Palestinians began a mass exodus from northern Gaza on Friday after the Israeli military told nearly a million people to evacuate to the southern part of the besieged territory, an unprecedented order ahead of an expected ground invasion against the ruling militant group Hamas.
The UN warned that so many people fleeing en masse (most half of Gaza’s population) would be disastrous and urged Israel to reverse the order. Families in cars, trucks and donkey carts packed with blankets and belongings moved along a main road out of Gaza City, the largest city.
Israel hit neighborhoods in southern Gaza with airstrikes on Friday. It said ground troops have made temporary raids into the territory to fight militants and search for weapons and evidence of missing hostages.
Hamas, which carried out its brutal and shocking attack on Israel almost a week ago, has called on people to stay in their homes, saying the order was “psychological warfare” to break their solidarity.
Many hesitated to leave, fearing that nowhere was safe in the small territory under constant bombardment from Israeli airstrikes. Gaza is cut off from food, water and medical supplies and is virtually under a total power blackout.
“Forget about food, forget about electricity, forget about fuel. The only worry now is whether you will make it or live,” said Nebal Farsakh, spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza City, as he broke down sobbing.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said Friday that about 1,800 people have died in the territory, more than half of them under 18 or women. The Hamas attack last Saturday killed more than 1,300 Israelis, most of whom were civilians, and approximately 1,500 Hamas militants were killed during the fighting, the Israeli government said.
The week-long war has raised tensions across the region. Israel has recently exchanged fire with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, raising fears of a widening conflict, although that border is calm.
GAZA HITS RESTLESSLY SINCE HAMAS ATTACKS
Weekly Muslim prayers sparked protests across the Middle East, and tensions rose in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Islamic Foundation that manages a holy site in the city, the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, said Israeli authorities banned entry to all Palestinian men under 50.
Israel has bombed Gaza around the clock since the Hamas attack, in which its fighters massacred hundreds of people in southern Israel and took about 150 people to Gaza as hostages.
A military spokesperson said that they left after Israeli ground troops carried their raids into Gaza on Friday. The moves did not appear to be the beginning of an expected ground invasion. Israel has been massing troops along the Gaza border since last Saturday’s deadly incursion by Hamas militants.
Hamas said Israeli airstrikes killed 13 of the hostages last day. He said the dead included foreigners but did not provide their nationalities.
Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari denied the claim, telling Al-Jazeera in Arabic: “We have our own information.”
Israel said Thursday it will not allow supplies into Gaza until Hamas releases the hostages.
ISRAEL URGES MASS EVACUATION OF GAZA CIVILIANS
The military urged civilians in northern Gaza to move south, an order the UN says affects 1.1 million people. If carried out, that would mean the territory’s entire population would be crammed into roughly the southern half of the 40-kilometer (25-mile) long strip.
Israel said it needed to attack Hamas’s military infrastructure, much of which is buried deep underground. Another spokesperson, Jonathan Conricus, said the military would make “great efforts to avoid harming civilians” and that residents would be allowed to return when the war ends.
Hamas militants operate in civilian areas, where Israel has long accused them of using Palestinians as human shields.
But UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said it would be impossible to organize such an evacuation without “devastating humanitarian consequences.” He called on Israel to rescind such orders, saying they could “transform what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation.”
PALESTINIANS IN GAZA MUST DECIDE WHERE TO GO
Many Palestinians in Gaza struggled with indecision, not knowing whether to leave or stay.
Gaza City resident Khaled Abu Sultan initially did not believe the evacuation order was real and is now unsure about evacuating his family to the south. “We don’t know if safe areas are there,” he said. “We don’t know anything.”
Another family contacted friends and relatives in southern Gaza seeking refuge, but they later changed their minds. Many expressed concern about being unable to return or being gradually displaced to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
More than half of the Palestinians in Gaza are descendants of refugees from the 1948 war that surrounded the creation of Israel when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from what is now Israel. For many, the mass evacuation order raised fears of a second expulsion. At least 423,000 people – nearly one in five Gazans – have already been forced to flee their homes by Israeli airstrikes, the UN said on Thursday.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said it was impossible to evacuate the many wounded from hospitals, which were already struggling with large numbers of dead and injured. “We cannot evacuate hospitals and let the wounded and sick die,” said spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra.
Farsakh of the Palestinian Red Crescent said some doctors refused to leave and abandon patients and instead called their colleagues to say goodbye.
“What will happen to our patients?” she asked. “We have injured people, we have elderly people, we have children who are in hospitals.”
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, also said it would not evacuate its schools, where hundreds of thousands have taken shelter. But he moved his headquarters to southern Gaza, according to spokesperson Juliette Touma.
ISRAEL SAYS RESPONSIBILITY IN GAZA LIES WITH HAMAS
When asked by reporters whether the army would protect hospitals, UN shelters and other civilian sites, Hagari, the Israeli military spokesperson, warned: “It’s a war zone.”
Hagari added: “If Hamas prevents residents from evacuating, the responsibility falls on them.” The UN had said the evacuation order it received gave Palestinians 24 hours to move, but the military told the AP there was no formal deadline.
Clive Baldwin, legal counsel at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that “ordering the evacuation of a million people in Gaza when there is no safe place to go is not an effective warning.”
“The roads are crumbling, fuel is scarce, and the main hospital is in the evacuation zone,” he said. “World leaders should speak out now before it is too late.”
Egypt is alarmed by the possibility of tens of thousands of Palestinians leaving Gaza for the Sinai Peninsula. It has moved thousands of security forces to the border to prevent a breach, a senior Egyptian security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists. At the same time, he is trying to negotiate the entry of humanitarian aid to Gaza. The Egyptian Rafah crossing, the only entrance not controlled by Israel, has been closed due to airstrikes.
The evacuation order was taken as another sign of an expected Israeli ground offensive, although no such decision has been announced.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit on Thursday, along with arms shipments, has offered a powerful green light for Israel to press ahead with its retaliation. Defense Secretary Austin, who met with Israeli leaders on Friday, reiterated America’s strong support for Israel and said military assistance would come “at the speed of war.”
Still, a ground offensive into densely populated and impoverished Gaza would likely lead to even more casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting.