Middle East crisis: Israel orders evacuation amid attacks on Gaza City

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Israel ordered evacuations in eastern Gaza on Thursday as heavy attacks hit the region, leaving scores of people dead, according to Palestinian officials and residents. Those in the area described a desperate scramble to escape amid ongoing explosions.

The Israeli military did not immediately comment on the attacks, which reportedly targeted the Shajaiye neighborhood, an area badly damaged by previous intense fighting. Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, noted that the army was conducting a ground operation to eliminate Hamas, based on intelligence that suggested the group was regaining control of the neighborhood.

A witness from a human rights organization reported seeing Israeli tanks on the outskirts of Shajaiye.

If confirmed, the operation would mark another case of Israeli forces retreating into parts of Gaza they had previously left, particularly in the north, as Hamas regroups amid the chaos of the nine-month conflict. The war continues despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements that it will soon transition to a less intense phase, and amid growing frustration over Netanyahu’s lack of a post-Hamas governance plan for Gaza.

Gaza health authorities reported 15 deaths and dozens injured in Shajaiye on Thursday. The Palestinian emergency service, Civil Defense, said five homes were hit in Shajaiye and another neighborhood, with searches underway for the missing. These figures could not be independently verified, and Gaza authorities do not distinguish between civilian and combatant casualties.

A Palestinian boy injured in the attacks was treated at a Gaza City hospital.

Mohammed Qraiqea, a researcher at the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor in Shajaiye, described continuous artillery bombardment, air strikes and drone strikes throughout the afternoon.

“The tanks advanced slightly on the outskirts of the neighborhood,” he said, adding that most residents had been evacuated due to heavy shelling.

Israeli troops invaded northern Gaza in October following a Hamas-led attack on Israel, taking control of the area and pushing south towards Hamas strongholds. However, they have not yet completely defeated the armed group. Shajaiye, a large neighborhood in Gaza City, is known to host a strong Hamas battalion, although the current extent of Hamas’ presence is unclear.

Hamas has used Gaza’s urban environments to protect its fighters and infrastructure, building tunnels, firing rockets near homes and holding hostages in city centers. Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, said the group intended to protect Palestinian civilians.

Shajaiye was a battlefield early in the war, with nine Israeli soldiers killed there in December on a particularly deadly day for Israeli forces.

Some residents had returned to Shajaiye in recent months as Israeli forces concentrated on southern Gaza. Mohammad al-Bahrawi, 65, who returned with his family in March, was forced to flee again on Thursday due to strikes. He described a mass exodus “like a torrent.”

“I couldn’t believe there were still so many people in Shajaiye,” she said.

Al-Bahrawi was unaware of the Israeli evacuation orders posted on social media.

“We left by the mercy of God,” he said, describing the sound of explosions coming from all directions.

When the explosions appeared to subside, al-Bahrawi and his family went to the courtyard of the Ahli Arab hospital, where they saw some of the injured being pulled from the rubble.

At the hospital they waited, “sitting there until God helped us and we found an apartment to stay in,” he said.

Myra Novec contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

— Hiba Yazbek and Ameera Harouda report from Jerusalem and Doha, Qatar

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