By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Arafat Barbakh
CAIRO/GAZA/JERUSALEM Jan 5 (Reuters) – Israel announced a more targeted approach in hunting down Hamas fighters and their leaders as its aerial assault pounded the Gaza Strip, forcing some displaced families to flee for safety riding donkey carts loaded with belongings and children.
Israeli shelling of Gaza on Thursday killed more than 20 Palestinians, including 16 in Khan Younis city in a southern coastal area packed with people who had fled from other parts of the enclave, Gaza health officials said.
Among the dead were nine children, they said. Separately, five Palestinians were killed in an Israeli airstrike on a car in Al-Nusseirat refugee camp, health officials told Reuters. Gaza residents said Israeli planes and tanks had also bombarded two other refugee camps, prompting many to head south.
People poured out of Al-Bureij, Al-Maghazi and Al-Nusseirat refugee camps on Thursday following attacks, with some families riding on donkey carts loaded with mattresses, luggage and children. Rain has turned earth to mud, adding to the misery.
With nightfall on Thursday, resident of central Gaza Strip said Israeli planes and tanks intensified their shelling toward the eastern directions of the camps of Al-Maghazi and Al-Nusseirat.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday outlined a new stage of Israel’s war in Gaza: a more targeted approach in the north and further pursuit of Hamas leaders in the south while Israel seeks to free remaining hostages held by Hamas.
Under international pressure to shift to less intense combat operations and in the face of economic challenges, Israel has been drawing down its forces in Gaza to allow thousands of reservists to return to their jobs.
Gallant said in a statement that operations in the north would include raids, demolishing tunnels, air and ground strikes, and special forces operations.
In the south, where most of Gaza’s 2.3 million population now live in tents and other temporary shelters, the focus would be on wiping out Hamas leaders and rescuing some 132 Israeli hostages remaining of some 240 abducted on Oct. 7.
After the war Hamas would no longer control Gaza, Gallant said, adding that the enclave would be run by Palestinian bodies so long as there was no threat to Israel.
Aiming to help prevent the conflict from expanding, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to travel on Thursday to the Middle East for a week of diplomacy, the State Department said.
CONCERN CONFLICT MAY SPREAD
Israel’s war against Hamas is nearing the three-month mark amid international concern that the conflict is spreading beyond Gaza, drawing in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Hezbollah forces on the Lebanon-Israel border, and Red Sea shipping lanes.
The concern grew after a drone strike on Tuesday killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. He was buried in the Palestinian camp of Shatila in the city on Thursday, amid throngs of mourners launching volleys of gunfire.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed on Wednesday that his powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite militia “cannot be silent” following the killing, but he made no concrete threats to act against Israel in support of Hamas.
Hezbollah has been embroiled in nearly daily exchanges of shelling with Israel across Lebanon’s southern border since the Gaza war began.
Israel neither confirmed nor denied assassinating Arouri. It has promised to annihilate Hamas following the Islamist group’s assault in southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which Israel says 1,200 people were killed.
Israel’s ground and air blitz has laid waste to Gaza. The total recorded Palestinian death toll had reached 22,438 by Thursday – almost 1% of its 2.3 million population, the Gaza health ministry said.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health said on Friday that a 17-year-old boy was killed by Israeli forces and four others injured in Beit Rima in the West Bank.
Israel has said it has killed 8,000 fighters in Gaza.
Adding to the violence in the region, two explosions on Wednesday killed nearly 100 people during a memorial ceremony for the late Iranian General Qasem Soleimani at the cemetery in southeastern Iran where he is buried. The militant Sunni Muslim group Islamic State claimed responsibility.
In Thursday’s reported strike in Al-Mawasi on the western side of Khan Younis, Israeli shells landed near tents erected in the area by displaced people, health ministry officials said.
Footage on Palestinian media showed several bodies wrapped in blankets inside a hospital morgue in Khan Younis.
“Nowhere is safe in Gaza. Wherever you go, there are strikes. In the country, next to the camps, in Al-Mawasi. There is no safe space,” said Bahaa Abu Hatab, the brother of one of the dead.
The Israeli military has expressed regret for civilian deaths but it accuses Hamas of operating in densely populated areas and using civilians as human shields, a charge the group denies.
In its daily briefing, the Israeli military said Israeli warplanes killed three Hamas militants who had tried to detonate explosive next to ground troops, and Israeli soldiers killed two more.
Later the military said soldiers had destroyed an underground military compound on the Gaza Strip coast with a weapons cache including mortars, grenades, and RPG missiles.