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Israel Orders Khan Younis Evacuation, Hinting at Southern Gaza Assault
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By Associated Press
Published 3 weeks ago on
July 1, 2024

Israeli forces ordered a mass evacuation in Khan Younis, suggesting a forthcoming assault, while controversies surround the release of Gaza's hospital director and humanitarian aid disruptions loom. (AP/Jehad Alshrafi)

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KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip  — The Israeli army ordered a mass evacuation of Palestinians from much of Khan Younis on Monday, a sign that troops are likely to launch a new ground assault in the Gaza Strip’s second largest city.

The order suggested Khan Younis will be the target in the latest of Israel’s repeated raids into parts of Gaza it had previously invaded during the past mearly nine months, pursuing Hamas militants as they regroup. Much of Khan Younis was already destroyed in a long assault earlier this year, but large numbers of Palestinians have since moved back in to escape another Israeli offensive in Gaza’s southern-most city, Rafah.

The order came as Israel released the director of Gaza’s main hospital after holding him for seven months without charge or trial over allegations the facility had been used as a Hamas command center. He said he and other detainees were held under harsh conditions and tortured.

The decision to release Mohammed Abu Selmia raised questions over Israel’s claims surrounding Shifa Hospital, which Israeli forces have raided twice since the start of the nearly nine-month war with Hamas. Abu Selmia and other Palestinian health officials have denied the accusations.

His release triggered an uproar across Israel’s political spectrum. Government ministers and opposition leaders expressed outrage and insisted Abu Salmia played a role in Hamas’ alleged use of the hospital — though Israeli security services rarely unilaterally free prisoners if they have a suspicion of militant links. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu’s office called the release “a grave mistake.”

Khan Younis Evacuation

Monday’s evacuation call covered the entire eastern half of Khan Younis and a large swath of the Gaza Strip’s southeast corner. Earlier in the day, the army said a barrage of rockets out of Gaza was fired from Khan Younis.

The order suggested a new assault into the city was imminent. Israeli forces fought for weeks in Khan Younis earlier this year and withdrew, claiming to have destroyed Hamas battalions in the city. But in other places where the military made similar claims, renewed raids have underscored Hamas’ continued capabilities.

Last week, the military ordered an evacuation from the north Gaza district of Shijaiya, where there has been intensive fighting since.

Netanyahu said Monday that the military was “making progress toward ending the phase of the destruction of Hamas’ terror army.” But he said forces will continue to “target their remains going forward.”

An evacuation and eruption of fighting in the Khan Younis area could further hamper Palestinians’ access to much-needed potable water. Included in the evacuation zone is a water line that Israel installed following criticism over its cutoff of water to the strip early in its campaign.

Also in the zone is the area surrounding the Kerem Shalom crossing, the major aid crossing to southern Gaza, as well as an aid route that Israel said it would safeguard to allow trucks carrying humanitarian aid to enter the strip. Very little aid has entered the strip due to lawlessness along the aid route, and a new offensive would risk further harming aid efforts.

Director’s Release

The decision to release Abu Selmia and 54 other Palestinian detainees back into Gaza appeared to have been taken to free up space in overcrowded detention centers.

“Our detainees have been subjected to all kinds of torture behind bars,” Abu Selmia said at a news conference after his release. “There was almost daily torture.”

He said guards used batons to beat detainees and terrorized them with dogs. He said some detainees had limbs amputated because of poor medical care. He said a beating caused his head to bleed and that guards broke his finger.

The allegations could not be independently confirmed but matched other accounts of Palestinians who have been held in Israeli custody. There was no immediate response from the prison service, which has previously denied similar accusations.

Israeli Raided Shifa Hospital

Israeli forces raided Shifa Hospital in November, alleging that Hamas had created an elaborate command and control center inside the facility. Abu Selmia and other staff denied the allegations and accused Israel of recklessly endangering thousands of patients and displaced people who were sheltering there. Abu Selmia was detained on Nov. 22.

Amid the uproar over Abu Selmia’s release, the various Israeli state organs responsible for detentions scrambled to shift blame.

Netanyahu’s office said Abu Selmia “belongs in prison” and that the prime minister had ordered a thorough review into how the release happened. It said the decision was made “without the knowledge of the political echelon or the heads of the organizations.”

Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister who controls the country’s police and prison service, blamed the Defense Ministry.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s office said prisoner releases are the responsibility of the prison service and the Shin Bet internal security agency. The prison service said the decision was made by the Shin Bet and the army, and released a document ordering his release that was signed by an army reserve general.

The Shin Bet said Abu Selmia had passed a risk assessment, “compared to other detainees.” It said the government had decided against its advice to release detainees determined to be less of a threat in order to free up space.

After its first raid on Shifa Hospital, the military uncovered a tunnel beneath it leading to two empty rooms, as well as evidence that militants had brought wounded hostages to the facility. But the evidence fell short of showing an extensive base as claimed before the raid.

Israel Raided Other Hospitals

Israel has since raided other Gaza hospitals on similar allegations, forcing them to shut down or dramatically reduce services. The army raided Shifa a second time earlier this year, causing heavy destruction after saying that militants had regrouped there.

Since the start of the war, Israeli forces have detained thousands of Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, crowding military detention facilities and prisons. Many are being held without charge or trial in what is known as administrative detention.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, in which Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people across southern Israel and took another 250 hostage. In its campaign, Israel has killed at least 37,900 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not say how many were civilians or fighters.

Most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, with many displaced multiple times. Israeli restrictions, ongoing fighting and the breakdown of public order have hindered the delivery of humanitarian aid, fueling widespread hunger and sparking fears of famine.

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