Israeli ground forces are confronting Hamas fighters across the Gaza Strip in the clearest indication yet that a planned ground offensive in the enclave’s refugee-crowded south has begun as Israeli bombing killed and wounded dozens of Palestinians.
The renewed warfare followed the end on Friday of a seven-day pause in the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants which had allowed an exchange of 105 hostages held by Hamas, most of them Israelis, for 240 Palestinian prisoners.
The latest violence took place despite calls from the US – Israel’s closest ally – for Israel to limit harm to Palestinian civilians in the new phase of its offensive, focused on the south.
Gaza residents said on Sunday they feared an Israeli ground offensive on the southern areas was imminent.
Tanks had cut off the road between Khan Younis and Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza, effectively dividing the Gaza Strip into three.
On Monday morning, Israel’s military posted to X a statement with new orders to Gazans to evacuate about 20 areas or blocks in the Gaza Strip, with three arrows on the map all pointing south indicating where people should go.
Israel says it is defining “safe areas” for Gaza civilians to minimise harm to them but United Nations officials and people in Gaza say it is difficult to heed these orders in real time given patchy internet access and unreliable electricity.
“There are no safe areas,” Lebanon-based Hamas official Osama Hamdan said on Sunday.
Bombardments from war planes and artillery were also concentrated on Khan Younis and Rafah, another city in Gaza’s south, residents said, and hospitals were struggling to cope with the flow of wounded.
Israel’s government spokesperson Eylon Levy said the military had struck more than 400 targets across the weekend “including extensive aerial attacks in the Khan Younis area” and had also killed Hamas militants and destroyed their infrastructure in Beit Lahiya in the north.
On Sunday, Hamas said its fighters clashed with Israeli troops about 2km from the southern city of Khan Younis.
“The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) continues to extend its ground operation against Hamas centres in all of the Gaza Strip,” Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in Tel Aviv.
“The forces are coming face to face with terrorists and killing them.”
Israel said on Monday its military death toll from ground operations in Gaza had risen to 76.
Early on Monday, Hamas media quoted emergency services as saying an Israeli strike killed three civil emergency workers in Gaza City in the north of the coastal enclave.
The Jabalia refugee camp in the north of Hamas-ruled Gaza was among the sites reported hit from the air on Sunday.
A Gazan health ministry spokesperson said several people were killed by an Israeli air strike.
Footage obtained by Reuters showed a boy covered in grey dust, sitting weeping amid crumbled cement and rubble from collapsed buildings.
“My father was martyred,” he cried in a hoarse voice.
Attacks on shipping in the southern Red Sea on Sunday heightened fears of the conflict spreading.
The US Defense Department said three commercial ships were attacked by Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi movement in international Red Sea waters, and a US destroyer operating in the area shot down three drones as it responded to distress calls.
A Houthi spokesperson said its navy had attacked two Israeli ships in the Red Sea with an armed drone and a missile on Sunday, although an Israeli military spokesman said the two ships had no connection to Israel.
More than 15,523 people have been killed, according to Gaza’s health ministry, in almost two months of warfare that broke out after a Hamas cross-border raid on southern Israel on October 7 in which 1200 Israelis were killed and about 240 taken hostage.
Israel says Hamas continues to hold 136 hostages.
Israel has vowed to annihilate Hamas.
The Iranian-backed group is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
The initial Hamas attack and the ensuing war amount to the bloodiest episode in the decades-old wider Israel-Palestinian conflict.