By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Bassam Masoud
CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) -Israeli tanks advanced deep into a town in the central Gaza Strip on Thursday after days of relentless bombardment that forced tens of thousands of already displaced Palestinian families to flee in a new exodus.
A Palestinian journalist posted pictures of Israeli tanks near a mosque in a built-up area of Bureij which had apparently advanced from orchards on the eastern outskirts.
Further south, Israeli forces struck the area around a hospital in the heart of Khan Younis, the Gaza Strip’s main southern city, where residents feared a new ground push into territory crowded with families made homeless in 12 weeks of war.
Palestinian health authorities said 210 people were confirmed killed in Israeli strikes in the past 24 hours, raising the toll of the war to 21,320 dead – nearly 1 percent of the enclave’s population. Thousands more dead are feared to be buried or lost in the ruins.
Israel has escalated its ground war in Gaza sharply since just before Christmas despite public pleas from its closest ally the United States to scale the campaign down in the closing weeks of the year.
It launched the war to destroy the Hamas movement that runs Gaza after fighters rampaged through Israeli towns on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and capturing 240 hostages.
The main focus of fighting is now in central areas south of the wetlands that bisect the Gaza Strip, where Israeli forces have ordered civilians out over the past several days as their tanks advance.
Tens of thousands of people fleeing the huge Nusseirat, Bureij and Maghazi districts were heading south or west on Thursday into the already overwhelmed city of Deir al-Balah along the Mediterranean coast, crowding into hastily built camps of makeshift tents.
“Over 150,000 people – young children, women carrying babies, people with disabilities & the elderly – have nowhere to go,” the main U.N. organisation operating in Gaza, UNRWA, said in a social media post.
The eastern part of Bureij was a theatre of heavy fighting on Thursday morning, with Israeli tanks pushing in from the north and east, residents and militants said.
“That moment has come, I wished it would never happen, but it seems displacement is a must,” said Omar, 60, who said he had been forced to move with at least 35 family members.
“We are now in a tent in Deir al-Balah because of this brutal Israeli war,” he told Reuters by phone, declining to give a second name for fear of reprisals.
Yamen Hamad, living in a school in Deir al-Balah since fleeing from the north, said the newly displaced from Bureij and Nusseirat were setting up tents wherever there was open ground.
With food running out, he said he had made a perilous trip to Rafah near the Egyptian border to buy a 25 kg sack of flour for his family.
FIGHTING NEAR HOSPITAL IN KHAN YOUNIS
Khan Younis, the main southern city where Israeli forces advanced this month after a truce collapsed, also came under heavy bombardment on Thursday morning from warplanes and tanks near the al-Amal hospital, west of Israeli positions.
The Palestinian Red Crescent, which runs the hospital and has its headquarters nearby, said 10 Palestinians were killed and 12 wounded in one bombardment there, the third strike targeting the area around the hospital in less than an hour.
Residents said they believed Israeli forces were trying to provoke a new exodus ahead of a further ground assault.
Nearby at Nasser Hospital, the main hospital in Khan Younis and largest still functioning in the enclave, women and children shrieked as the dead and wounded were brought in.
A toddler lay motionless on a cot while medics tried to revive him; one doctor nodded “no,” signalling the boy was dead.
A woman held back two wailing girls, covered in dust by the side of a bed, as a baby wrapped in a bloody white shroud was placed by the legs of another body wrapped in a blanket.
Israel reported three more of its soldiers killed, bringing its toll in the ground campaign to 169. The past week has seen some of its heaviest losses of the war so far.
Virtually all Gaza residents have been driven from their homes at least once and many forced to flee several times. Only a handful of hospitals are still functioning.
Egypt, which has acted as a mediator including hosting the leader of Hamas last week, said it had put forward a proposal to end the bloodshed, including a three-stage plan for a ceasefire, but had yet to hear the warring sides’ responses.
Israel says it will not halt its ground campaign until it annihilates Hamas, describing this as its only option to safeguard its security and free 129 remaining hostages.
Chen Almog-Goldstein, released last month after 51 days in captivity with three of her children seized by Hamas gunmen who killed her husband and one of her daughters, said she feared for hostages still being held, especially women, some of whom she said had been sexually abused by their captors.
“It is hell there,” she said. The remaining hostages “are trying to keep their morale up but when we were let out, they were already on the edge.”
Hamas denies mistreating or sexually abusing the hostages.
Palestinians say wiping out Hamas is an unachievable aim given the militant group’s diffuse structure and deep roots in a territory it has ruled since 2007.
Israel’s Western allies worry that the huge civilian toll will radicalise a new generation and spread unrest across the Middle East. This week, Iran-backed groups have attacked U.S. forces in Iraq and commercial shipping in the Red Sea.
U.S. President Joe Biden warned this month that “indiscriminate bombing” jeopardised sympathy for Israel among its allies. Washington has said Israel should make a transition from full-scale ground war to a targeted campaign against Hamas leaders.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo, Bassam Masoud in Gaza, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Angus MacSwan)