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The Israeli military has begun an invasion of southern Gaza, according to a New York Times analysis of satellite imagery, evidence of a long-awaited operation that could decide the fate of its war with Hamas and create more peril for Palestinian civilians.

After capturing large parts of northern Gaza since late October, Israeli troops have now advanced into the last section of the territory that had been under full Hamas control. Their move sets the stage for what is likely to be the decisive battle of the war: a showdown in Khan Younis, the largest city in the south, where Israeli officials believe Hamas’s military and political leadership has sought shelter since fleeing from the north.

New satellite images collected at 9 a.m. on Sunday local time and analyzed by The Times showed that the Israeli military had reached a position south of Deir al Balah, about 3 miles north of the center of Khan Younis. The images showed dozens of armored vehicles in the area and berms erected to fortify their positions, vehicles and activities that closely resemble earlier Israeli operations in the north. The imagery also showed tracks and clearings, most likely from bulldozers.

The Israeli military declined to comment, but its generals have said in recent days that its forces were operating all over the Gaza Strip, without clarifying what that meant.

The invasion of the south is expected to be the most intense phase of a war that is already the deadliest in the Arab-Israeli conflict since Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and which has prompted the largest displacement of Palestinians since the wars that surrounded the creation of Israel in 1948.

Since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched surprise attacks that Israeli officials say killed roughly 1,200 people — the deadliest day in Israel’s history — the Israeli military’s airstrikes and invasion of Gaza have killed more than 15,500 people, according to Gazan health officials.

Most of Gaza’s population is now in the south of the territory as some 1.8 million people, or more than 80 percent of the population, has been displaced.

The invasion is expected to compound the dire living conditions in an area already widely damaged by Israeli airstrikes, hampered by regular communications outages and overcrowded with displaced civilians struggling with the spread of disease and shortages of water, food, fuel and medical equipment.

The high death toll and humanitarian crisis in Gaza have prompted widespread international outcry, as well as concern from the Biden administration, Israel’s main foreign ally. U.S. officials say they have pressed Israeli forces to act with more precision in this phase of the war to limit civilian casualties, although hundreds of people have died since hostilities resumed following the collapse of a weeklong truce last week.

Israeli leaders say they are taking steps to reduce civilian deaths, but are pressing ahead with their effort to oust Hamas to prevent a repeat of the Oct. 7 attack.

Also on Monday, 180 trucks carrying humanitarian aid were sent to Gaza through the Rafah crossing, the Israeli authorities said. The trucks carried food, water, shelter equipment, medical supplies and fuel.

Since Hamas captured Gaza from a rival Palestinian group in 2007, a year after winning a national election, Israel and Hamas have frequently fought — but Israel had never tried to oust Hamas from the territory. Along with Egypt, Israel enforced a crippling blockade on Gaza that restricted the entry of certain goods and the exit of most people.

But Israel broadly maintained a status quo in which Hamas was allowed to retain power. That calculus changed after the Oct. 7 attack, which prompted Israeli leaders to seek to dismantle Hamas and destroy its leadership.

The invasion of the south brings more urgency to a discussion about what Israel should do with Gaza, if and when it does capture the whole territory.

The Israeli government says it does not want to resettle some of its citizens in Gaza, as it did between 1967 and 2005. But it has also ruled out handing the enclave to the Palestinian Authority, the body that administers parts of the occupied West Bank and which controlled Gaza before being ousted in 2007 by Hamas.

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