By Suhaib Salem and Nidal al-Mughrabi
Israeli war planes and artillery bombarded the south of the Gaza Strip on Saturday, hitting mosques, homes and close to a hospital, after the collapse of a truce in the nearly two-month-old war between Israel and Hamas militants
Residents feared the barrages were a prelude to an Israeli ground operation in the south of the Palestinian territory which would bottle them up in a shrinking area and possibly try to push them into neighbouring Egypt.
The Gaza health ministry said at least 193 Palestinians had been killed and 650 wounded since the truce ended on Friday morning – adding to the more than 15,000 Palestinian dead since the start of the war.
Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas once and for all, saying that the Islamist group poses a threat to its very existence and it is acting against foe bent on its destruction.
Throughout Saturday morning, a steady stream of wounded people were carried into the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, with some people even receiving treatment laying on the floor,
The head of the International Red Cross said the renewed fighting was intense.
“It’s a new layer of destruction coming on top of massive, unparalleled destruction of critical infrastructure, of civilian houses and neighbourhoods,” Robert Mardini told Reuters in Dubai.
With conditions inside the Hamas-ruled enclave reaching “breaking point”, in Mardini’s words, the first aid trucks since the end of the truce entered Gaza through the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing on Saturday, Egyptian security and Red Crescent sources said.
A senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza’s civilians as the fighting resumes.
The warring sides blamed each other for the collapse of the seven-day truce, during which Hamas had released hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Israel said on Saturday it had recalled a Mossad team from Qatar, host of indirect negotiations with Hamas, accusing the Palestinian faction of reneging on a deal which entailed the freeing of all children and women hostages.
The conflict broke out on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants crossed into southern Israel and killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in a rampage against kibbutzim and other communities. More than 200 hostages were taken back into Gaza.
Israel responded with a bombing campaign and ground offensive in the north which has destroyed large areas of Gaza in what has become the bloodiest episode of the decades-long wider Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The southern part of Gaza including Khan Rounis and Rafah was taking a pounding on Saturday. Residents said houses had been hit and three mosques destroyed in Khan Younis. Columns of smoke rose into the sky.
Displaced Gazans have been sheltering in Khan Younis and Rafah because of fighting in the north of the densely populated enclave, but residents said they feared Israeli troops were preparing to move on the south.
“This is the same tactic they used before entering Gaza and the north,” said Yamen, who gave only his first name.
Yamen fled to Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza from the north after Israel destroyed several districts there.
“Where to after Deir Al-Balah, after Khan Younis? I don’t know where I would take my wife and six children,” he said.
On Saturday morning, Israeli air strikes hit areas close to the Nasser Hospital six times, according to medics and witnesses.
The hospital is filled with thousands of displaced and hundreds of wounded, including many of those who had been evacuated from north Gaza hospitals.
“A night of horror,” said Samira, a mother of four. “It was one of the worst nights we spent in Khan Younis in the past six weeks since we arrived here,” she said. “We are so afraid they will enter Khan Younis.”
Among the dead on Saturday was the president of the territory’s Islamic University, killed along with his family in a bombing of a house in the northern Gaza Strip, health officials said.
In Deir Al-Balah, nine Palestinians, including children, were killed in an air strike, health officials said.
The Israeli military said that in the last 24 hours combined attacks by its ground, air and naval forces had hit 400 militant targets and killed an unspecified number of Hamas fighters.
These included many in northern Gaza, some in a gunbattle at a mosque used by Islamic Jihad militants as a command post.
Leaflets dropped by Israel on eastern areas of Khan Younis ordered residents of four towns to evacuate – not to other areas in Khan Younis as in the past, but further south to Rafah.
Residents took to the road with belongings heaped up in carts, searching for shelter further west.
In southern Israel, rocket sirens sounded early on Saturday in communities near the border with Gaza, but there were no reports of serious damage or casualties.
Reuters could not confirm the battlefield accounts.
The truce that started on Nov. 24 had been extended twice. But after seven days during which women, children and foreign hostages were freed as well as a number of Palestinian prisoners, mediators failed to find a formula to release more.
Mediator Qatar said Israel’s renewed bombardment of Gaza had complicated matters. An Israeli official in Washington said it was a “very high priority” to get as many hostages released as possible but said: “We can negotiate while we still fight.”
Meanwhile U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said in Dubai on Saturday that when the present war ended, the Palestinian people in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank should ultimately be reunified under one governing entity.
In talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on the sidelines of the COP28 climate summit, Harris also said that “under no circumstances” would the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, the besiegement of Gaza, or the redrawing of Gaza’s borders, a White House statement said.
Harris also made clear that Hamas could not control Gaza, saying this was untenable for Israel’s security as well as for the well-being of the Palestinian people.