Gaza City: Thousands of Palestinians fled to southern Gaza in search of refuge Friday after Israel warned them to evacuate before an expected ground offensive against Hamas in retaliation for the deadliest attack in Israel’s history.
The call to get out came six days after Hamas gunmen burst through the heavily militarised border around the Gaza Strip and killed more than 1,300 people - most of them civilians - in an attack compared to 9/11 in the United States.
Nearly 1,800 Gazans - again most of them civilians and including over 580 children - have been killed in waves of missile strikes on the densely populated enclave, the health ministry said.
Hamas, proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and Europe, took an estimated 150 Israeli, foreign and dual-national hostages back to Gaza during its initial attack, according to Israel.
The militant group on Friday said 13 of them had been killed in Israeli air strikes. It has previously said four hostages died in bombardments, complicating any Israeli ground offensive.
Germany Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, visiting Jerusalem on Friday, said Hamas was using residents as a “shield”.
Tensions meanwhile rose across the Middle East and beyond, with protests in support of the Palestinians, while Israel faced the threat of a separate confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In the occupied West Bank, at least nine Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire during protests supporting Gaza, taking the toll there to 44 since Saturday, the health ministry said.
In Gaza, UN officials said the Israeli military, whose troops are massing at the border, had told them the evacuation should be carried out “within the next 24 hours”.
It later admitted it would take more time, however, and did not confirm it had set the deadline.
But the United Nations described the immediate movement of some 1.1 million people - nearly half of the 2.4 million in the Gaza Strip - “impossible”.
It urgently appealed for the order to be rescinded. Aid agencies have warned mass evacuations would stretch support to the limit, as fuel, food and water dwindled due to an Israeli blockade.
Hospitals are struggling to cope with the dead and wounded from the relentless bombardment, and the health system was already “at a breaking point”, the World Health Organisation said.
Ashraf Al Qudra, from the Gaza health ministry, said hospitals were “starting to lose capacity” and medicine was running out.
In Jordan, after a meeting with visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, King Abdullah II called for “humanitarian corridors” to be opened urgently.
Elizabeth El Nakla, the mother-in-law of Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf, said in a video from Gaza that he posted online that people had nowhere to go.
“One million people no food no water, and still they are bombing them as they leave. Where are we going to put them?” she said.
“This will be my last video. Everybody from Gaza is moving towards where we are,” added Nakla, who was visiting relatives in Gaza from Scotland.
“May God help us.”
AFP correspondents in Gaza said the Israeli military on Friday dropped flyers warning residents to flee “immediately” south of Wadi Gaza, with a map pointing south across a line in the centre of the 40 kilometre-long territory.
The army said it “will continue to operate significantly in Gaza City and make extensive efforts to avoid harming civilians”.
“Hamas terrorists are hiding in Gaza City inside tunnels underneath houses and inside buildings populated with innocent civilians.”
AFP correspondents said there were “heavy strikes” in the northern Gaza Strip on Friday morning, including Al-Shati refugee camp and Gaza City, primarily targeting residential buildings.
The Hamas media office reported Israeli air raids on Khan Yunis and Rafah in the south.
Israel’s army said its “fighter jets struck 750 military targets in the northern Gaza Strip overnight” including “residences of senior terrorist operatives used as military command centres”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to “crush” Hamas, and has likened the group to the so-called Islamic State.
Hamas has said Palestinians rejected the evacuation request yet thousands of Gazans were on the move in search of safety, carrying plastic bags of belongings, suitcases on their shoulders and children in their arms.
Some walked while others drove, with belongings strapped to the roofs of their trucks, cars and carts pulled by donkeys.
More than 423,000 people have already fled their homes in the territory of 2.4 million, according to the UN, which said the evacuation order could turn “already a tragedy into a calamitous situation”.
Gaza has been under a land, air and sea blockade since 2006 and Israel has vowed not to turn back on water, food and power supplies until all hostages are freed.
Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt condemned the siege while Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit said Israel’s evacuation order is a “forced transfer” that constitutes “a crime”.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said it will be “tantamount to a second Nakba” or “catastrophe”, referring to the 760,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 war that coincided with Israel’s creation.
Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh accused Israel of committing “genocide” in Gaza.
Hamas has threatened to kill captives if Israel bombs civilian targets without advance warning.
Israel has called up 300,000 reservists while forces, tanks and heavy weapons have been moved to the southern desert area around Gaza, an AFP correspondent reported.
In fields along the border, artillery fires like clockwork with a deafening noise every 30 seconds towards barely visible targets in Gaza, shaking the earth.
Israeli soldiers have swept the southern towns and kibbutz farming communities since Saturday.
They said they found the bodies of 1,500 militants, as well as large numbers of civilians killed by Hamas fighters.
Yossi Landau, who has 33 years’ volunteer experience with Zaka, which recovers the bodies of people who suffered unnatural deaths, said in Beeri, just north of Gaza, he found a dead woman with her stomach “ripped open, a baby was there, still connected with the cord, and stabbed”.
They were among more than 100 people killed in Beeri, while around 270 were gunned down or burned in their cars at the nearby Supernova music festival.
Hamas has denied that its fighters killed infants.
Israel faces a potential second front in the north after the Iran-backed Hezbollah group in Lebanon said it was “fully prepared” to join Hamas in the war when the time was right.
There has been cross-border fire in recent days, sparking concern about regional stability and prompting the United States to send additional munitions and its largest aircraft carrier.
US President Joe Biden has warned other regional powers not to get involved. Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin told Israel Friday US support was “iron-clad”.
Israel’s arch foe Iran has long financially and militarily backed Hamas and praised its attack, but insists it was not involved.
The Washington Post reported that US and Qatari officials have agreed to prevent Iran from using a $6 billion humanitarian assistance fund, following the Hamas attack.
But an Iranian official said the US “can NOT renege on the agreement.”