Thousands flee widening Israeli assault in central Gaza as military launches new strikes
DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of Palestinian families fled Wednesday from the brunt of Israel’s expanding ground offensive into Gaza’s few remaining, overcrowded refuges, as the military launched heavy strikes across the centre and south of the territory, killing dozens, Palestinian health officials said.
On foot or riding donkey carts loaded with belongings, a stream of people flowed into Deir al-Balah — a town that normally has a population of around 75,000. It has been overwhelmed by several hundred thousand people driven from northern Gaza as the region was pounded to rubble.
Because UN shelters are packed many times over capacity, the new arrivals set up tents on sidewalks for the cold winter night. Most crowded onto streets around the town’s main hospital, Al-Aqsa Martyrs, hoping it would be safer from Israeli strikes.
Still, no place is safe in Gaza. Israeli offensives are crowding most of the population into Deir al-Balah and Rafah at the territory’s southern edge as well as a tiny rural area by the southern coastline. But those areas continue to be hit by Israeli strikes that regularly crush homes full of people.
The newly displaced were fleeing from several built-up refugee camps in central Gaza targeted in the latest phase of Israel’s ground assault. One of the camps, Bureij, came under heavy bombardment throughout the night as Israeli troops moved in.
“It was a night of hell. We haven’t seen such bombing since the start of the war,” said Rami Abu Mosab, speaking from Bureij, where he has been sheltering since fleeing his home in northern Gaza.
He said warplanes flew overhead, and gunfire and explosions echoed from the eastern edge of the camp. A home near his shelter was hit, but no one was able to reach the area, he said.
Bureij camp, like others in Gaza, houses refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation and their descendants and now resembles other densely populated neighbourhoods.
With much of northern Gaza levelled, Palestinians fear a similar fate awaits other areas, including Khan Younis, just south of Deir al-Balah, where Israeli forces launched ground operations in early December.
In Khan Younis, Israeli shelling Wednesday struck a residential building next to Al-Amal Hospital, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, which runs the facility.
Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said at least 20 people were killed and dozens more wounded, with the death toll likely to rise. Footage from the scene showed several torn bodies lying in the street as rescue workers loaded a man whose legs had been severed below the knees onto a stretcher.
Israel has said the bombing campaign and ground offensive are necessary to dismantle Hamas and prevent a repeat of its October 7 attack in which militants broke through Israel’s formidable defenses and killed some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and abducted around 240. An estimated 129 remain in captivity after dozens were freed.
Achieving its goals, Israel has said, will take “many months.”