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Israel ordered evacuations in eastern Gaza on Thursday as heavy attacks hit the region, leaving scores of people dead, according to Palestinian officials and residents. Those in the area described a desperate scramble to escape amid ongoing explosions.

The Israeli military did not immediately comment on the strikes, which reportedly targeted the Shajaiye neighborhood, an area badly damaged by previous intense fighting. Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, noted that the military was conducting a ground operation to eliminate Hamas, based on intelligence suggesting the group was regaining control of the neighborhood.

A witness from a human rights organization reported seeing Israeli tanks on the outskirts of Shajaiye.

If confirmed, this operation would mark another case of Israeli forces returning to parts of Gaza they had previously vacated, particularly in the north, as Hamas regroups amid the chaos of the nine-month conflict. The war continues despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims that it will soon transition to a less intense phase, and amid growing frustration over Netanyahu’s lack of a post-Hamas governance plan for Gaza.

Gaza health authorities reported 15 deaths and dozens wounded in Shajaiye on Thursday. The Palestinian emergency service, the Civil Defense, said five homes were hit in Shajaiye and another neighborhood, and a search for the missing was ongoing. These figures cannot be independently verified, and Gaza authorities do not distinguish between civilian casualties and combatants.

A Palestinian boy injured in the attacks was treated at a Gaza City hospital.

Mohammed Qraiqea, a researcher for the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor in Shajaiye, described continuous artillery bombardment, airstrikes and drone fire throughout the afternoon.

“The tanks advanced slightly on the outskirts of the neighborhood,” he reported, adding that most residents had been evacuated due to heavy shelling.

Israeli troops invaded northern Gaza in October following a Hamas-led attack on Israel, seizing control of the area and pushing south toward Hamas strongholds. However, they have not yet completely defeated the armed group. Shajaiye, a large neighborhood in Gaza City, is known to house a strong Hamas battalion, although the current extent of Hamas’ presence is unclear.

Hamas has used Gaza’s urban environment to protect its fighters and infrastructure, building tunnels, firing rockets near homes and holding hostages in urban centers. Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, said the group intended to protect Palestinian civilians.

Shajaiye was a battlefield early in the war, with nine Israeli soldiers killed there in December on a particularly deadly day for Israeli forces.

Some residents had returned to Shajaiye in recent months as Israeli forces focused on southern Gaza. Mohammad al-Bahrawi, 65, who returned with his family in March, was forced to flee again Thursday because of the attacks. He described the mass exodus as “like a torrent.”

“I couldn’t believe so many people were still in Shajaiye,” he said.

Al-Bahrawi was unaware of the Israeli evacuation orders posted on social media.

“We left by the mercy of God,” he said, recounting the sound of explosions coming from all directions.

When the explosions seemed to have subsided, al-Bahrawi and his family went to the courtyard of Ahli Arab hospital, where they saw some of the wounded being pulled from the rubble.

At the hospital they waited, “sitting there until God helped us and we found an apartment to stay in,” he said.

Myra Novec contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

— Hiba Yazbek and Ameera Harouda report from Jerusalem and Doha, Qatar

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