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On Foot and by Donkey Cart, Thousands Flee Widening Israeli Assault in Central Gaza

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Thousands of Palestinians flee as Israel expands its ground offensive in Gaza. With U.N. shelters over capacity, many seek refuge in Deir al-Balah. (AP/Mohammed Dahman)
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DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — 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 center 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.

Seeking Shelter

Because U.N. 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. Those areas continue to be hit by Israeli strikes that regularly crush homes full of people. Many fear they too could eventually come under ground assault.

Israel has said its campaign in Gaza is likely to last for months, vowing to dismantle Hamas across the territory and prevent a repeat of its Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel. Benny Gantz, a member of the country’s three-man War Cabinet, said the fighting ”will be expanded, according to need, to additional centers and additional fronts.”

He and other Israeli officials also threatened greater military action against Lebanon’s Hezbollah, hiking fears of an all-out war on that front.

Death, Displacement and Starvation

Israel’s offensive in Gaza has already been one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history. More than 21,100 Palestinians, most of them women and children, have been killed, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza. The count doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants.

Some 85% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people have fled their homes in an exodus that for many Palestinians has echoes of the mass displacement in 1948 that they refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Warning Over Lebanon

Cross-border exchanges of fire have escalated between Hezbollah and the Israeli military.

An Israeli strike on a family home in Lebanon overnight killed a Hezbollah fighter, his brother and his sister-in-law, local officials and state media said Wednesday. A day earlier, a Hezbollah strike wounded 11 people in northern Israel.

Since the Gaza war began, the near daily battles have forced tens of thousands of Israelis to evacuate their homes from nearby communities. At least nine soldiers and four civilians have been killed on the Israeli side, and around 150 people on the Lebanese side, mostly fighters from Hezbollah and other groups, but also 17 civilians.

Gantz warned that time for diplomatic pressure was “running out.”

“If the world and the Lebanese government will not act to stop the firing on the northern settlements and keep Hezbollah away from the border, the IDF will do so,” he said, referring to the Israeli military.

In the occupied West Bank, Israeli forces killed at least six Palestinians during an overnight raid in the refugee neighborhood of Nur Shams, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. More than 300 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the start of the war, mostly in confrontations with Israeli forces during raids and protests.

 

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