Europe 1 with AFP 06:43, 07 December 2023

On the 62nd day of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, fighting continues in the town of Khan Younis between the IDF and terrorists. For its part, the UN fears a "total collapse of law and order soon", while nearly 85% of Gaza's population has been displaced since the October 7 attack.

Fierce fighting continued Thursday in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and the Israeli army, which has captured the major city of Khan Younis where it is hunting down the architect of the bloody October 7 attack on Israel. Predicting a "total collapse of law and order soon" in Gaza, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres again called for a humanitarian ceasefire, drawing a stinging rejection from Israel. The Israeli government, however, has authorized the delivery of a "minimal supplement" of fuel to Gaza to avoid a "humanitarian collapse" and epidemics.

Since 27 October, Israel has been engaged in a ground offensive against Hamas in northern Gaza, in parallel with its campaign of massive air strikes, and has extended its ground operations to the whole of the small, overpopulated Palestinian territory. The civilian population is being forced to move to an increasingly cramped perimeter in Rafah, along the Egyptian border. In Khan Younis, the largest city in the southern Gaza Strip, Israeli infantry, armored vehicles and bulldozers reached the city center, witnesses said. The Israeli military claimed Wednesday night to have "broken through the defensive lines" of Hamas, "eliminated a number of terrorists" and destroyed about "30 tunnel entrances."

As night fell, thick clouds of black smoke and flames continued to rise from Gaza. During the day, trails drawn by rockets fired towards Israel from Rafah, in the south of the small Palestinian territory, also dotted the sky.

"Sinwar is hiding underground"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli forces were "encircling the house of (Yahya) Sinwar," the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, in Khan Younis. "Sinwar is hiding underground," army spokesman Daniel Hagari later said, referring to Hamas' tunnels under Gaza. Yahya Sinwar, 61, 23 of whom have been in Israeli prisons, is considered the architect of the unprecedented attack on October 7, when hundreds of Hamas commandos infiltrated into Israel from Gaza killed 1,200 people, the majority of them civilians according to Israeli authorities, and took some 240 people hostage.

According to the Israeli government, 138 hostages are still being held in Gaza, following the release in late November under a seven-day truce of 105 abductees, including 80 in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Yahya Sinwar has not been seen publicly in Gaza since 7 October. Three Israeli soldiers were killed in action in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, according to the army.

The Israeli army also announced the discovery in the north of the territory, "in the heart of the civilian population", near a clinic and a school, of "a very large weapons depot" as "further proof" of Hamas' use of "human shields". It also said it had killed "half of the commanders" of Hamas so far. On its Telegram channel, the Palestinian Islamist movement claimed that its armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, "is fighting violently against the occupation forces on all lines of incursion into the Gaza Strip."

'Disastrous' conditions

"The whole city is under constant destruction and shelling. Many people are coming from the north in dire conditions, without shelter, looking for their children," Hassan Al-Qadi, a resident of Khan Younis who was displaced further south in Rafah, a town on the border with Egypt, told AFP. Faced with the death toll mounting, the lack of food and the thousands of displaced people left destitute, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of a "total collapse of law and order soon" in Gaza.

For the first time in his term, Guterres used a rare procedure, Article 99 of the UN Charter, which allows him to "draw the attention" of the Security Council to a case that "could endanger the maintenance of international peace and security". According to several diplomats, the Security Council is expected to meet on Friday to consider the call. "Guterres' mandate is a danger to world peace," Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen retorted on X (ex-Twitter), adding that the activation of Article 99 and the call for a ceasefire "constitute support for the terrorist organization Hamas."

According to Hamas, 16,248 people, more than 70 percent of them women, children and teenagers, have been killed since October 27 in the Gaza Strip by Israeli shelling launched in retaliation for the October 7 attack.

"Minimum" Fuel Delivery

Israel has vowed to destroy the Palestinian Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza since 2007, and is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel. The Israeli government, however, on Wednesday approved a "minimum delivery of fuel — necessary to avoid a humanitarian collapse and the outbreak of epidemics — in the southern Gaza Strip," the prime minister's office announced on X. The quantity delivered will be "determined as we go along" depending on the humanitarian situation, he added.

The Israeli announcement comes two days after its main ally, the United States, called for more fuel to enter Gaza. According to the UN, 1.9 million people, or about 85 percent of the population, have been displaced by the war in the Gaza Strip, where more than half of homes have been destroyed or damaged by Israeli bombardment. The UN has calculated that 30 percent of the territory is now under Israel's daily evacuation orders, and deems it "impossible" to set up safe areas to accommodate civilians fleeing the fighting.

The city of Rafah, on the border with Egypt, is the only place where humanitarian aid is still being distributed, in limited quantities, according to the UN. On Wednesday, 80 trucks carrying food and fuel reached the airport, compared to an average of 170 per day during the truce in force from 24 to 30 November and 500 before 7 October, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its daily briefing.

Palestinians who fled Khan Younis, less than 10 kilometers away, have set up a makeshift camp — tents with canvas, plastic sheeting, wooden slats. For their survival: branches picked up here and there to make fire, semolina in bowls for their only food. Displaced people wander around with their jerry cans in search of water. "We arrived here without shelter, it rained on us last night, there is no food, no bread, no flour," Ghassan Bakr told AFP.

"We are devastated, mentally overwhelmed," said Amal Mahdi, who survived a raid. "We need someone to support us, to find a solution to get us out of this situation."