Gaza airstrike hit as displaced gathered for soccer match, witnesses say

Gaza airstrike hit as displaced gathered for soccer match, witnesses say A Palestinian woman holds her daughter as she walks past the rubble of houses destroyed during the Israeli military offensive, amid Israel-Hamas conflict, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip July 10, 2024. REUTERS/Hatem Khaled

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Hatem Khaled

CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) -An Israeli missile slammed into a tent encampment in southern Gaza on Tuesday just as displaced people had gathered to watch a football match at a school, eyewitnesses said on Wednesday.

At least 29 people, mostly women and children, were killed in the strike, according to Palestinian officials, which took place as spectators crowded the school grounds in Abassan east of Khan Younis and hawkers sold smoothies and biscuits.

"They were watching a football match. There were injuries and martyrs. I witnessed this...people thrown around and body parts scattered, blood," a young woman, Ghazzal Nasser, told Reuters in Abassan.

"Everything was normal. People were playing, others were buying and selling (food and drinks). There was no sound of planes or anything," she said.

The Israeli military said it was reviewing reports that civilians were harmed. It said the incident occurred when it struck with "precise munition" a Hamas fighter who took part in the Oct. 7 raid on Israel that triggered the war.

The military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it knew a football match was going on when the strike was ordered.

At the nearby Nasser Hospital, dozens of Palestinians bid farewell to loved ones before funerals and burials.

"The schools were overcrowded with people and the street was full too, suddenly a missile hit and destroyed the whole place," said Asmaa Qudeih, who lost some relatives in the attack.

"Bodies flew in the wind, body parts flew, I don't know how to describe it," she said.

Israeli forces continued to press their offensive in north and central Gaza on Wednesday, and deepened their incursion into two Gaza City districts. Soldiers carried out house-to-house searches in some areas and tanks shelled several homes, according to residents.

The militant group Hamas said the renewed Israeli campaign threatened to derail efforts to secure a ceasefire in the nine-month-old war, with talks to resume in Doha on Wednesday.

Leaflets were dropped on Gaza City, this time with a map marking "safe routes" for the evacuation of the whole city, not just certain districts. The Israeli leaflets urge civilians to head south along two routes to the central Gaza Strip.

The city, home to more than a quarter of Gaza's population before the war, was destroyed by an Israeli assault in the first weeks of fighting last year, but hundreds of thousands of Gazans are believed to have returned to the ruins in recent months.

Israeli forces patrolled the main road to the coast, snipers commandeered rooftops of some high-rise buildings still standing, and tanks were stationed inside the headquarters of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, residents said.

The Israeli military said in a statement its forces were continuing operations in Gaza City against militants of Hamas and its ally Islamic Jihad, who they said had operated from inside the UNRWA facilities, using them as a base for attacks.

"After a defined corridor was opened to facilitate the evacuation of civilians from the area, IDF troops conducted a targeted raid on the structure, eliminated terrorists in close-quarters combat, and located large amounts of weapons in the area," the military said.

CALLS FOR HELP

The Palestinian Red Crescent said it had received dozens of desperate calls from residents in Gaza City trapped in their homes but their teams were unable to reach them because of the intensity of the bombing.

"The information coming from Gaza City shows residents are living through tragic conditions. (Israeli) occupation forces continue to hit residential districts, and displace people from their homes and refuge shelters," it said in a statement.

The armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad said fighters fought with Israeli forces operating in the area with anti-tank rockets and mortar bombs, and sometimes in close-range combat.

The Israeli military announced that one of its soldiers was killed in fighting on Tuesday in central Gaza. The Israeli military has published the names of 681 military personnel killed in the Oct. 7 attacks and subsequent fighting.

Israel's Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, said on Wednesday that 60% of the fighters of Hamas had been killed or wounded as a result of the military offensive in Gaza.

In the central Gaza camp of Al-Nuseirat, medics said six Palestinians, including children, were killed in an airstrike on a house early on Wednesday, while another airstrike killed two people and wounded several others in Khan Younis.

More than 38,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, health officials in the Hamas-run territory said.

The war erupted when militants led by Hamas infiltrated southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostages back to Gaza, according to Israeli figures.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo and Hatem Khaled in Abassan and Khan Younis; Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in Jerusalem and Clauda Tanios in DubaiWriting by Ros RussellEditing by Peter Graff)

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