Palestinians scrambled to flee northern Gaza on Saturday after the Israeli military ordered nearly half the population to evacuate south and carried out limited ground forays ahead of an expected land offensive a week after Hamas' bloody, wide-ranging attack into Israel.
Israel renewed calls on social media and in leaflets dropped from the air for some 1 million Gaza residents to move south, while Hamas urged people to stay in their homes. The U.N. and aid groups have said such a rapid exodus would cause untold human suffering, with hospital patients and others unable to relocate.
Families in cars, trucks and donkey carts packed with possessions crowded a main road heading away from Gaza City as Israeli airstrikes continued to hammer the small, besieged territory, where supplies of food, fuel and drinking water were running low because of a complete Israeli siege. Egyptian officials said the southern Rafah crossing would open later Saturday for the first time in days to allow foreigners out.
Israel said Palestinians could travel along two main routes without being harmed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. local time. It that "hundreds of thousands" of Palestinians had already headed south. But some live up to 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, and many roads were demolished by airstrikes and fuel was running short.
Thousands of people crammed into a U.N.-run school-turned-shelter in Deir al-Balah, a farming town south of the evacuation zone. Many slept outside on the ground without mattresses, or in chairs pulled from classrooms.
"I came here with my children. We slept on the ground. We don't have a mattress, or clothes," Howeida al-Zaaneen, 63, who is from the northern town of Beit Hanoun, said. "I want to go back to my home, even if it is destroyed."
The military said its troops conducted temporary raids into Gaza to battle militants and hunted for traces of some 150 people — including men, women and children — who were abducted during Hamas' shocking Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel.
The Gaza Health Ministry said Saturday that over 2,200 people have been killed in the territory, including 724 children and 458 women. The Hamas assault killed more than 1,300 Israelis, most of them civilians, and roughly 1,500 Hamas militants were killed during the fighting, the Israeli government said.
Fearing a mass exodus of Palestinians, Egyptian authorities erected "temporary" blast walls on Egypt's side of the heavily-guarded Rafah crossing, which has been closed for days because of Israeli airstrikes, two Egyptian officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Israel raids into Gaza
Raids into Gaza on Friday were the first indication that Israeli troops had entered the territory since the military began its round-the-clock bombardment in retaliation for the Hamas massacre. Palestinian militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israel since the fighting erupted.
The military said the ground troops left after conducting the raids.
Israel has called up some 360,000 reserves and massed troops and tanks along the border with Gaza, but no decision has been announced on whether to launch a ground offensive. An assault into densely populated Gaza would likely bring even higher casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting.
"We will destroy Hamas," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Friday night.
Hamas said Israel's airstrikes killed 13 hostages, including foreigners. It did not provide their nationalities. The military denied the claim. Hamas and other Palestinian militants hope to trade the hostages for thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
In Israel, residents stunned by the Hamas rampage faced the fright of continual rocket fire out of Gaza. The Israeli public is overwhelmingly in favor of a military offensive, and TV news broadcasts focus heavily on the aftermath of the Hamas attack and make scarce mention of the unfolding crisis in Gaza.
In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Health Ministry says 53 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war, including 16 on Friday. The U.N. says attacks by Israeli settlers have surged there since the Hamas assault.
A mass evacuation
The U.N. said the Israeli military's call for civilians to move south affects 1.1 million people. If carried out, the territory's entire population would have to cram into the southern half of the 40-kilometer (25-mile) Gaza Strip. And Israel is still carrying out strikes across the territory, including in the south.
Egyptian officials said an agreement was reached to allow foreigners in Gaza to exit the territory by way of Rafah later Saturday. One official said both Israel and Palestinian militant groups had agreed to facilitate the departures and that talks were still underway about getting aid into Gaza through the same crossing. The officials were not authorized to brief journalists and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Palestinian families in Gaza faced agonizing dilemmas in deciding whether to leave or stay. Israeli strikes have leveled entire city blocks. A siege declared earlier in the week sealed off food, water and medical supplies, and the territory was under a near-total power blackout.
An Israeli military spokesperson, Jonathan Conricus, said the evacuation was aimed at keeping civilians safe and preventing Hamas from using them as human shields. He urged people in the targeted areas to leave immediately and to return "only when we tell them that it is safe to do so."
"The Palestinian civilians in Gaza are not our enemies. We don't assess them as such, and we don't target them as such," Conricus said. "We are trying to do the right thing."
The U.S. and Israel's other allies have pledged ironclad support for the war on Hamas. The European Union's foreign policy chief, however, said Saturday that the Israeli military needed to give people more time to get out of northern Gaza.
Josep Borrell welcomed the evacuation order but said, "You cannot move such a volume of people in (a) short period of time," noting a lack of shelters and transportation.
Gaza's Health Ministry said it was impossible to safely transport the wounded from hospitals that were already dealing with high numbers of dead and injured.
Patients and personnel from the Al Awda Hospital in Gaza's far north spent part of their night in the street "with bombs landing in close proximity," the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said.
Scott Hamiliton, a spokesperson for the aid group also known as MSF, told The Associated Press that some of the medical staff and all patients were moved to another location, "but the situation remains extremely complicated and chaotic."
The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said many people were relying on dirty water from wells as desalination plants shut down for lack of fuel.
"Fuel is the only way for people to have safe drinking water," Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA's commissioner general said. "If not, people will start dying of severe dehydration, among them young children."
Where to go?
Hamas' media office said airstrikes hit cars in three locations as they headed south from Gaza City, killing 70 people. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
Two witnesses reported a strike on fleeing cars near Deir el-Balah. Fayza Hamoudi said she and her family were driving from their home in the north when the strike on the road hit some distance ahead 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 feared they would be unable to return or would be gradually displaced to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
More than half of the Palestinians in Gaza are 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 evacuation order dredged up fears of a second expulsion.
Israeli airstrikes since the Hamas attack already forced at least 423,000 people — nearly 1 in 5 Gaza residents — from their homes as of Thursday, according to the United Nations.
"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.
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