© Reuters. A mobile artillery unit fires in direction of Gaza Strip, during an ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at the border with Gaza, in Israel, December 2, 2023. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
By Suhaib Salem and Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA/CAIRO (Reuters) -Israel faced growing U.S. calls to avoid further harm to Palestinian civilians in its fight against Hamas militants in Gaza, as the warring sides on Sunday showed no sign of moving toward reviving their collapsed truce.
As Israeli forces pounded the enclave after the breakdown of a truce, Vice President Kamala Harris said too many innocent Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin deemed it a “moral responsibility” for Israel to protect civilians.
The senior U.S. officials’ remarks on Saturday reinforced pressure from Washington for Israel to use more caution as it shifts the focus of its military offensive further south in the besieged Gaza Strip.
With renewed fighting stretching into a third day, residents feared the air and artillery bombardment was just the prelude to an Israeli ground operation in the southern strip that would pen them into a shrinking area and possibly try to push them across into Egypt.
On Sunday morning, the Israeli military’ posted a statement on X ordering Palestinians the Gaza Strip to immediately evacuate half a dozen areas in and around Khan Younis.
The military’s Arabic-language spokesman Avichay Adraee instructed them to move to what he described as “well-known IDP (internally displaced person) shelters” west of the city, including south toward Rafah, and included a map highlighting the areas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that Israel was coordinating with the U.S. and international organisations to define “safe areas” for Gaza civilians.
But U.N. officials and people in Gaza say it is difficult to heed Israeli evacuation orders in real time because of patchy internet access and no regular supply of electricity amid Israel’s military offensive.
‘SCALE OF SUFFERING DEVASTATING’
Seven Palestinians were killed and several injured in an Israeli raid on a house east of Rafah city in southern Gaza, the Hamas-led interior ministry said on Sunday.
Planes destroyed several houses in Al-Karara town near Khan Younis overnight, killing several people, including children, according to Palestinian health officials.
Gaza’s health ministry said earlier at least 193 Palestinians had been killed since the week-long truce ended on Friday, adding to the more than 15,000 Palestinian dead since the start of the war. Israel has sworn to annihilate Hamas following its Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel, in which it says 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 taken hostage.
Speaking in Dubai, Harris said Israel had a right to defend itself, but international and humanitarian law must be respected and “too many innocent Palestinians have been killed”.
“Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering, and the images and videos coming from Gaza, are devastating,” Harris told reporters.
Austin weighed in with perhaps his strongest comments yet on Israel’s need to protect civilians in Gaza, calling it a “moral responsibility and strategic imperative”.
“If you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” Austin told a defence forum in Simi Valley, California.
Austin, who pledged the U.S. would stand by Israel as its “closest friend in the world”, said he pressed Israeli officials to dramatically expand Gaza’s access to humanitarian aid.
Senior Netanyahu adviser Mark Regev said when the war was over, Israel would seek a “security envelope” to prevent Hamas from positioning itself on the Gaza border.
Gaza health officials said that in addition to the death toll, 650 people had been wounded since the truce collapsed.
The first aid trucks since the end of the truce entered from Egypt through the Rafah crossing on Saturday, Egyptian security and Red Crescent sources said. Some 100 trucks passed through, they said.
The warring sides blamed each other for the collapse of the truce, during which Hamas had released hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Israel said it had recalled a team from Qatar, host of indirect negotiations with Hamas, accusing the Palestinian faction of reneging on a deal to free all the women and children it was holding.
The deputy head of Hamas, however, said none of the people the group was holding would be exchanged with Israel unless there is a ceasefire and all Palestinian detainees in Israel are released.
Saleh Al-Arouri told Al Jazeera TV that Israeli hostages held by Hamas were soldiers and civilian men who previously served in the army.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he was heading to Qatar to work on a new truce.
The southern part of Gaza, including Khan Younis and Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of people displaced from the north of the enclave had sought refuge, was pounded on Saturday.
The Palestinian News Agency quoted local sources as saying warplanes bombed two homes in the Nuseirat refugee camp, killing at least 13 people. Gaza health officials said three Palestinians were killed in an Israeli air strike on a house in Rafah.
Reuters could not independently verify the accounts.
Hamas said it targeted Tel Aviv with a rocket barrage. There were no reports of damage, but paramedics said one man was treated for a shrapnel injury in central Israel.