RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants on Wednesday near the main hospital in Gaza’s second-largest city of Khan Younis, where medics said hundreds of patients and thousands of displaced people were unable to leave because of the fighting.

Israel has ordered residents to leave a swath of downtown Khan Younis that includes Nasser and two smaller hospitals as it pushes ahead with its 3-month-old offensive against Hamas. The United Nations humanitarian office said the area was home to 88,000 Palestinians and was hosting another 425,000 displaced by fighting elsewhere.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders said its staff was trapped inside Nasser Hospital with some 850 patients and thousands of displaced people because the surrounding roads were inaccessible or too dangerous. Nasser Hospital is one of only two hospitals in southern Gaza that can still treat critically ill patients, the group said. Gaza’s Health Ministry also said the hospital had been isolated.

The Israeli military said its forces were battling militants inside Khan Younis after completing their encirclement of the city the day before. It said aircraft were striking targets as part of the operations there and had also targeted suspected militants in central and northern Gaza.

Thousands of people fled south from Khan Younis on Tuesday toward the town of Rafah. The U.N. says some 1.5 million people — around two-thirds of Gaza’s population — are crowded into shelters and tent camps in and around Rafah, which is on the border with Egypt.

Even there, Palestinians have found little safety, with Israel regularly carrying out strikes in and around the town. Palestinian witnesses said that in recent days Israeli soldiers and tanks had pushed into parts of Muwasi, a sandy area along the coast that Israel had declared a safe zone, where tens of thousands of people were living in tents without basic services.

In all, some 1.7 million people have been displaced within Gaza, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Most have fled from the north, where Israel’s air and ground offensive has reduced entire neighborhoods to shelled-out wastelands, raising the question of whether residents will ever be able to return.

At least 210 Palestinians have been killed in the last 24 hours, bringing the total death toll from the war to 25,700, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Its count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, but it says most of the dead are women and children.

Another 386 Palestinians have been wounded over the past day, bringing the total to 63,740 and adding more strain to already overwhelmed hospitals, the ministry said. U.N. officials have expressed fears that even more people could die from disease, with at least one-quarter of the population facing starvation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with the offensive until “complete victory” against Hamas, which started the war with its assault across the border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people in Israel and abducting another 250.

Netanyahu says Israel is also committed to returning the over 100 hostages that remain in captivity after most of the others were freed in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners during a November cease-fire.

But many Israelis, including at least one member of Netanyahu’s War Cabinet, say that’s impossible without reaching another agreement with Hamas. The militant group says it won’t release any more hostages until Israel ends its offensive.

Families of the hostages are also calling for a deal, and have staged increasingly aggressive protests against Israel’s leaders, even interrupting a parliamentary committee meeting Monday. Egypt and Qatar were working on a new agreement, but officials say the gap between the two sides is still wide.

In Israel, bitter political divisions that were set aside after the Oct. 7 attack have begun to reemerge, with Netanyahu facing widespread anger and protests over the failure to prevent the attack and the plight of the hostages.

Hamas is still attacking Israeli forces, even in some of the most devastated areas, and firing rockets into Israel. An attack Monday near the border killed 21 Israeli soldiers as they were preparing explosives for a controlled demolition. It was the military’s biggest loss of life in a single attack since Oct. 7.

Israeli media said the troops were working to create an informal buffer zone about a kilometer (half a mile) wide along the border to prevent militants from attacking Israeli communities near Gaza. Two TV channels ran footage showing what appeared to be a controlled demolition of several structures near the border, which the broadcasters said was done in the area of the attack.

Satellite images from Planet Labs PBC taken last Saturday — before the attack — appeared to show the uniform destruction of buildings and agricultural fields in the area.

Military spokespeople have not used the term “buffer zone,” but say troops are uprooting militant infrastructure near the border in order to provide security for Israeli communities on the other side.

The United States, which has provided essential military and diplomatic support for the offensive, has said it is opposed to any attempt by Israel to shrink Gaza’s territory.

But President Joe Biden’s administration has also urged Israel to scale back military operations and facilitate the delivery of more aid — with limited success. And Netanyahu has outright rejected calls from the U.S. and much of the international community for postwar plans that include the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

Lidman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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