By Adel Zaanoun with Stuart White in Jerusalem
Israeli forces battled Hamas militants in Gaza's main southern city on Wednesday in some of the most intense combat of the nearly two-month war sparked by the October 7 attacks.
Israeli troops, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and bulldozers have rolled into Khan Yunis in the south, Gaza's second-largest city, forcing already displaced civilians to pack up and flee again, witnesses told AFP.
The focus of the conflict has shifted into the besieged Palestinian territory's south following fierce fighting and bombardment that reduced much of the north to rubble and forced an estimated 1.9 million people to flee.
"Our forces are now encircling the Khan Yunis area in the southern Gaza Strip," Israel's army chief Herzi Halevi said Tuesday.
"We have secured many Hamas strongholds in the northern Gaza Strip, and now we are operating against its strongholds in the south."
The streets of Khan Yunis were almost empty on Wednesday morning as residents tried to take shelter from shelling and artillery fire, said AFP journalists, while the dead and wounded continued to pour into the city's hospitals.
Israel declared war on Hamas after the militant group's October 7 attacks that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities, and saw around 240 hostages taken.
The latest toll from the Hamas government's media office said 16,248 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, had been killed.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and free 138 hostages still held in Gaza after scores were released during a short-lived truce.
As the military "expands its operations to dismantle Hamas in Gaza, we have not lost sight... of our critical mission to rescue our hostages," army spokesman Daniel Hagari said.
"The international community must take action. The Red Cross must have access to the hostages that are in the hands of Hamas."
The mass casualties in Gaza have sparked global concern, heightened by dire shortages brought by an Israeli siege that has seen only limited supplies of food, water, fuel and medicines enter.
Hassan al-Qadi, a displaced Khan Yunis resident, said "the whole city is suffering from destruction and relentless shelling.
"Many people arriving from northern Gaza are facing dire circumstances. Many are homeless and some are searching for their missing children."
"We are not mere numbers. We are human beings," he said, speaking in the southern city of Rafah.
250 targets hit
The Israeli army said Wednesday it had struck about 250 targets in Gaza over the past 24 hours and that troops were "continuing to locate weapons, underground shafts, explosives and additional military infrastructure".
And several Hamas commanders were killed in an air strike near the Indonesian Hospital in northern Gaza, the Israeli military said on social media platform X.
Sources in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian militant group, told AFP their fighters were battling Israeli troops early Wednesday in a bid to prevent them from breaking into Khan Yunis and surrounding areas.
According to the Hamas media office, dozens were killed and injured in heavy strikes on areas east of Khan Yunis.
The Hamas-run health ministry said air strikes on the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza killed six people and wounded 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.
The violence in Gaza "now ranks amongst the worst assaults on any civilian population in our time and age", charged aid group the Norwegian Refugee Council, which also warned of the dire public health threat of the approaching winter.
Israeli warnings telling people to move even further south have sparked "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, he said.
International aid groups have condemned the succession of orders to flee from one area to another, saying that civilians were running out of options.
"Palestinians in Gaza are living in utter, deepening horror," UN human rights chief Volker Turk told a press conference, calling for an urgent ceasefire and charging that Gazans are being "collectively punished" for the Hamas attacks.
Following demands to create areas where civilians could shelter, Israel's army published a map it said was intended to enable Gazans to "evacuate from specific places for their safety if required".
But the UN children's agency UNICEF criticised the map, saying it was "not possible" to create safe zones for civilians to flee to inside Gaza.
According to UN figure, some 1.9 million people are displaced in Gaza -- roughly 80 percent of the narrow coastal territory's population.
Fighting resumed after the collapse on Friday of a Qatar-mediated truce that saw scores of Israeli and other hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
The Israeli army said Wednesday that the number of its troops killed inside Gaza since the war began had risen to 83.
The war has sparked fears of a wider regional conflict, with frequent exchanges of fire with Iran-backed Hezbollah across Israel's border with Lebanon and a surge of deadly violence in the occupied West Bank.
A Lebanese soldier was killed by Israeli fire on a military post near the country's southern border Tuesday, the army said.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops raided the northern Faraa refugee camp early Wednesday, sparking clashes that killed two people, one of them aged 16, Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.
According to Palestinian authorities, during the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza, more than 250 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, by Israeli fire or in settler attacks.