The Israeli army intensified its encirclement of southern Gaza’s main city, Khan Yunis, engaging in fierce combat with Hamas militants and prompting the displacement of civilians. The conflict has shifted south, causing extensive damage in the north and resulting in a high death toll.

The Israeli army encircled the main city in southern Gaza on Wednesday, engaging Hamas militants through streets and buildings in some of the most intense combat of the two-month war. The focus of the conflict has shifted to the besieged territory’s south, following fierce fighting and bombardment that reduced much of the north to rubble and forced nearly two million people to flee their homes. Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers were seen on Tuesday near the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, forcing already displaced civilians to pack up and flee again, witnesses told AFP.

“Our forces are now encircling the Khan Yunis area in the southern Gaza Strip,” Israel’s army chief, Herzi Halevi, said late Tuesday.

“We have secured many Hamas strongholds in the northern Gaza Strip, and now we are operating against its strongholds in the south.”

The fighting on Tuesday was “the most intense day since the beginning of the ground operation” in late October, said the army’s Southern Command chief, Major General Yaron Finkelman.

This photo from Rafah, Gaza (December 5, 2023) captures an explosion in Khan Yunis during ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas militants. (Mohammed Abed, AFP)

The latest toll from the Gaza government media office said that 16,248 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, had been killed.

Several Hamas commanders were killed in an airstrike near the Indonesia Hospital, the Israeli military said early Wednesday on X.

Sources in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian militant group, told AFP that their fighters were battling Israeli troops early Wednesday to prevent them from breaking into Khan Yunis and surrounding areas.

According to the Gaza government media office, dozens of people were killed and injured in heavy strikes in areas east of Khan Yunis.

Meanwhile, areas in the central and northern Gaza Strip were still coming under bombardment, according to Hamas.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry said that airstrikes on the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza killed six people and injured 14 others.

Israel had previously told civilians in the north of the densely populated Gaza Strip to seek shelter in the south of the territory, with many fleeing to Khan Yunis, believing it would be safer.

As the war expands, Israel has told people to move even further south, sparking “panic, fear, and anxiety,” according to Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. People were being pushed into an area that is less than one-third of the Gaza Strip, with roads to the south clogged, he said.

The occupied West Bank has also seen a surge in violence. Israeli troops raided Faraa refugee camp in the north of the territory early Wednesday, sparking clashes that killed two people, one of them aged 16, according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa. The latest deaths have been added to more than 250 people killed in the West Bank since October, according to Palestinian authorities.

Miroslava Salazar, with AFP