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The head of Israel’s military said it was prepared to expand its ground operation beyond northern Gaza, as the UN warned against attempts to corral the population into a “safe zone” in the south-west of the territory.

Herzi Halevi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said Israel was “close to dismantling” Hamas’s military capabilities in northern Gaza and that it was ready to carry out operations in other parts of the strip.

“While there remains work to be completed [in northern Gaza], we are approaching it successfully,” Halevi said in remarks published on Friday. “The IDF will continue in its operations within the strip, and as far as we are concerned, more and more regions [will be targeted].”

Halevi’s comments came a day after the Israeli military dropped thousands of leaflets over some neighbourhoods in Khan Younis in southern Gaza urging civilians to evacuate their homes, and as aid groups warned that the mass displacement of civilians was exacerbating a humanitarian catastrophe.

Ahead of its ground invasion of Gaza last month, Israel urged the more than 1mn people living in the north of the coastal enclave to move south “for their safety”, and said it would set up a “safe zone” in Muwasi, a 14 sq km area in the south-west where humanitarian aid would be provided.

A Palestinian boy sits in a car trunk with belongings
More than 1.5mn of Gaza’s 2.3mn people have been forcibly displaced from their homes since the start of the war © Mohammed Salem/Reuters

But a group of UN agencies said on Thursday they would not participate in any safe zones that were set up without the agreement of all parties, warning that they could exacerbate humanitarian risks for civilians.

“Under the prevalent conditions, proposals to unilaterally create a safe zone in Gaza risk creating harm for civilians and large-scale loss of life and must be rejected,” the heads of some 20 UN and other humanitarian agencies said in a joint statement.

“Concentrating civilians in such zones in the context of active hostilities can raise the risk of attack and additional harm. No safe zone is truly safe when it is declared unilaterally or enforced by the presence of armed forces.”

More than 1.5mn of Gaza’s 2.3mn people have been forcibly displaced from their homes since the start of the war, with the UN warning that 813,000 of them were staying in overcrowded shelters, which it said was leading to the spread of diseases, including acute respiratory illnesses and diarrhoea.

The official said Israel and the US were pushing for the safe zone and Washington was “packaging the proposal as a humanitarian solution” because UN schools serving as shelters for displaced Palestinians were overcrowded and people were sleeping in the open even as rains fell and temperatures dropped.

“In discussions with the US we have warned against a Nakba 2,” said the UN official referring to the Arabic term for “catastrophe”, which Palestinians use to describe their mass displacement during the 1948 war that followed the creation of Israel.

“We do not believe the Israelis will allow those displaced from the north to go back,” said the official. “Now they say they are looking for Hamas leaders in the south so they want to push people out.”

The official said the proposals were making Egypt “very nervous” because conditions in any “safe zone” would be likely to deteriorate in the medium term, leading “those who can afford it” to seek entry into Egypt. Cairo has been adamant it was not prepared to host an influx of Palestinian refugees driven out of Gaza.

Israel bombarded and then invaded Gaza last month after Hamas militants carried out the deadliest ever attack on the country, killing around 1,200 people and taking 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s operation to defeat Hamas has killed almost 11,500 people, according to Palestinian health officials, and its decision to severely restrict supplies of fuel, water and food to Gaza has forced most of its hospitals to stop working.

Cindy McCain, head of the World Food Programme, warned on Thursday that Gaza was in desperate need of food assistance and that more crossings into the strip should open to avert “the immediate possibility of starvation”.

“There is no way to meet current hunger needs with one operational border crossing. The only hope is opening another, safe passage for humanitarian access to bring life-saving food into Gaza.”

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