Israeli Military Renews Warnings to Palestinians Not to Return to War-Torn Northern Gaza

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) -- The Israeli military renewed warnings on Monday for Palestinians in Gaza not to return to the embattled territory's north, a day after Gaza hospital officials said five people were killed as throngs of displaced residents tried to reach their homes in the war-torn area.

Northern Gaza was an early target of Israel's war against Hamas and vast parts of it have been flattened, forcing much of the area's population to flee south. While around 250,000 people are said to be living in the north, the Israeli military has prevented most displaced people from returning throughout the six-month-long war, saying the area is an active battle zone.

The military has reduced the number of troops it has in Gaza and has said it has loosened Hamas' control over the north, but Israel is still carrying out airstrikes and targeted operations in the area against what it says are reorganizing militants, most prominently at Gaza's main hospital, Shifa, which is in ruins after a two-week raid and fighting last month.

Israeli military spokesman Avichay Adraee wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that Palestinians should stay in southern Gaza, where they have been told to shelter, because the north is a "dangerous combat zone."

People appeared to be heeding the new warning, especially after the violence on Sunday.

Hospital authorities in Gaza said that five people were killed by Israeli forces while trying to travel north to their homes. Their bodies were taken to the Awda hospital in the urban Nuseirat camp in central Gaza, hospital records showed. A further 54 were wounded in the incident, the records showed.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment and the precise circumstances behind the deaths were not immediately clear.

Anaam Mohammad, who was displaced from the northern city of Beit Hanoun and was trying to return, said the military was allowing women and children to cross, but when a group of Palestinians did not make room for them to pass, two tanks arrived and opened fire. Forces also threw smoke bombs, dispersing the crowd.

"People started to run away. People were afraid and could not take the risk and enter a dangerous area," she said.

Ahead of the violence Sunday, throngs of people crowded a coastal road and moved north by foot and donkey cart. The returnees said they were prompted to make the dangerous journey because they were fed up with the difficult conditions they are forced to live under while displaced.

"We want our homes. We want our lives. We want to return, whether with a truce or without a truce," said Um Nidhal Khatab, who was displaced from the north.

Northern Gaza and the return of its population is a key sticking point between Israel and Hamas in negotiations underway to try to bring about a cease-fire in exchange for the release of hostages taken by the militant group. Israel wants to try to delay the return to prevent militants from regrouping in the north, while Hamas says it wants a free flow of returnees.

The war has had a staggering toll on civilians in Gaza, with most of the territory's 2.3 million people displaced by the fighting and living in dire circumstances, with little food and often in tents and no end in sight to their misery. Large swaths of the urban landscape have been damaged or destroyed, leaving many displaced Palestinians with nowhere to return to.

Six months of fighting in Gaza have pushed the tiny Palestinian territory into a humanitarian crisis, leaving more than 1 million people on the brink of starvation.

Famine is said to be imminent in the hard-hit north, where aid has struggled to reach because of the fighting. Israel has opened a new crossing for aid trucks into the north as it ramps up aid deliveries to the besieged enclave. However, the United Nations says the surge of aid is not being felt in Gaza because of persistent distribution difficulties.

The U.N. food agency on Monday said it managed to deliver fuel and wheat flour to a bakery in isolated Gaza City in the north for the first time since the war started.

The conflict started on Oct. 7, when Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, in a surprise attack and incursion into southern Israel. Around 250 people were seized as hostages by the militants and taken to Gaza. A deal in November freed about 100 hostages, leaving about 130 in captivity, although Israel says about a quarter of those are dead.

Israeli bombardments and ground offensives in Gaza have killed more than 33,700 Palestinians and wounded over 76,200, the Gaza Health Ministry says. The ministry doesn't differentiate between civilians and combatants in its tally, but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.

Israel says it has killed over 12,000 militants during the war, but it has not provided evidence to back up the claim.