Thousands Flee Gaza as Israel Orders Further Evacuations

Israel on Tuesday issued a new round of evacuation orders for a large swathe of the southern Gaza Strip, forcing thousands of Palestinians to flee once again in search of relative safety.

In recent weeks, Israeli officials have spoken of a shift to more targeted and limited attacks, but the ongoing exodus in the city of Khan Younis made it clear Tuesday that a return to normal life for Gazans is not near.

Gazans who had already been forced to flee again and again were on the move again, hauling piles of goods in cars, trucks and donkey carts. Hospital patients were pushed in wheelchairs along with others fleeing on foot.

“How much longer can we continue to hear: go and come back, go and come back?” asked Gaza woman Suzan Abu Daqqa, 59, after fleeing her home southeast of Khan Younis.

The evacuation orders appeared to have been triggered by a bombardment of about 20 rockets that the Israeli military said had been fired from Khan Younis by Palestinian militants the day before. Israeli forces retaliated overnight after “allowing civilians to evacuate the area,” the military said.

The United Nations has estimated that about 250,000 people will have to leave large swathes of southern Gaza to comply with the new orders. Scott Anderson, a senior U.N. official, said the calculation was based on pre-war demographic data and anecdotal observations of how many people had returned to the area.

The pattern of repeated civilian displacement is likely to continue even as the Israeli military talks about a “lower intensity” war, military analysts say. As militants regroup, Israeli forces have returned to areas from which they had retreated to conduct days-long crackdowns.

For many Gazans, these new operations are anything but low-intensity.

Fighting has taken place, for example, in northern towns such as Shajaiye, Jabaliya and Zeitoun. In Jabaliya, more than 60,000 people have fled their homes, according to the United Nations, returning to find widespread devastation.

On Tuesday, the United Nations' chief humanitarian coordinator for Gaza, Sigrid Kaag, said the vast majority of Gaza's estimated 2.2 million people have been displaced by the war, many of them multiple times. She put the figure at 1.9 million.

Israeli forces largely withdrew from Khan Younis in April after months of fighting, as they prepared to invade Rafah further south. In the relative calm of that withdrawal, Ms. Abu Daqqa returned.

When she arrived at her home on the southern outskirts of the city last month, she found it relatively unscathed by the heavy Israeli bombardment that had destroyed much of Khan Younis. It even had running water.

But on Monday evening, Ms. Abu Daqqa and her family learned that the Israeli army had once again ordered the evacuation of the town. The all-too-familiar sound of artillery fire began, she said, prompting her to flee northwest with relatives.

His family joined thousands of people who filled the streets of the demolished city on Monday evening as they headed toward the Mawasi area, near the coast, which Israel has designated a “safer zone.”

On Tuesday, residents of Khan Younis said most of the explosions they heard seemed to be farther south, in Rafah. But they feared the large-scale evacuation order could herald a new military operation in their city as well.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that the army will continue to operate in Gaza after the Rafah offensive ends to prevent Hamas from regaining control. The invasion began in October after Hamas carried out a bloody cross-border attack on Israel that the government says left about 1,200 people dead and 250 hostages.

Amir Avivi, a retired Israeli brigadier general, said Israeli troops would try to reduce Hamas’s remaining fighters, a process he said could take years. Over time, Israel hopes to erode Hamas’s forces so thoroughly that Gaza will require fewer and fewer forces to control, he said.

“Whenever terrorists manage to turn themselves in, there will be a raid to deal with them,” said Gen. Avivi, who heads the hawkish Israel Defense and Security Forum. “These raids can last a few days or a week at a time, usually no more than a few days, and then you withdraw.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to Khan Younis and central Gaza since Israel began its Rafah operation, setting up tent cities where finding enough food and clean water is often a daily struggle. The humanitarian crisis has increased international pressure on Israel.

The Israeli military said on Tuesday it had laid a power line to a desalination plant in Khan Younis to increase its production. A senior Israeli military official said the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority would pay for the electricity and that the United Nations agency UNICEF would operate the plant.

In the panic sparked by the new evacuation order in Khan Younis, the European hospital took most of its medical staff and about 600 patients by ambulance to hospitals deeper into the city. Many of the doctors and patients there, frightened by what they had seen in Israeli raids on other hospitals, were unwilling to risk staying, said Dr. Saleh al-Homs.

He left the facility overnight, only to find out Tuesday morning that the Israeli military had declared there was “no intention to evacuate the European Hospital.”

“Why did they wait until the hospital was evacuated to issue that statement telling us not to evacuate?” asked Dr. al-Homs. “People were terrified and desperate and wanted to leave.”

Jamal Azzam, a nurse at the hospital, said he had received phone calls from the Israeli army telling staff to evacuate.

Four premature babies were taken by ambulance to Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, Mr. Azzam said. Many families who had been sheltering in tents near the hospital also fled, he said.

“This is torture,” Mr. Azzam said.

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