July 18, 2024

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Israel pounds southern Gaza after US warning on civilian deaths

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Israel has ordered Palestinians in Gaza to evacuate a large area of land in the south of the strip, while stepping up an aerial bombardment that has killed hundreds of people since a fragile truce with Hamas broke down on Friday.

The evacuation order appeared to signal a possible new ground offensive in and near Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city and now the largest population centre in the south. Leaflets have been dropped from warplanes and mass text messages warned of heavy military activity to come.

The fighting escalated even after US officials, from secretary of defence Lloyd Austin to vice-president Kamala Harris, warned Israel to take more steps to protect civilians in Gaza. The US pays for as much as a fifth of Israel’s defence budget — $3.8bn a year — under an Obama-administration agreement.

“In this kind of a fight, the centre of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” Austin said in a speech to the Reagan National Defense Forum in California this weekend.

Asked on Sunday about the US concerns, Eylon Levy, Israeli government spokesperson, said: “We completely agree that far too many people have been killed in this war. It’s a sad fact that everyone who has been killed since October 7 . . . would still be alive if Hamas had not decided to launch this war.”

Responding to Harris’s comments that the civilian death toll in Gaza was too high, Levy insisted that “the Israeli army has made every effort [in] upholding our obligations under international law to get civilians out of harm’s way”.

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