The New York Times 2024-07-03 02:10:21


Middle East Crisis: Large Crowds Flee Southern Gaza Areas Under Israeli Evacuation Order

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As Israel prepares to focus on ‘targeted raids,’ it is telling people to leave a large swath of Gaza.

Crowds of Palestinians were fleeing a swath of southeastern Gaza on Tuesday, after Israel issued a warning to evacuate large parts of the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah and struck several targets in southern Gaza late overnight.

The evacuation order on Monday and a heavy night of strikes came despite recent statements from Israeli commanders and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising to wind down major ground operations and shift to lower-intensity stage of targeted raids.

Israeli officials have said in recent days that they are close to ending the military offensive in the southern city of Rafah, which had been seen as the last major ground maneuver of the war. But they have also said that Israeli forces will continue to operate in Gaza for the foreseeable future to stamp out pockets of resistance and prevent Hamas from reclaiming control.

For many Gazans who have been forced to flee again and again, the situation on the ground may not change much. Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to conduct days-long operations in neighborhoods they already conquered during the initial offensive in an effort to crack down on renewed insurgencies by Palestinian militants.

The trigger for the evacuation orders and overnight Israeli attacks around Khan Younis appeared to be a barrage of roughly 20 rockets that the military said were fired from the area toward Israeli cities by Palestinian militants on Monday. Israeli forces struck back overnight after “enabling civilians to evacuate from the area,” the military said.

The United Nations estimated that roughly 250,000 people would have to flee a large swath of southern Gaza to comply with the Israeli military orders. Scott Anderson, a senior U.N. official, said the calculation was based on prewar population data and anecdotal observations on how many people had returned to the city.

For Gazans, recent operations intended to root out resurgent pockets of Hamas fighters are far from low-intensity. Hundreds of Palestinian fighters were killed in fighting in areas of northern Gaza such as Shajaiye, Jabaliya and Zeitoun, according to the Israeli military. In Jabaliya, over 60,000 people fled their homes, according to the United Nations, returning to find widespread devastation.

Israeli forces largely withdrew from Khan Younis in April after months of fighting as they were gearing up to invade Rafah farther south. In the relative calm that followed, many of the city’s residents went back home, some living in tents next to the rubble of their houses.

Suzan Abu Daqqa, 59, returned to her house on the southern outskirts of Khan Younis last month. It was relatively unscathed by the heavy Israeli bombardment that had destroyed large parts of the city, and it still had running water.

But on Monday evening, Ms. Abu Daqqa and her family heard that the Israeli military had yet again ordered the evacuation of the city’s eastern outskirts. The now-familiar sound of artillery fire began, she said, prompting her to flee northwest with relatives.

Thousands of people filled the streets of the demolished city on Monday night as they headed toward the Mawasi area near the coast, which Israel has designated as a “safer zone.”

“How long can we keep being ordered: Leave and come back, leave and come back?” said Ms. Abu Daqqa.

On Tuesday, Khan Younis residents said most of the explosions they could hear appeared to be farther south, in Rafah, indicating that at least for now, the fighting in their city was less intense. The wide-scale evacuation order, however, could potentially herald a renewed military operation there.

Amir Avivi, a retired Israeli brigadier general, said Israeli troops would seek to slowly whittle away at Hamas’s remaining fighters in the area, a process he said could take years. Over time, Israel hopes to erode Hamas’s forces so thoroughly that Gaza will take fewer and fewer forces to control, he said.

“Every time the terrorists manage to constitute themselves, there will be a raid to deal with them,” said General Avivi, who leads the hawkish Israel Defense and Security Forum. “These raids can last a few days or a week at a time — generally no more than a few days — and then you withdraw.”

General Avivi said for many Gazans, it would likely seem very similar to the current Israeli military campaign in the north.

“It won’t feel any different, save for perhaps in the forces applied and the number of troops,” he said.

Key Developments

Netanyahu says Israel has nearly eliminated Hamas’s ‘terrorist army,’ and other news.

  • The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said on Monday that his country’s forces were “advancing toward the final stage of eliminating” Hamas’s “terrorist army,” though he added that Israel would still have to continue to “strike its remnants.” Mr. Netanyahu’s comments, made to cadets at Israel’s National Defense College, were the latest sign that his government intends to wind down major military operations against Hamas in Gaza in the near future and shift the military’s focus to the cross-border conflict with Hezbollah in Israel’s north.

  • The Israeli military said seven “projectiles” launched from Lebanon on Monday fell in three Israeli farming communities along the northern border, but there were no injuries reported. The military said that the Israeli Air Force had struck five targets in southern Lebanon on Monday that it characterized as “terrorist infrastructure” sites or military compounds.

Israeli officials exchange barbs amid an uproar over the release of Al-Shifa hospital’s director.

The release on Monday of the director of Gaza’s largest hospital, who was held in Israeli detention for more than seven months without charges, was welcomed by Palestinian and rights groups but set off an uproar across the Israeli political spectrum and exposed growing tensions among officials in the government.

Mohammad Abu Salmiya directed Gaza City’s Al-Shifa Hospital, an early focus of Israel’s invasion of Gaza. He was taken into custody in late November while traveling with a U.N. convoy of ambulances evacuating patients from the hospital to southern Gaza, and was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, according to the Gaza health ministry and the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

The Israeli military later publicized some evidence to support its case that Hamas operated from within the Shifa complex, including by showing reporters a fortified tunnel constructed underneath its grounds. An investigation by The New York Times suggested that Hamas had used the site for cover and stored weapons there.

Dr. Abu Salmiya’s release appeared to stun Israeli officials. Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right minister charged with national security, called the doctor’s release “security negligence,” and blamed Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, and the chief of the intelligence agency Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, for policies that he said contradicted the government’s decisions.

Mr. Gallant’s office deflected responsibility, issuing a statement saying the release of detainees is “not subject to approval of the Minister of Defense.” The Israeli Prison Service said in a statement that the decision had been made by the Israeli military and the Shin Bet, but the military said Dr. Abu Salmiya had not been in its custody.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from the decision. In a statement on Monday, he called the release of the hospital director “an egregious error and a moral failure,” saying that he and other key authorities were not informed and that whoever is responsible should themselves be incarcerated.

Seeking to quell the growing outrage, Mr. Netanyahu said he was looking into the decision and expected answers from Mr. Bar of the Shin Bet late on Monday. He also said he would set up a team of security and military officials to vet detainees before release.

Benny Gantz, a centrist minister who resigned from the war cabinet led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in June, suggested to Mr. Netanyahu in a statement on Monday, “Prime Minister, if you close some government offices. I am sure that space and funds will be freed up for jails.”

Mr. Gantz took the opportunity to call for elections, yet again.

On Monday, at a news conference in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, a visibly frail Dr. Abu Salmiya said that nearly 50 other Palestinian detainees, including other doctors and health ministry staff members, had also been released and returned to Gaza.

“We were subjected to extreme torture,” Dr. Abu Salmiya said. He said he had been beaten over the head repeatedly and that his finger had been broken.

Human rights groups have said that Dr. Abu Salmiya’s prolonged detention without charges is an example of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners, and his release comes as the Israeli Supreme Court is weighing a petition demanding the closure of an army barracks turned jail, Sde Teiman, where thousands of Gazans have been detained since the war started last year.

It was not immediately clear if Dr. Abu Salmiya had previously been held at Sde Teiman. He was released from another prison, Nafha, according to the Israeli Prison Service.

However, a statement from Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, referred to the controversy surrounding Sde Teiman in a statement on Monday explaining the doctor’s release. The statement noted that a decision had been made to hold detainees at Sde Teiman for only short periods of time, and said that made it necessary “to release dozens of detainees in order to clear places of incarceration.” The statement said that the Shin Bet had warned elected officials “in every possible forum” that it needed more space “in view of the need to arrest terrorists.”

The health ministry in Gaza called for the release of all other detained medical workers from Gaza who were “arrested and abused simply because they were treating the sick and wounded.”

At least 310 medical workers in Gaza have been detained by Israeli forces since the start of the war, but did not specify how many had been released, the ministry said.

Johnatan Reiss contributed reporting.

Stampede at Religious Gathering in India Kills More Than 100

More than 100 people were killed on Tuesday and many others were injured in a stampede during a Hindu religious event in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where thousands of devotees had gathered.

Most of the dead so far have been women and children who appeared to have suffocated in a crush, in the Hathras district, said Ashish Kumar, the district magistrate there.

“As of now, the confirmed death toll is 116 people,” said Chaitra V., a top civil servant in the Aligarh administrative region, which includes Hathras.

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U.N. Panel Adds to Chorus Calling for Release of Evan Gershkovich

Russia arbitrarily arrested the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich to punish him for his reporting on the war in Ukraine, a United Nations panel said in a statement released on Tuesday, adding to a chorus of public condemnation of his continued detention.

In its statement, adopted in March but released on Tuesday, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, said that Mr. Gershkovich, who appeared in a secret court hearing last week to face an espionage charge that he denies, must be released immediately.

“Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest was conducted under the pretextual label of espionage but was in fact designed to punish his reporting on the armed conflict” between Russia and Ukraine, the group said. It said that it had requested that Russia “clarify the legal provisions justifying” Mr. Gershkovich’s detention but that it did not receive a response.

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Hurricane Roars Through the Caribbean

Hurricane Beryl, a powerful storm that made landfall Monday as a Category 4, has been barreling through the Caribbean, killing at least four people, destroying houses and snapping trees in half.

The hurricane first hit Carriacou, a small island north of Grenada, on Monday morning where it flattened the island in just half an hour, while also causing extreme damage to neighboring Petite Martinique. Rescue crews departed Grenada on Tuesday morning to deliver supplies to both islands and assess the destruction.

Carriacou is known for its coral reefs and diving spots, while on Petite Martinique is most people work fishing or building boats. The two islands have a combined population of roughly 6,000, according to government data.

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U.K. Nurse Lucy Letby Convicted of Attempted Murder in Retrial

Lucy Letby, a neonatal nurse who was convicted last year of murdering seven babies and attempting to kill six others at the English hospital where she worked, was found guilty on Tuesday of the attempted murder of another premature baby.

A jury had initially failed to reach a verdict in the case of the child, known as Baby K to protect her identity, and Ms. Letby was retried over the last four weeks in a court in Manchester in the north of England. She will be sentenced on Friday and is already serving life in prison for the earlier convictions. The yearslong case against Ms. Letby has haunted the country since suspicions around the deaths of a number of newborn babies first came to light in 2016.

The local police said they are still reviewing a period of time from 2012 to 2016 when Ms. Letby was working at the Countess of Chester Hospital in the city of Chester, in northwestern England.

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Israeli Generals, Low on Munitions, Want a Truce in Gaza

Israel’s top generals want to begin a cease-fire in Gaza even if it keeps Hamas in power for the time being, widening a rift between the military and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has opposed a truce that would allow Hamas to survive the war.

The generals think that a truce would be the best way of freeing the roughly 120 Israelis still held, both dead and alive, in Gaza, according to interviews with six current and former security officials.

Underequipped for further fighting after Israel’s longest war in decades, the generals also think their forces need time to recuperate in case a land war breaks out against Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that has been locked in a low-level fight with Israel since October, multiple officials said.

A truce with Hamas could also make it easier to reach a deal with Hezbollah, according to the officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters. Hezbollah has said it will continue to strike northern Israel until Israel stops fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Known collectively as the General Staff Forum, Israel’s military leadership is formed from roughly 30 senior generals, including the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the commanders of the army, air force and navy, and the head of military intelligence.

The military’s attitude to a cease-fire reflects a major shift in its thinking over the past months as it became more clear that Mr. Netanyahu was refusing to articulate or commit to a postwar plan. That decision has essentially created a power vacuum in the enclave that has forced the military to go back and fight in parts of Gaza it had already cleared of Hamas fighters.

“The military is in full support of a hostage deal and a cease-fire,” said Eyal Hulata, who served as Israel’s national security adviser until early last year, and who speaks regularly with senior military officials.

“They believe that they can always go back and engage Hamas militarily in the future,” Mr. Hulata said. “They understand that a pause in Gaza makes de-escalation more likely in Lebanon. And they have less munitions, less spare parts, less energy than they did before — so they also think a pause in Gaza gives us more time to prepare in case a bigger war does break out with Hezbollah.”

It is unclear how directly the military leadership has expressed its views to Mr. Netanyahu in private but there have been glimpses of its frustration in public, as well as of the prime minister’s frustration with the generals.

Mr. Netanyahu is leery of a truce that keeps Hamas in power because that outcome could collapse his coalition, parts of which have said they will quit the alliance if the war ends with Hamas undefeated.

Until recently, the military publicly maintained that it was possible to simultaneously achieve the government’s two main war goals: defeating Hamas and rescuing the hostages captured by Hamas and its allies during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Now, the military high command has concluded that the two goals are mutually incompatible, several months after generals began having doubts.

Since invading Gaza in October, Israel has overpowered almost all of Hamas’s battalions and occupied most of the territory at some point in the war. But just under half of the 250 hostages taken to Gaza in October remain in captivity, and the high command fears that further military action to free them may run the risk of killing the others.

With Mr. Netanyahu publicly unwilling to commit to either occupying Gaza or transferring control to alternative Palestinian leaders, the military fears a “forever war” in which its energies and ammunition are gradually eroded even as the hostages remain captive and Hamas leaders are still at large. In the face of that scenario, keeping Hamas in power for now in exchange for getting the hostages back seems like the least worst option for Israel, said Mr. Hulata. Four senior officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity agreed.

Asked to comment on whether it supports a truce, the military issued a statement that did not directly address the question. The military is pursuing the destruction of “Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, the return of the hostages, and the return of Israeli civilians from the south and the north safely to their homes,” the statement said.

But in other recent statements and interviews, military leaders have given public hints about what they have privately concluded.

“Those who think we could make Hamas disappear are wrong,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the military’s chief spokesman, said in a television interview on June 19. He said: “Hamas is an idea. Hamas is a political party. It is rooted in people’s hearts.”

To suggest otherwise, Admiral Hagari said in a veiled criticism of Mr. Netanyahu, was to “throw sand in the eyes of the public.”

“What we can do is erect something else,” he said, “something that will replace it, something that will make the population know that someone else is distributing food, someone else is providing public services. Who is that someone, what is that thing — that is for decision makers to decide.”

General Halevi, the chief of staff, has recently tried to play up the military’s achievements, in what some analysts said was an effort to create a pretext to end the war without losing face.

As Israeli troops advanced through the southern Gazan city of Rafah on June 24, General Halevi said that the army was “clearly approaching the point where we can say that we have dismantled the Rafah brigade, that it is defeated. Not in the sense that there are no more terrorists, but in the sense that it can no longer function as a fighting unit.”

The military estimates that it has killed at least 14,000 fighters — the bulk of Hamas’s forces. But officials also believe that several thousand Hamas fighters remain at large, hidden in tunnels dug deep underneath the surface of Gaza, guarding stockpiles of weapons, fuel, food and some hostages.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this article. In a statement on Monday, he said that Israel was close to “eliminating the Hamas terrorist army,” but stopped short of saying that this would allow Israel to end the war in Gaza.

In a rare television interview in late June, the prime minister dismissed suggestions that the war should end, but acknowledged that the military should draw down its presence in Gaza in order “to move part of our forces to the north.”

According to the military officials, that move is needed to help the army recuperate in case a wider war with Hezbollah does break out, not because Israel is preparing to invade Lebanon imminently. However, other news reports have suggested that Israel may be planning an invasion in the coming weeks.

Nearly nine months into a war that Israel did not plan for, its army is short of spare parts, munitions, motivation and even troops, the officials said.

The war is the most intense conflict that Israel has fought in at least four decades, and the longest it has ever fought in Gaza. In an army largely reliant on reservists, some are on their third tour of duty since October and struggling to balance the fighting with their professional and family commitments.

Fewer reservists are reporting for duty, according to four military officials. And officers are increasingly distrustful of their commanders, amid a crisis of confidence in the military leadership propelled in part by its failure to prevent the Hamas-led attack in October, according to five officers.

More than 300 soldiers have been killed in Gaza, short of what some military officials predicted before Israel invaded the territory. But more than 4,000 soldiers have been wounded since October, according to military statistics, 10 times the total during the 2014 war in Gaza, which lasted for just 50 days. An unknown number of others are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

At least some tanks in Gaza are not loaded with the full capacity of the shells that they usually carry, as the military tries to conserve its stocks in case a bigger war with Hezbollah does break out, according to two officers. Five officials and officers confirmed that the army was running low on shells. The army also lacks spare parts for its tanks, military bulldozers and armored vehicles, according to several of those officials.

All the officers, as well as Mr. Hulata, said that Israel had more than enough munitions to fight in Lebanon if it believed it had no alternative.

“If we’re dragged into a bigger war, we have enough resources and manpower,” Mr. Hulata said. “But we’d like to do it in the best conditions we can. And at the moment, we don’t have the best conditions.”

Johnatan Reiss contributed reporting.

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