Large Crowds Flee Southern Gaza Areas Under Israeli Evacuation Order

Crowds of Palestinians were fleeing a swath of southern Gaza on Tuesday in response to new evacuation orders in Khan Younis and Rafah, even as Israeli officials said the war would soon transition to a lower-intensity stage of “targeted raids.”

Israeli officials say they are close to ending the military offensive in the southern city of Rafah, which had been seen as the last major ground maneuver of the war. But they say Israeli forces will continue to operate in Gaza for the foreseeable future to prevent Hamas from reclaiming control.

For many Gazans, who have been forced to flee again and again, the situation on the ground may not change much. Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to conduct days-long operations in neighborhoods they already conquered during the initial offensive in an effort to crack down on renewed insurgencies by Palestinian militants.

The trigger for the evacuation orders and overnight Israeli attacks around Khan Younis appeared to be a barrage of roughly 20 rockets that the military said were fired from the area toward Israeli cities by Palestinian militants on Monday. Israeli forces struck back overnight after “enabling civilians to evacuate from the area,” the military said.

The United Nations estimated that roughly 250,000 people would have to flee a large swath of southern Gaza to comply with the Israeli military orders. Scott Anderson, a senior U.N. official, said the calculation was based on prewar population data and anecdotal observations on how many people had returned to the city.

For Gazans, recent operations intended to root out resurgent pockets of Hamas fighters are far from low-intensity. Hundreds of Palestinian fighters were killed in fighting in areas of northern Gaza such as Shajaiye, Jabaliya and Zeitoun, according to the Israeli military. In Jabaliya, over 60,000 people fled their homes, according to the United Nations, returning to find widespread devastation.

Israeli forces largely withdrew from Khan Younis in April after months of fighting as they were gearing up to invade Rafah farther south. In the relative calm that followed, many of the city’s residents went back home, some living in tents next to the rubble of their houses.

Suzan Abu Daqqa, 59, returned to her house on the southern outskirts of Khan Younis last month. It was relatively unscathed by the heavy Israeli bombardment that had destroyed large parts of the city, and it still had running water.

But on Monday evening, Ms. Abu Daqqa and her family heard that the Israeli military had yet again ordered the evacuation of the city’s eastern outskirts. The now-familiar sound of artillery fire began, she said, prompting her to flee northwest with relatives.

Thousands of people filled the streets of the demolished city on Monday night as they headed toward the Mawasi area near the coast, which Israel has designated as a “safer zone.”

“How long can we keep being ordered: Leave and come back, leave and come back?” said Ms. Abu Daqqa.

People left eastern Khan Younis on Monday night, their way lit by the headlights of cars and occasional flashlights.Credit…Mohammed Salem/Reuters

On Tuesday, Khan Younis residents said most of the explosions they could hear appeared to be farther south, in Rafah, indicating that at least for now, the fighting in their city was less intense. The wide-scale evacuation order, however, could potentially herald a renewed military operation there.

Amir Avivi, a retired Israeli brigadier general, said Israeli troops would seek to slowly whittle away at Hamas’s remaining fighters in the area, a process he said could take years. Over time, Israel hopes to erode Hamas’s forces so thoroughly that Gaza will take fewer and fewer forces to control, he said.

“Every time the terrorists manage to constitute themselves, there will be a raid to deal with them,” said General Avivi, who leads the hawkish Israel Defense and Security Forum. “These raids can last a few days or a week at a time — generally no more than a few days — and then you withdraw.”

General Avivi said for many Gazans, it would likely seem very similar to the current Israeli military campaign in the north.

“It won’t feel any different, save for perhaps in the forces applied and the number of troops,” he said.

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