Palestinians fleeing Gaza City and other parts of northern Gaza towards the southern areas, walk on a road on November 8, 2023 amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. Image Credit: AFP

KHAN YOUNIS: Thousands more Palestinians have fled northern Gaza on foot, the UN said on Wednesday, as desperation grew over the dwindling supply of food and water, intensified shelling and the approach of Israeli troops and tanks.

Over 70 per cent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have already left their homes, but the number of people making their way south has quickened recently, as the war triggered by Hamas’ October 7 assault inside Israel entered its second month. With no end in sight to the fighting, an increasingly dire humanitarian situation is unfolding inside the besieged Palestinian enclave.

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International pressure mounted on Israel over the civilians’ plight, with the Group of Seven industrialized nations calling Wednesday for the “unimpeded” delivery of food, water, medicine and fuel, and for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far resisted such calls, while leaving open the possibility of smaller breaks in the fighting.

Israel has said its war to end Hamas’ rule and crush its military capabilities will be long and difficult, and that it will maintain some form of control over the coastal enclave indefinitely — though how it will achieve that remains unclear. Support for the war remains strong inside Israel , where the focus has been on the fate of the more than 240 hostages held by Hamas and other militant groups.

About 15,000 people fled northern Gaza on Tuesday — triple the number that left Monday — according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. They are using Gaza’s main north-south highway during a daily four-hour window announced by Israel.

Those fleeing include children, older people and people with disabilities, and most walked with minimal belongings, the UN agency said. Some say they had to cross Israeli checkpoints, where they saw people being arrested, while others held their hands in the air and raised white flags while passing Israeli tanks.

Aid is far short of mounting needs

Hundreds of trucks carrying aid have been allowed to enter Gaza from Egypt since October 21. But humanitarian workers say the aid is far short of mounting needs.

Residents reported loud explosions overnight into Wednesday across Gaza City and in its Shati refugee camp, which houses Palestinian families who fled from or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its establishment.

“The bombings were heavy and close,” said Mohammad Abed, who lives in Gaza City.

The army’s chief spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said late Tuesday that Israeli ground forces had reached “the depths of Gaza City.”

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The Israeli military said Wednesday that it killed one of Hamas’ leading developers of rockets and other weapons, without saying where he was killed.

Hamas has denied that Israeli troops have made any significant gains or entered Gaza City. It was not possible to independently confirm battlefield claims from either side.

Israel is focusing its operations on Gaza City, which was home to some 650,000 people before the war and where the military says Hamas has its central command and a vast labyrinth of tunnels.

Hundreds of thousands have heeded Israeli orders to flee the north in recent weeks, even though Israel also routinely strikes what it says are militant targets in the south, often killing civilians.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians remain in the north, however, many sheltering at hospitals or UN schools. The north has been without running water for weeks, and the UN aid office said the last functioning bakeries shut down on Tuesday for lack of fuel, water and flour. Hospitals running low on supplies are performing surgeries — including amputations — without anesthesia, it said.

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Majed Haroun, who lives in Gaza City, said women and children go door to door asking for food, while those in shelters rely on local donations.

Ameer Ghalban, who pushed an older relative in a wheelchair down Gaza’s main highway, said the two of them had each lived off one piece of bread a day for the past three. “The majority of people have left their land because the siege has become absolute in Gaza. We have no water, no electricity, and no flour,” he said.

The situation is little better in the south, where hundreds of thousands of displaced people are packed into makeshift shelters. At one, 600 people must share a single toilet, according to the UN office.

An airstrike in the southern town of Khan Younis early Wednesday destroyed a house and damaged others. First responders brought the bodies of six people pulled from the rubble, including two women and a child, to a nearby hospital, according to an Associated Press reporter who saw them arrive. The toll was expected to rise.

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A month of relentless bombardment in Gaza since the Hamas attack has killed more than 10,500 Palestinians — two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. More than 2,300 are believed to have been buried by strikes that in some cases have demolished entire city blocks.

More than 1,400 people have died in Israel since the start of the war, most of them civilians killed by Hamas militants during the October 7 incursion. Scores of hostages were also taken that day. Israel says 32 of its soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the ground offensive began, and Palestinian militants have continued to fire rockets into Israel on a daily basis.

Israeli officials say thousands of Palestinian militants have been killed, and blame civilian deaths on Hamas, accusing it of putting civilians at risk by operating in residential areas. Gaza’s Health Ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its casualty reports.

The war has stoked wider tensions , with Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group trading fire along the border. More than 160 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli-occupied West Bank since the war began, mainly during violent protests and gunbattles with Israeli forces during arrest raids. Some 250,000 Israelis have been forced to evacuate from communities along the borders with Gaza and Lebanon.