Israeli tanks pound hospital districts in south Gaza, displaced set to flee anew

Israeli tanks pound hospital districts in south Gaza, displaced set to flee anew

GAZA/DOHA/JERUSALEM (Reuters): Israeli tanks battered areas around two hospitals in Gaza’s main southern city Khan Younis on Thursday, forcing displaced people into a new desperate scramble for safety, residents said, in an escalating offensive Israel says is targeting Hamas militants.

In Gaza City in the north of the embattled enclave, 20 Palestinians were killed and 150 injured when were hit by an Israeli strike while queuing to collect food aid, said Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesperson for Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. The Israeli military said it was looking into the report.

Gaza health officials said at least 50 Palestinians had been killed in the past 24 hours in Khan Younis, where Israel has shifted full-blown military operations after starting to pull forces out of northern areas it says it now largely controls.

Most of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million population is now squeezed into Khan Younis and towns just north and south of it, after being driven out of its northern half earlier in Israel’s military campaign, now in its fourth month.

Khan Younis is encircled by Israeli armoured forces and under almost non-stop aerial and ground fire, residents said, and a huge mushroom-like column of smoke billowed skyward from areas of Israeli military operations on Thursday.

Palestinian medics said Israeli tanks had cut off and were shelling targets around the city’s two main still-functioning hospitals, Nasser and Al-Amal, trapping medical teams, patients and displaced people huddled inside or nearby.

Israel says Hamas militants use hospital premises as cover for bases, something the Islamist group and medical staff deny.

The Israeli army’s siege of Khan Younis’ main hospitals, in what it calls an escalating campaign to eliminate militants in Hamas’ main south Gaza bastion, has made it near impossible for rescue crews to reach the wounded or collect the dead.

Al-Qidra said Nasser Hospital was running at only 10% of capacity in “harsh and frightening conditions”, having run out of food, pain killers and anaesthetics.

On Wednesday, the United Nations said Israeli tanks struck a large U.N. compound in Gaza sheltering displaced Palestinians, killing at least nine people and wounding 75. But Israel denied its forces were responsible, suggesting Hamas might have launched the shelling. It said it was reviewing the incident.

Israel said Hamas had “command and control centres” in the vicinity, which it described as “a dense area” with civilians and several hospitals where it said militants were active.

On Thursday, tens of thousands of homeless people sheltering in the compound prepared to flee to Rafah, 15 km (nine miles) away on Gaza’s southern edge, after Israeli tank forces nearby ordered all civilians inside to leave, U.N. officials said.

Israeli forces had set a 5 p.m. local time (1500 GMT) Friday deadline for the compound to be emptied, said Juliette Touma, spokesperson for the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency. Over 30,000 people were packed inside the compound, she estimated.

There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.