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Israel orders Gaza City residents to leave as fighting escalates

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — The Israeli military urged all Palestinians to leave Gaza City and head south Wednesday, pressing ahead with a fresh offensive across the north, south and center of the embattled territory.

The stepped-up military activity came as U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators met with Israeli officials in the Qatari capital, Doha, for talks seeking a cease-fire deal with Gaza’s Hamas terrorist group in exchange for the release of dozens of Israeli hostages it is holding.

Israel says it is pursuing Hamas terrorists that are regrouping in various parts of Gaza nine months into the war.

In a visit Wednesday to central Gaza, Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said forces were operating in different ways, in multiple parts of the territory “to carry out a very important mission: pressure. We will continue operating to bring home the hostages.”

Israel informed people in Gaza of the evacuation order by dropping leaflets urging “all those in Gaza City” to take two “safe routes” south to the area around the central town of Deir al-Balah. Gaza City, it said, will “remain a dangerous combat zone.”

The United Nations says about 300,000 Palestinians have remained in the north, with the bulk of those said to be in Gaza City. There was no immediate mass exodus from the city following Wednesday’s order.

The military, meanwhile, said it wrapped up an operation launched late last month in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah, where it killed dozens of terrorists and destroyed eight underground tunnels.

In other developments:

— Hezbollah’s top leader Hassan Nasrallah said Wednesday that the Lebanese terrorist group will support Hamas in whatever decision the Palestinian group makes during negotiations with Israel for a cease-fire in Gaza. “What satisfies Hamas, satisfies us all,” Nasrallah said, adding that he’s made this point clear during regular meetings with Hamas officials.

— A slight majority of Israelis, 56 percent, supports ending the war in Gaza as part of a cease-fire deal that would free all hostages held by Hamas, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think-tank. The survey of 850 Israelis had a margin of error of 3.85 percent.

— A U.S. official says the head of the agency overseeing American foreign humanitarian and development aid will visit Israel on Thursday to address security concerns around aid workers and aid distribution in Gaza. The Israeli military said on Wednesday the United Nations, the main organization responsible for delivering aid in Gaza, must step up their ability to receive and distribute aid.

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