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Middle East crisis: Israel orders evacuations amid strikes on Gaza City

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Israel ordered evacuations in eastern Gaza on Thursday as heavy strikes hit the region, leading to numerous casualties, according to Palestinian officials and residents. Those in the area described a desperate rush to escape amidst ongoing explosions.

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

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

If confirmed, this operation would mark another instance of Israeli forces re-entering 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 would soon shift 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 of injuries in Shajaiye on Thursday. The Palestinian emergency service, Civil Protection, said five houses were struck in Shajaiye and another neighborhood, with searches ongoing 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 strikes was treated at a Gaza City hospital.

Mohammed Qraiqea, a researcher for the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor in Shajaiye, described continuous artillery shelling, airstrikes, and drone fire throughout the afternoon.

“Tanks have advanced slightly on the outskirts of the neighborhood,” he reported, adding that most residents had evacuated due to the heavy bombing.

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 house a strong Hamas battalion, though the current extent of Hamas’s presence is unclear.

Hamas has used Gaza’s urban settings to protect its fighters and infrastructure, constructing tunnels, launching rockets near homes, and holding hostages in city centers. Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, stated the group’s intention to protect Palestinian civilians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myra Novec contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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

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