Allah have mercy on his soul. My darling. I (want to) smell his scent, smell his scent, oh God, oh God.”
Gaza health ministry spokesperson Ashra al-Qidra said at least 43 corpses had already reached Nasser hospital that morning.
“Hospitals in the southern Gaza Strip are totally collapsing, they cannot deal with the quantity and quality of injuries that arrive at the hospitals,” he said.
WASHINGTON URGES LESS HARM TO CIVILIANS
Washington has urged close ally Israel to do more to reduce harm to civilians in the next phase of the Gaza war. Israel says blame for harm to civilians falls on Hamas fighters for operating amongst them, including from underground tunnels that can be destroyed only with huge bombs. Hamas denies fighting among civilians.
Since the truce collapsed, Israel has been posting an online map to tell Gazans which parts of the enclave to evacuate. The eastern quarter of Khan Younis was marked on it on Monday, home to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom took flight on foot.
“What civilians should do to stay safe is listen to the instructions that are coming out from our Twitter accounts, from our website, and also to look at the leaflets that are landing in their areas,” Israeli military spokesperson Richard Hecht said.
Gazans say there is no safe place, with remaining towns and shelters already overwhelmed, and Israel continuing to bomb the areas where it is telling people to go.
North of Khan Younis in Deir al-Ballah, separated by a road that Israeli tanks seized on Saturday, Palestinian media reported large numbers killed and wounded by a strike that destroyed a home. Reuters could not reach the area.
The Palestinian Red Crescent released footage it said showed one of its ambulances coming under Israeli tank fire in Deir al-Ballah. The ambulance races away amid the sound of explosions. Out the rear window, blasts are seen striking the spot where it had been parked.
The U.N. children’s agency Unicef said the few small areas designated “safe” by Israel were inadequate for the hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need of shelter.
“These are tiny patches of barren land or they’re street corners. They’re sidewalks. They’re half-built buildings. There is no water,” Unicef spokesperson James Elder said after visiting Gaza.
(Reporting by Bassam Massoud and Ibrahim Abu Mustafa in Khan Younis, Gaza; Mohammed Salem and Arafat Barbakh in Rafah, Gaza; Maayan Lubell, Ari Rabinovich and Emily Rose in Jerusalem; Maggie Fick in Beirut; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Angus MacSwan)