GAZA CITY: Thousands of Palestinians fled to southern Gaza in search of refuge on Saturday (Oct 14) after Israel warned them to evacuate before an expected ground offensive against Hamas in retaliation for the deadliest attack in Israel’s history.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that nearly a week of fierce bombardment was “just the beginning” as Israel seeks to get revenge on Hamas, whose fighters killed more than 1,300 nearly a week ago.
Israeli ground forces made “localised” raids into Gaza in the last 24 hours “to cleanse the area of terrorists and weaponry” and try to find “missing persons”, the army said.
Most of those killed when militant fighters burst through the heavily militarised border into Israel last Saturday were civilians, in an attack compared to 9/11 in the United States.
At least 1,900 Gazans – again most of them civilians and including more than 600 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 European Union and the United States, took some 150 Israeli, foreign and dual national hostages back to Gaza in the initial attack, Israel has said.
The militant group said Friday that 13 of them had been killed in Israeli air strikes. It has previously said four hostages died in bombardments.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, visiting Israel on Friday, said Hamas was using residents as a “shield” in Gaza, where Israel has cut off water, fuel and food supplies.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the situation as having reached “a dangerous new low”.
“We need immediate humanitarian access throughout Gaza,” he added.
US President Joe Biden said addressing the humanitarian crisis was a “priority”.
Tensions meanwhile rose across the Middle East and beyond, with angry protests in support of the Palestinians, while Israel faced the threat of a separate confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A Reuters video journalist was killed in south Lebanon, the international news agency said. Two other Reuters reporters were injured, as were two from AFP and two from Al Jazeera.
Israeli forces had said its troops were “responding with artillery fire towards Lebanese territory” after a blast damaged the border barrier.
In the occupied West Bank, at least 16 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces during protests supporting Gaza, the health ministry said.
Thousands also demonstrated on Friday in Beirut, Iraq, Iran, Jordan and Bahrain in support of the Palestinians.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh accused Israel of committing “genocide” in Gaza.
But Netanyahu’s spokeswoman Tal Heinrich told AFP: “Everything that happens in Gaza is Hamas’s responsibility.”
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 world body described the immediate movement of some 1.1 million people – nearly half of the 2.4 million in the Gaza Strip – as “impossible”.
“Forcing population transfers constitutes a crime against humanity, and collective punishment is prohibited under international humanitarian law,” said Paula Gaviria Betancur, a UN expert on displacement.
She said it was “inconceivable” that so many Gazans would be able to cross an active war zone without “devastating humanitarian consequences“.
The UN and others have urgently appealed for the mass evacuation order to be rescinded.
Hospitals are struggling to cope with the dead and wounded from the relentless bombardment, and the health system was “at a breaking point”, the World Health Organization said.
In Jordan, after a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, King Abdullah II called for “humanitarian corridors” to be opened urgently.
Egypt – which runs the Rafah crossing to the south of Gaza – faces a dilemma of accepting refugees with the possibility that Israel may never let them return, weakening Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
“Where to go?” asked Umm Hossam, 29, who was among the thousands fleeing.
“How long will the strikes and death last? We have no homes left, every area of Gaza is under threat,” she added, her face streaked with tears.
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 (25 mile-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, including Al-Shati refugee camp and Gaza City, primarily targeting residential buildings.
The Hamas media office also reported Israeli air raids on Khan Yunis and Rafah in the south.
The Israeli military 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”.
Netanyahu, who was in security talks at military headquarters on Friday, has vowed to “crush” Hamas, and has likened it to the Islamic State group.
But in Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the unjustifiable “horrific” attacks on Israel could equally not justify “the limitless destruction of Gaza”.
Israel also denied claims from rights groups that it has used the incendiary weapon white phosphorus, which can cause serious burns if it hits people.
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 their trucks, cars and carts pulled by donkeys.
More than 423,000 people have already fled their homes, according to the UN, which said the evacuation order could turn what is “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.
Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit said Israel’s evacuation order is a “forced transfer” that constitutes “a crime”.
Palestinian president Mahmud 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 accompanied Israel’s creation.
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.
But any ground offensive is complicated by the presence of hostages, whom Hamas has threatened to kill if bombardments are carried out without warning.
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 has 33 years’ volunteer experience with Zaka, which recovers the bodies of people who suffered unnatural deaths.
He said that he found a dead woman with her stomach “ripped open, a baby was there, still connected with the cord, and stabbed” in Beeri, just outside Gaza.
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.
President Biden has warned other regional powers not to get involved.
Israel’s arch foe Iran has long financially and militarily backed Hamas and praised its attack, but insists it was not involved.