US, Russian embassies reactivate warnings against Lebanon travel

GAZA STRIP: Palestinians fled eastern Gaza City under heavy bombardment on Thursday as the Israeli military ordered the evacuation of an area it had previously declared clear of Hamas militants.

The blaze in the northern Gaza district of Shujaiya, which witnesses and medics say has caused scores of casualties, comes as fears grow of a wider regional conflagration involving Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, visiting Washington to discuss the Gaza crisis and ways to avoid wider conflict in the Middle East, said Israel did not want war but warned that massive fighting would send Lebanon “back to the Stone Age”.

Fighting continues in Gaza despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying on Sunday that the “intense phase” of the war – now approaching its tenth month – was ending.

Officials and medics in the Hamas-controlled territory said Israeli strikes overnight and early Thursday killed at least six people in northern Gaza, and the Israeli military said it “attacked terrorists” in Khan Yunis in the south.

In Gaza City, a witness in Shujaiya, who declined to be named, told AFP the situation was “terrifying” as Israeli military vehicles approached amid airstrikes and shelling.

“Residents are running in terror in the streets…wounded and martyred are lying in the streets.”

In a message posted on social media, army spokesman Avichay Adraee told residents and displaced Gazans in the Shujaiya area to leave “for your safety”.

They were asked to head south to a declared “humanitarian zone” about 25 kilometers (15 miles) away.

An AFP photographer saw many leaving on foot, carrying their belongings as they walked through rubble-strewn streets.

Hamas said in a statement that Israeli forces were “launching a ground invasion” and reported “several” dead as “thousands of people flee the relentless bombardment”.

Muhammad Ghurab, a doctor at Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, said the facility received seven “martyrs, including four children” and dozens of wounded “as Israeli forces advanced east of the Shujaiya neighborhood.”

Shujaiya resident Omar Sukar said he saw strikes as Gazans collected drinking water, supplies of which were limited due to the Israeli siege.

“The truck had just arrived when the shelling started,” he told AFP.

A displaced woman from Gaza, who did not want to be named, told AFP she was “devastated” by the violence and destruction.

“We have lost our children and our homes and we are still running from place to place.”

Apart from the evacuation order announced by Adraee, the military declined to comment on the fighting.

The war began with a Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7, which left 1,195 people dead, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The militants also took 251 hostages, of whom 116 remain in Gaza, although the military says 42 are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive killed at least 37,765 people, also mostly civilians, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Israel announced in early January that it had dismantled the “Hamas military framework” in northern Gaza, where the fighting was most intense in the early stages of the war, but the militants have since regrouped.

The war and siege have created a dire humanitarian crisis, with hospitals in Gaza struggling to function and basic supplies difficult to obtain as the vast majority of the territory’s 2.4 million residents have been displaced.

On Thursday, UNICEF announced an agreement with Israel to restart power lines that could return the key water desalination plant in Khan Yunis to full operating capacity.

“This is an important milestone and we are very much looking forward to it,” said Jonathan Crickx, a spokesman for the United Nations Children’s Fund.

In a rare medical evacuation from Gaza, 21 cancer patients left through the Kerem Shalom crossing on the Israeli border, a medical source in Egypt said.

It was the first evacuation since the closure of the Rafah border crossing, a key route for aid to Gaza, when Israeli forces took over the Palestinian side in early May.

Months of talks on a ceasefire and the release of hostages have so far failed, as Israel has rejected Hamas demands for a permanent end to the fighting and a complete withdrawal of troops.

Israeli protesters have put pressure on Netanyahu’s government, with thousands of people rallying outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on Thursday to call for a deal to release the hostages, an AFP reporter said.

US officials have expressed hope that a ceasefire in Gaza could also lead to a reduction in hostilities between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, which have traded near-daily cross-border fire since early October.

Tensions rose when Israel said this month that its war plans were ready, prompting threats from Hezbollah that no one in Israel would be safe in the event of an all-out war.

Germany and Canada advised Lebanese citizens to leave.

In the latest clashes on Thursday, Hezbollah said it fired rockets at an Israeli military base and deployed drones in retaliation for Israeli attacks on Lebanon, one of which killed a fighter.

Israel said its air defenses “intercepted most of the launches” while reporting no casualties.

Meanwhile, Israel rejected a UN-backed report that said nearly half a million Gazans were facing “catastrophic” starvation.

Government spokesman David Mencer said the “starvation claims” were designed to “put pressure on Israel”.

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