Israel has urged over 1 million Palestinians to evacuate Gaza as it prepares for launching a ground offensive to root out Hamas from the besieged territory.
JERUSALEM: Palestinians fled in a mass exodus from northern Gaza Friday after Israel’s military told some 1 million people to evacuate toward the southern part of the besieged territory, an unprecedented order ahead of an expected ground invasion against the ruling Hamas militant group.
The U.N. warned that telling almost half the Gaza population to flee en masse would be calamitous, and it urged Israel to reverse the order. Families in cars, trucks and donkey carts packed with blankets and possessions streamed down a main road out of Gaza City, the biggest city, as airstrikes continued to hammer the territory.
Hamas’ media office said warplanes struck cars fleeing south, killing more than 70 people. Israel’s military said that its troops had entered Gaza on temporary raids to battle militants and hunt for traces of some 150 people abducted in Hamas’ brutal surprise attack nearly a week ago.
Hamas told people to ignore the evacuation order, but some Palestinians hesitated to leave out of fear that nowhere was safe in the tiny territory. Gaza is sealed off from food, water and medical supplies and under a virtual total power blackout.
“Forget about food, forget about electricity, forget about fuel. The only concern now is just if you’ll make it, if you’re going to live,” said Nebal Farsakh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza City, as she broke into heaving sobs.
The Gaza Health Ministry said Friday that roughly 1,800 people have been killed in the territory — more than half of them under the age of 18, or women. Hamas’ assault last Saturday killed more than 1,300 Israelis, most of whom were civilians, and roughly 1,500 Hamas militants were killed during the fighting, the Israeli government said.
The week-old war has sent tensions soaring across the region. Israel has traded fire in recent days with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, sparking fears of an ever wider conflict, though that frontier is currently calm. Weekly Muslim prayers brought protests across the Middle East.
ISRAELI RAID GOES INTO GAZA
Israel’s raid was the first word of troops entering Gaza since Israel launched its round-the-clock bombardment in retaliation for Hamas’ attack, in which militant fighters massacred hundreds in southern Israel and snatched some 150 people to Gaza as hostages.
A military spokesman said that after Israeli ground troops conducted their raids in Gaza on Friday, they then left. The moves did not appear to be the beginning of an expected ground invasion. But the evacuation order was taken as a a further signal of an already expected Israeli ground offensive, though no such decision has been announced. Israel has been massing troops along the Gaza border.
Hamas said Israel’s airstrikes killed 13 of the hostages in the past day. It said the dead included foreigners but did not give their nationalities.
Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari denied the claim, telling Al-Jazeera Arabic, “We have our own information.”
ISRAEL URGES MASS EVACUATION OF GAZA CIVILIANS
The military urged civilians in Gaza’s north to move south — an order that the U.N. said affects 1.1 million people. If carried out, that would mean the territory’s entire population cramming into roughly the southern half of the 40 kilometer (25 mile) long strip.
Israel said it needed to target Hamas’ military infrastructure, much of which is buried deep underground. Another spokesperson, Jonathan Conricus, said the military would take “extensive efforts to avoid harming civilians” and that residents would be allowed to return when the war is over.
Hamas militants operate in civilian areas, where Israel has long accused them of using Palestinians as human shields. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel wanted to separate Hamas militants from the civilian population.
“Therefore, we need to separate them. So those who want to save their life, please go south,” he said at a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
But U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said it would be impossible to stage such an evacuation without “devastating humanitarian consequences.” He called on Israel to rescind any such orders, saying they could “transform what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation.”
PALESTINIANS IN GAZA GRAPPLE WITH WHERE TO GO
Hamas’ media office said airstrikes struck cars in three places as they headed south from Gaza City. It was not immediately clear who the target of the airstrikes was, or whether militants were among the passengers.
Two witnesses reported a strike on evacuating cars near the town of Deir el-Balah, south of the evacuation zone and in the area Israel told people to flee to. Fayza Hamoudi said she and her family were driving from their home in the north when the strike hit some distance ahead on the road and two vehicles burst into flames. A witness from another car on the road gave a similar account.
“Why should we trust that they’re trying to keep us safe?” Hamoudi said, her voice choking. “They are sick.”
Many Palestinians in Gaza still struggled with indecision, not knowing whether to leave or stay.
Gaza City resident Khaled Abu Sultan at first didn’t believe the evacuation order was real, and now isn’t sure whether to evacuate his family to the south. “We don’t know if there are safe areas there,” he said.
“We don’t know anything.”
Another family contacted friends and relatives in southern Gaza seeking shelter, but then changed their minds. Many expressed concern they would not be able to return or be gradually displaced to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
More than half of the Palestinians in Gaza are the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from what is now Israel. For many, the mass evacuation order dredged up fears of a second expulsion. Already, at least 423,000 people — nearly one in five Gazans — have been forced from their homes by Israeli airstrikes, the U.N. said Thursday.
“Where is the sense of security in Gaza? Is this what Hamas is offering us?” said one resident, Tarek Mraish, standing by an avenue as vehicles flowed by. “What has Hamas done to us? It brought us catastophe,” he said, using the same Arabic word “nakba” used for the 1948 displacement.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said it was impossible to evacuate the many wounded from hospitals — already struggling with high numbers of dead and injured. “We cannot evacuate hospitals and leave the wounded and sick to die,” spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said.
Farsakh, of the Palestinian Red Crescent, said some medics were refusing to leave and abandon patients and were instead calling colleagues to say goodbye.
“What will happen to our patients?” she asked. “We have wounded, we have elderly, we have children who are in hospitals.”
The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, also said it would not evacuate its schools, where hundreds of thousands have taken shelter. But it relocated its headquarters to southern Gaza, according to spokesperson Juliette Touma.
ISRAEL SAYS RESPONSIBILITY IN GAZA LIES WITH HAMAS
Pressed by reporters on whether the army would protect hospitals, U.N. shelters and other civilian locations, Hagari, the Israeli military spokesperson, warned, “It’s a war zone.”
Hagari added: “If Hamas prevents residents from evacuating, the responsibility lies with them.” The U.N. had said the evacuation order it received gave Palestinians 24 hours to move, but the military told the AP there was no formal deadline.
Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former U.N. humanitarian chief, said the evacuation call was “an order to relocate. Under humanitarian law, it’s called forcible transfer of populations, and it’s a war crime.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to “crush” Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007.
Still, a ground offensive in densely populated and impoverished Gaza would likely bring even higher casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting.