GAZA CITY – Palestinians sought refuge Saturday after Israel warned them to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip before an expected ground offensive against Hamas, one week after the deadliest attack in Israel's history.
Israeli ground forces massed near Gaza have made “localised” raids into the enclave “to cleanse the area of terrorists and weaponry” and try to find “missing persons”, the army said.
Hamas militants in their October 7 attack gunned down, stabbed and burned more than 1,300 people, according to government figures. Most of the dead were civilians, in an attack Israelis compared to 9/11 in the United States.
Scores of foreigners were also killed or dragged back to Gaza among the 150 people the Israeli government estimates were taken hostage by Hamas.
In retaliation, Israel has pounded Gaza targets with thousands of strikes, leaving at least 1,900 Gazans dead — most of them civilians and including more than 600 children according to the health ministry in the enclave home to 2.4 million people.
The Hamas attack has upended Middle Eastern politics, prompting efforts by the United States and others to avert a wider war.
The United Nations, Arab countries and others reacted with concern to the Israeli army evacuation order, as many Gazans said they have nowhere to go. Exits from the territory, to Egypt and Israel, are shut. Food, water, electricity and communications have largely gone.
Still, some vowed to stay among the rubble-strewn streets after bombing levelled entire blocks. More than 1,300 buildings containing 5,540 housing units in Gaza have been destroyed, the UN said on Saturday, as explosions sounded and plumes of smoke rose over Gaza City.
“What does the world want from us?” asked Mohamed Khaled, 43. “I am a refugee in Gaza and they want to displace me yet again?”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the bombardment so far was “just the beginning” of Israel’s vow to crush Hamas, a group which seeks the destruction of Israel and which he has likened to the Islamic State group.
Israel has called up around 300,000 reserve troops. On Saturday army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said they are “all around the Gaza Strip,” as well as elsewhere in the country.
“We will likely evolve into additional significant combat operations,” Conricus said.
Israel’s army on Saturday announced the death in air strikes of a senior Hamas military commander, Murad Abu Murad. Hamas did not immediately confirm his death but has previously announced that two senior members, from its political bureau, were killed in Israeli strikes.
The militant group said Friday that 13 hostages had been killed in Israeli strikes, but offered no evidence.
– ‘Genocide’ –
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, in Israel Friday, accused Hamas of using residents as a “shield” in Gaza, where Israel has cut off water, fuel and food supplies.
US President Joe Biden spoke with the families of 14 Americans who have been missing since the Hamas attack, telling CBS’s “60 Minutes”: “We’re going to do everything in our power to find them.”
Israel’s army has confirmed contacting the families of 120 civilian hostages so far.
Biden also stressed that addressing the swelling humanitarian crisis in Gaza was a “priority”.
Tensions have risen across the Middle East and beyond, with angry protests in support of the Palestinians, while Israel faces the threat of a separate confrontation with Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A Reuters video journalist was killed and six other reporters — from AFP, Reuters and Al Jazeera — were injured in southern Lebanon close to Israel, caught up in cross-border shelling.
Israeli forces said Saturday said they had “struck a Hezbollah terror target in southern Lebanon” in response to a drone crossing the border. They separately said Israeli forces killed several “terrorists” trying to cross the border from Lebanon.
In the occupied West Bank, 16 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces during protests supporting Gaza, the Palestinian health ministry said. It was one of the West Bank’s deadliest days since tensions began rising early last year.
Palestinian prime minister Mohammad 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.”
Thousands also demonstrated in support of the Palestinians on Friday in Beirut, Iraq, Iran and in Jordan.
Demonstrations also took place in Bahrain, where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Saturday, as part of a regional tour seeking to keep calm in the Arab world.
– ‘Impossible’ –
In Gaza, UN officials on Friday reported that the Israeli military said people in the north of the enclave, numbering around 1.1 million, needed to evacuate to the south “within the next 24 hours”.
Israel did not confirm the deadline, but later admitted it would take more time. A ground offensive would be complicated by the presence of hostages.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Saturday that a plan by Israel to evacuate more than one million people out of northern Gaza in a single day was “utterly impossible to implement”.
The United Nations expressed similar concern.
“The situation in Gaza has reached a dangerous new low,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
“Even wars have rules,” Guterres said. “International humanitarian law and human rights law must be respected and upheld; civilians must be protected and also never used as shields.”
Conricus, the army spokesman, said Israel’s military advertised its intentions in advance “because we want civilians not to be affected by the war… they are not our enemy.”
In Jordan, after a meeting with 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.
– Air strikes –
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.
In Geneva, the Red Cross said the unjustifiable “horrific” attacks on Israel could equally not justify “the limitless destruction of Gaza”.
Hamas 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.
Even before the evacuation order, more than 423,000 people had already fled their homes, according to the UN.
Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit said Israel’s 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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Israel risked waging an “unacceptable” siege in Gaza comparable to the Nazi blockade of Leningrad during World War II.
Israeli soldiers have swept the southern towns and kibbutz farming communities since Hamas’s attack. They said they found the bodies of 1,500 militants, as well as large numbers of civilians killed by Hamas fighters.
More than 100 people were killed in the community of Beeri alone, just outside Gaza, while around 270 were gunned down or burned in their cars at the nearby Supernova music festival.
Concern for regional stability prompted the United States to send additional munitions to Israel, and its largest aircraft carrier to the region.
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.
In a sign of the regional upheaval, Saudi Arabia “has decided to pause discussion on possible normalisation and has informed US officials,” a source familiar with the discussions told AFP.
Biden’s administration had been pushing efforts for Saudi Arabia and Israel to establish diplomatic ties, after similar deals with a few other Arab states including the United Arab Emirates.
Riyadh has issued several statements in the past week affirming its support for the Palestinian cause.