Israel expands its Gaza operation into the south

On Monday, Israel began calling for people in parts of southern Gaza to evacuate again.

Israel expands its Gaza operation into the south
A convoy of tanks maneuvers near Israel's border with southern Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Israel, December 4, 2023. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The backstory: The Gaza Strip isn’t that big – just about 40 kilometers (25 miles) long, but over 2 million Palestinians live there. Many who live in Gaza were displaced from the former Palestinian state in 1948, in what they call the Nakba. We’ve previously covered humanitarian issues in Gaza even before the current conflict. It’s been described as an “open-air prison” by international organizations even before Israel began its response to Hamas’s October 7 attacks. 

As Israel has launched airstrikes at Gaza and began its ground offensive into the territory, Israeli authorities pushed for civilians to evacuate to the south, saying that Hamas’s operations were based up north. Many civilians did end up vacating their homes and finding shelter at the other end of the strip.

More recently: At this point, Israel controls most of northern Gaza. The city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza became a place of refuge for Gazans during this time, and it’s where tens of thousands of people went for safety over the past few weeks. There was just recently a brief break from the fighting during a temporary ceasefire between Hamas and Israel lasting about a week. During this pause, more Gazans evacuated to the south. Up to 80% of Gaza's population have left their homes because of the war. On Friday, the ceasefire ended, and fighting began again.

The development: On Monday, Israel began calling for people in parts of southern Gaza to evacuate again. Israel says that Hamas also has some of its operations based in southern Gaza, and it’s planning a ground invasion into the south. Officials say that some Hamas fighters also went south when Israel called for civilians to move in that direction. The current mass evacuations are starting in Khan Younis. 

Now preparing to attack the entire region, Israel created a grid system for specific evacuation warnings, breaking up the territory into more than 600 areas. Civilians are reportedly confused by this system. Also on Monday, Israeli air strikes hit southern Gaza, including areas previously labeled safe by Israeli authorities, killing and wounding many civilians, reports say. The ground invasion has also started shifting toward the south, with troops and tanks on the move. 

Palestinians are rushing to evacuate again – but safe spaces are becoming fewer and farther between. Aid workers are also warning that this renewed evacuation will make the current humanitarian situation worse than it already is. They’ve expressed worry over the evacuation grid system, saying that it’s only available using a phone or computer and Gaza doesn’t have reliable electricity or telecom networks at the moment. Egypt is also worried that civilians will try to break through its border as safe areas become less available.

Key comments:

“Reportedly, the [safety grid] map is intended to facilitate orders to evacuate specific areas ahead of their targeting. The publication does not specify where people should evacuate to,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) said in its daily briefing. “It is unclear how those residing in Gaza would access the map without electricity and amid recurrent telecommunications cuts.”

"We are beginning to expand the ground maneuver to other parts of the Strip, with one goal - to topple the Hamas terrorist group," Israeli Brigadier-General Hisham Ibrahim told Army Radio.

"All of the population that was in the north has been squeezed into the center and south of Gaza," said Sultan Barakat, a professor at the Qatar Foundation's Hamad Bin Khalifa University. "If Israel goes on the same way they started the war, it's going to be a horrific disaster."