The Israeli military heavily bombarded southern Gaza on Saturday and ordered residents of several Palestinian border towns in the area to leave their homes, appearing to set the stage for a ground invasion in the south as hostilities resumed after the collapse of a weeklong truce with Hamas.
The intensity of the renewed bombing — the Israeli military said it had carried out airstrikes against more than 400 targets across the Gaza Strip since fighting resumed on Friday — left many Gazans with a feeling of helplessness.
“I don’t know where to go,” said Sameer al-Jarrah, 67, who lives in Al Qarara, a town that the Israeli military ordered evacuated and which the Gazan Interior Ministry said was hit in an Israeli strike.
Israel’s latest evacuation orders in southern Gaza could force residents in a large swath of territory along the Israeli border to flee. The Israeli demands evoked similar orders the military gave before invading northern Gaza in late October, when it urged Gazans to seek safety in the southern parts of the territory.
The Israeli military said in a statement that it had struck more than 50 locations in and around Khan Younis, the largest city in southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of displaced people have been sheltering after being told to leave the north.
On Saturday afternoon, the Gazan Health Ministry said 193 people had been killed in the “past hours.” It said that Israeli strikes on Gaza since Oct. 7 — when Israeli forces began retaliating for Hamas-led attacks in Israel that the Israeli authorities say killed about 1,200 people — had killed a total of more than 15,000 people.
As a measure of the difficulty some Gazans are facing in moving around the territory, the United Nations agency for Palestinian Refugees estimated Saturday that there were 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza and that 180 were giving birth daily.
Hopes for a renewed pause in fighting appeared to dim on Saturday when Israel said Saturday that it was withdrawing its negotiating team from Qatar, where talks on the cease-fire had been taking place. The Israeli Prime Minister’s office said it was leaving the talks because Hamas “did not fulfill its part of the agreement, which included the release of all children and women according to a list that was passed to Hamas and which it approved.”
Israel and Hamas have given differing accounts for the breakdown of the weeklong truce.
Zaher Jabareen, a Hamas official who oversees prisoner issues, said in an interview Friday that Israel rejected multiple proposals from Hamas, all of which involved the return of small numbers of Israelis in exchange for at least dozens of Palestinian prisoners.
In recent days Israel has been under pressure by the Biden administration to carry out a more surgical bombing campaign, limiting the number of civilian deaths and wholesale destruction of the northern campaign’s first weeks.
Israel says it is targeting Hamas, which operates in and under residential areas, meaning civilians are at risk even if they are not the intended targets. But Gazans and many countries have criticized Israel for what they considered indiscriminate bombing that has resulted in a disproportionate civilian toll.
On Saturday, initial reports from inside Gaza spoke of relentless bombardment. The head of the International Red Cross, Robert Mardini, described the renewed fighting as “intense.”
“It’s a new layer of destruction coming on top of massive, unparalleled destruction of critical infrastructure, of civilian houses and neighborhoods,” Mr. Mardini told the Reuters news agency.
A senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss wartime strategy, signaled that the next phase of the war will not be open-ended. Israeli forces, he said, expect to be “in a high-intensity operation in the coming weeks, then probably moving to a low-intensity mode.”
Separately, a senior U.S. official said Saturday that the Biden administration has seen the Israeli plans for the next phase and officials are satisfied that the plans reflect the U.S. pressure for Israel to be more cautious about civilian fatalities.
During the first seven weeks of fighting the Israeli military focused its ground troops in the north. On Saturday the military hinted that its troops had begun to operate in southern Gaza overnight. In a statement, the military said that naval troops “carried out a targeted operational activity in the Khan Younis marina and Deir al-Balah,” two coastal sites south of the area that Israel has already captured from Hamas.
A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said the troops had not set foot on the shore.
Israel believes Hamas’s top leadership is hiding in southern Gaza. It is also where most of the remaining hostages taken from Israel on Oct. 7 are being held, according to a senior Israeli defense official.
The Israeli military separately signaled that more operations were imminent in both northern and southern Gaza. In addition to its warnings to residents of Al Qarara and other villages next to the border with Israel, it ordered some residents in and around Gaza City, in northern Gaza, to head west.
Some Palestinians near Khan Younis said Friday that Israeli military aircraft had dropped leaflets directing people to evacuate to shelters in the area of Rafah, a city along Gaza’s border with Egypt. The leaflets, which had the insignia of the Israel Defense Forces, declared Khan Younis “a dangerous combat zone.”
Israeli ground forces have already captured parts of northern Gaza, and Israeli officials have said for weeks that their infantry aims to advance across all of the north and to head south toward Khan Younis.
The southern villages that were ordered to evacuate on Saturday lie between the Israeli border and Khan Younis, suggesting that Israeli forces may be preparing to advance through them during an invasion of the south. They include Al Qarara, Bani Suheila, Abasan and Khuza’a.
About 1.8 million Gazans have already been displaced by the war, according to the United Nations.
Reporting was contributed by Aaron Boxerman, Iyad Abuheweila, Karen Zraick, Ameera Harouda, Gaya Gupta and Michael Shear.