Palestinians flee northern Gaza after Israel orders mass evacuation with ground attack looming

Palestinian families in cars, trucks and onkey carts packed with their possessions crowded a main road southward from Gaza City as Israeli airstrikes hammered the territory.

Palestinians scrambled to flee northern Gaza after Israel's military urged about 1 million people to leave for the territory's south ahead of an expected ground invasion — despite warnings from the UN that evacuating nearly half of Gaza's population would be calamitous.

But families in Gaza faced what they saw as a no-win decision to leave or stay, with no safe ground anywhere. On Friday, Hamas’ media office said warplanes struck some of the cars fleeing south, killing more than 70 people.

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.

“Why should we trust that they’re trying to keep us safe?” Hamoudi said, her voice choking. “They are sick.”

Temporary raids into Gaza

The Israeli military said its troops conducted temporary raids into Gaza to battle militants and hunted for traces of some 150 people abducted in Hamas’ surprise assault on Israel nearly a week ago.

Hamas said Israel’s airstrikes have killed 13 hostages. It said the dead included foreigners but did not give their nationalities. Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari denied the claim.

The troop movements did not appear to be the beginning of an expected ground invasion.

In urging the evacuation, Palestinians and some Egyptian officials fear Israel ultimately hopes to push Gaza’s people out through the southern border with Egypt.

The UN called on Israel to reverse the unprecedented directive. And Hamas told people to ignore the evacuation order. 

'Gaza is fast becoming a hellhole'

Israeli strikes have levelled large swaths of neighbourhoods, and Gaza has been sealed off from food, water and medical supplies — all under a virtual total power blackout.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said it was impossible to safely transport the many wounded from hospitals, which are 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.

“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.

Farsakh added some medics refused to abandon patients and instead called colleagues to say goodbye. “We have wounded, we have elderly, we have children who are in hospitals,” she said.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, 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.

“The scale and speed of the unfolding humanitarian crisis is bone-chilling. Gaza is fast becoming a hellhole and is on the brink of collapse,” said Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner general.

Support in Israel

According to the Gaza Health Ministry on Friday, roughly 1,900 people have been killed in the territory since the war began last week. 

The 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.

In Israel, the public is overwhelmingly in favour of a military offensive, and Israeli TV stations have set up special broadcasts with slogans like “Together we will win” and “Strong together.” Their reports focus heavily on the aftermath of the Hamas attack and stories of heroism and national unity, and they make scant mention of the unfolding crisis in Gaza.

In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Health Ministry reported 16 Palestinians were killed Friday, bringing the total of Palestinians killed there to 51. 

The UN says attacks by Israeli settlers have surged there since the Hamas assault.

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