By Fadi Shana, Nidal Al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams
GAZA/DOHA/JERUSALEM - Israeli forces relentlessly bombarded areas around two hospitals in Gaza's main southern city Khan Younis on Thursday, pinning down large numbers of displaced people, residents said, in an offensive to take Hamas' main stronghold in the enclave's south.
Gaza health officials said at least 50 Palestinians had been killed in Khan Younis in the past 24 hours, including two children in an Israeli air strike that hit a residential home.
The city is now encircled by Israeli armoured forces and under almost non-stop aerial and ground fire, residents say.
Palestinian medics said Israeli tanks had cut off and were shelling targets around the city's two main still-functioning hospitals, Nasser and Al-Amal, trapping medical teams, patients and displaced people sheltering inside or nearby.
Most of the Gaza Strip's 2.3 million population is now squeezed into Khan Younis and towns just north and south of it, after being driven out of its northern half earlier in Israel's blitz of the Hamas-ruled territory, now in its fourth month.
Israeli forces' siege of Khan Younis' main hospitals, which Israel says Hamas militants use as bases for attacks - something the Islamist group and hospital staff deny - have made it near impossible for rescue crews to reach the wounded and dead.
The fusillade from advancing Israeli forces forced many displaced people to set out again in search of ever dwindling places of safe shelter, medics and residents said.
Residents had said on Wednesday that Israeli announcements warning them to leave areas in the line of fire came only after the operation was under way and the main road out of Khan Younis already shut.
On Wednesday, the United Nations said Israeli tanks struck a large U.N. compound in Gaza sheltering displaced Palestinians, killing at least nine people and wounding 75. But Israel denied its forces were responsible, suggesting Hamas might have launched the shelling. It said it was reviewing the incident.
Israel said Hamas had "command and control centres, outposts and security headquarters" in the vicinity, which it described as "a dense area" with civilians as well as the premises of several hospitals where it said militants were active.
At least 25,700 people have been killed in Gaza, one of the world's most densely populated and widely impoverished places, Palestinian health officials say, with large tracts of the heavily built-up enclave flattened by Israeli bombing.
Israel unleashed its war to eradicate Hamas after militants stormed through the border fence in a shock incursion into nearby Israeli towns and bases on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing around 240 hostages.
LIVES OF 1.5 MILLION PEOPLE ENDANGERED
The International Committee of the Red Cross said less than 20% of the narrow coastal enclave - around 60 square km (23 sq miles) - was now refuge to more than 1.5 million people in the south "where the dramatic escalation of fighting threatens their survival".
"Every hospital in the Gaza Strip is over-crowded and short on medical supplies, fuel, food and water. Many are housing thousands of displaced families. And now two more facilities (in Khan Younis) risk being lost due to the fighting. The cumulative impact on the health system is devastating and urgent action must be taken," the ICRC said in a statement.
Thomas White, director of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, on Thursday deplored Israel's military operations in neighbourhoods teeming with vulnerable civilians.
"Heavy fighting near the remaining hospitals in Khan Younis, including Nasser and Al Amal, has effectively encircled these facilities, leaving terrified staff, patients and displaced people trapped inside," he said in a statement.
"Al Khair hospital has shut down after patients, including women who had just undergone C-section surgeries, were evacuated in the middle of the night."
In north Gaza, residents said they had almost completely run out of food, especially flour, and have been grinding down livestock feed to replenish it.
The Israeli military said on Thursday it had killed more than 9,000 Hamas militants and lost 220 soldiers in 3-1/2-month-old war. Reuters was unable to verify the figures.
In its latest update, the Israeli military said forces had carried out targeted raids with precision air strikes and snipers to take out multiple Hamas command centres and militant emplacements in Khan Younis, including the Al Amal district.
"In close-quarters combat, the soldiers eliminated the terrorists, and various weapons were discovered in the process," it said in a statement.
Israeli forces also raided several militant compounds in central and north Gaza, in one case calling in a helicopter gunship to strike and kill fighters inside, the statement added.
Gaza's conflict threaten to destabilise the Middle East, stoking hostilities ranging from the Israeli-occupied West Bank to the Israel-Lebanon border region, Syria, Iraq and Red Sea shipping lanes crucial to international trade.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry that exercises limited self rule there, said at least 370 people had been killed in Israeli army raids or clashes since Oct. 7.
On Thursday, health officials said Israeli forces shot dead a 24-year-old Palestinian man in a village near Jenin after soldiers surrounded the man's family house and a shootout broke out, according to the dead man's family.
Further away in the Red Sea, Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi forces have since November been attacking shipping in professed solidarity with Palestinians against Israel's onslaught in Gaza.
In the latest Red Sea incident, Maersk (MAERSKb.CO)
, opens new tab said explosions nearby forced two ships operated by its U.S. subsidiary and carrying U.S. military supplies to turn around when they were transiting the Bab al-Mandab Strait off Yemen, accompanied by the U.S. Navy.