Where will they run to: Is Israel planning an all-out assault on south Gaza?

Where will they run to: Is Israel planning an all-out assault on south Gaza?
4 min read
19 November, 2023
With Israel effectively emptying Gaza's north of people and destroying its civilian infrastructure, The New Arab asks: will Israel do the same in the south?
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians heeded Israeli warnings and fled northern Gaza [Getty]

Early on Saturday, Israel bombed two residential neighbourhoods in Gaza's southern city of Khan Younis, killing at least 28 people.

This bombardment of civilian areas came hours after the Israeli military announced plans to push their ground offensive south, into the very areas that they told civilians to flee for their safety.

Many analysts now fear that Israel’s gameplan for northern Gaza is being fully rolled out in the south of the territory.

What is Israel doing in north Gaza?

At the beginning of its war on Gaza, Israel claimed that the north of the territory was the bastion of Hamas. Israel’s stated goal in pursuing the war has been to "annihilate" Hamas, to render the group incapable of functioning as a governing or military force.

Israel issued a mass evacuation order for every resident in north Gaza – some 1.1 million people – to move to alleged safety in the south.

This evacuation order was effectively impossible for civilians to follow safely, and was decried by the UN, rights groups, and the EU. Israel has been heavily bombarding areas in the south, including Khan Younis and Rafah, while also targeting convoys of Gazans fleeing southwards.

The emphasis Israel placed on attempting to force the population out of north Gaza, combined with the huge number of civilian casualties, has led many to believe that Israel’s ultimate target was the population of north Gaza itself.

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In warnings distributed to the residents of northern Gaza through leaflets and text messages, Israel’s message was clear: whoever chooses to stay in north Gaza will be considered an accomplice of "a terrorist organisation".

Israel claims these warnings were meant to avoid civilian casualties, but others believe that the wording of the warnings and the nature of Israel’s hastily issued mass evacuation order effectively painting a target onto the backs of civilians that Israel already knew would be killed as part of its destruction of the north.

These fears were only exacerbated when the extent of Israel’s attacks on the civil infrastructure in northern Gaza particularly hospitals, schools and places used by civilians to shelter – particularly hospitals, schools and places used by civilians to shelter – became clear.

On Saturday, 50 civilians were killed as Israel bombed two UNRWA-run schools, one in the Jabalia refugee camp and the other in Tal al-Zaatar.

Is Israel doing the same in south Gaza?

Though Israel has not bombarded or waged a ground offensive on southern Gaza yet, a UN map that uses statistics compiled by Gaza’s health ministry has shown that one-third of all Palestinian deaths in the conflict so far have occurred in the south of the territory.

This figure somewhat undermines the idea that the south was ever intended by Israel to be a safe zone.

Some analysts believe that Israel is essentially clearing or vastly reducing the population of Gaza zone by zone, starting with north, now effectively emptied, then moving on to the south.

The recent announcement of the expansion of Israel’s ground offensive into the south and the subsequent uptick in the bombardment of Khan Younis only helps support this notion.

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Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said Friday that the country’s forces would attack "wherever Hamas exists, including in the south of the strip".

Israel’s justification for the evacuation of northern Gaza and its attacks on civil infrastructure was built entirely around the claim that the area was the stronghold of Hamas. Yet Israel now claims that Hamas has fled to southern areas like Khan Younis, a claim it appears to be using as a justification to bombard areas now home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians who heeded Israel’s warnings and fled from the north.

Following the same playbook as it used in the north, Israel has now warned Palestinians in southern areas to move towards an even smaller area near the southwestern town of Masawi.

Where will they run to next?

The key question in all of this is: what is Israel’s endgame in Gaza? It looks like it wants to do in the south what it is doing in the north, but then what?  Palestinians in Gaza have nowhere else to run.

The south was never a safe haven, with Palestinians crammed into unsanitary shelters where infectious diseases are spreading and food and water supplies are so low that the UN has warned that Gazans face the "immediate possibility of starvation".

So, while Israel’s endgame remains unclear, analysts have warned that when Israel launches a campaign in the south with the same ferocity as that unleashed on the north, civilian deaths will increase dramatically and the humanitarian crisis will reach unprecedented levels.