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Israeli military tells Palestinians not to return to north Gaza after witnesses say troops killed 5

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The Israeli military renewed warnings on Monday for Palestinians not to return to northern Gaza, a day after witnesses and medical officials said Israeli troops opened fire and killed five people among throngs of displaced residents trying to walk back to their homes in the devastated area.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from the north after Israeli forces first launched their offensive there soon after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. In the months of fighting since, vast parts of the north have been flattened, including much of Gaza City. After months of Israeli restrictions on aid to the north, some 300,000 who remained there are on the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

Still, many Palestinians have wanted to go back, saying they are sick of the conditions they endured in displacement. For months, families have been crammed into tent camps, schools-turned-shelters and homes of relatives throughout the south of the Gaza Strip. Some also fear remaining in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town, as Israel says it plans to attack it eventually to root out Hamas.

Late Monday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met with top officials to work on preparations for the Rafah invasion, his office said. The international community, including the United States, have voice strong objections to the planned offensive, saying it will endanger the estimated 1.4 million Palestinians sheltered in Rafah.

Gallant’s office said Monday’s meeting included plans for evacuating civilians and expanding deliveries of food and medical equipment to Gaza.

Israel, which has reduced the number of its troops across Gaza, has repeatedly rejected calls to let Palestinians back to the north of the territory, saying Hamas militants continue to operate there. The military says it has loosened the militants’ control over the north, but it is still carrying out airstrikes and raids against what it says are reorganizing militants. Last month, Israeli troops raided Gaza’s main hospital, Shifa, in two weeks of fighting that left the facility in ruins. Israeli military spokesman Avichay Adraee wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that Palestinians should stay in southern Gaza because the north is a “dangerous combat zone.” People appeared to be heeding the new warning, especially after Sunday’s shootings.

On Sunday, thousands of Palestinians tried going up Gaza’s coastal road back to the north, most on foot and some on the backs of donkey carts. Some said they had heard rumors that Israeli troops were allowing people to enter the north.

“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 among those trying to return home.

Several witnesses said Israeli troops opened fire as the crowds neared checkpoints at Wadi Gaza, the line that the military has drawn separating northern Gaza from the rest of the territory. Five people were killed and 54 wounded, according to officials at nearby Awda Hospital in central Gaza, where the casualties were brought.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment. It was not clear what triggered the shooting.

Farida Al-Ghoul, 27, said that as she and her family neared the checkpoint, she saw a woman rushing back with blood on her telling them not to continue. Ignoring her, they kept going ahead, but soon there was heavy gunfire and shelling around them. She said she saw Israeli troops shooting.

She and another witness said the troops were letting some women and children through to go north but opened fire when some young men tried to pass.

“People on the side were falling down,” al-Ghoul said. “When we saw these scenes, we decided to turn back and never try again.”

Karam Abu Jasser said he, his wife and four children, were among the crowd and they heard gunshots and shelling from up ahead at the checkpoint. “People were panicked, especially women and children. There were many women and children. We ran away,” Abu Jasser said, speaking from a shelter in central Gaza.

He said his family wanted to return home to the Jabalia refugee camp in the north, even though they know their house was hit and damaged.

“We’ll have to live in a tent, but it will be at our home,” he said. “There is bombing everywhere in Gaza. If we will die, it’s better to die in our home.”

The return of the population to northern Gaza has been a key sticking point between Israel and Hamas in negotiations underway for a cease-fire deal that would bring the release of hostages taken by Hamas in the Oct. 7 attack.

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, a full withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza and an end to the war.

“The permanent ceasefire is the only guarantee to protect our people and stop the flow of blood and massacres,” Izzat al-Risheq, a top Hamas official, said in a statement.

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, often in tents and with little food 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. Women and children make up around two-thirds of the dead, according to the ministry, whose count doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants.

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

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