Israel pounds southern Gaza after US warning on civilian deaths

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Israel has ordered Palestinians in Gaza to evacuate a large area of land in the south of the strip, while stepping up an aerial bombardment that has killed hundreds of people since a fragile truce with Hamas broke down on Friday.

The evacuation order appeared to signal a possible new ground offensive in and near Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city and now the largest population centre in the south. Leaflets have been dropped from warplanes and mass text messages warned of heavy military activity to come.

The fighting escalated even after US officials, from secretary of defence Lloyd Austin to vice-president Kamala Harris, warned Israel to take more steps to protect civilians in Gaza. The US pays for as much as a fifth of Israel’s defence budget — $3.8bn a year — under an Obama-administration agreement.

“In this kind of a fight, the centre of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” Austin said in a speech to the Reagan National Defense Forum in California this weekend.

Asked on Sunday about the US concerns, Eylon Levy, Israeli government spokesperson, said: “We completely agree that far too many people have been killed in this war. It’s a sad fact that everyone who has been killed since October 7 . . . would still be alive if Hamas had not decided to launch this war.”

Responding to Harris’s comments that the civilian death toll in Gaza was too high, Levy insisted that “the Israeli army has made every effort [in] upholding our obligations under international law to get civilians out of harm’s way”.

Israel and Hamas returned to fighting when a week-long truce collapsed on Friday morning, after they traded hostages for Palestinian prisoners in a Qatar-brokered pause to hostilities that also included a fresh influx of humanitarian aid.

More than 15,520 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began on October 7, according to local health officials. Israel estimates that 1,200 people were killed by Hamas militants in a cross-border raid that triggered the war.

Health ministry officials in Hamas-run Gaza said on Sunday afternoon that 316 people had been killed since the truce broke on Friday. But they added that this counted only those who had been brought to hospitals, estimating that many more were under the rubble.

The UN said dozens of people had been killed in a Saturday air strike on a six-storey building in a refugee camp in northern Gaza, after residents were given an hour and a half’s notice to evacuate it.

A block in Gaza City was hit later on Saturday, destroying 50 residential buildings, the UN said. The number of casualties caused by this incident is not yet known.

After concerns about the civilian toll were also conveyed by secretary of state Antony Blinken to Israel’s war cabinet, the Israel Defense Forces made public plans for neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood evacuation orders to be issued to Palestinians ahead of military operations.

But the UN, human rights groups and Palestinians said the orders were impractical, especially when almost the entire 2.3mn population of the besieged enclave was already crowded into the southern part of Gaza.

Israel has suggested, but has yet to enforce, a 14 sq km so-called safe zone in southern Gaza, an area slightly larger than London’s Heathrow airport. UN officials have said, however, that safe zones cannot be unilaterally declared in a war zone.

Along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the IDF said an anti-tank missile targeted an Israeli military vehicle, injuring soldiers with shrapnel. The IDF struck back with artillery.

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