DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinians struggled Saturday to flee from areas of Gaza targeted by the Israeli military while grappling with a growing water crisis after Israel stopped the flow of resources to the region 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 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 for hospitalized patients, older adults and others unable to relocate.
The evacuation directive covers an area of 1.1 million residents, or about half of the territory’s population. The Israeli military said “hundreds of thousands” of Palestinians had already heeded the warning and headed south. It said Palestinians could travel within Gaza without being harmed along two main routes from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. local time.It was not clear how many Palestinians remained in north Gaza by Saturday afternoon, said Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. “What we know is that hundreds of thousands of people have fled. And that 1 million people have been displaced in total in one week,” she said.
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 40-kilometer (25-mile) long territory, where supplies of food, fuel and drinking water were running low because of a complete Israeli siege.
Near the coast, the only tap water is contaminated with Mediterranean Sea water because of the lack of sanitation facilities. Mohammed Ibrahim, 28, said his neighbors in Gaza City have taken to drinking the salt water.
The Israeli military’s evacuation would force the territory’s entire population to cram into the southern half of the Gaza Strip as Israel continues strikes across the territory, including in the south.
Rami Swailem said he and at least five families in his building decided to stay put in his apartment near Gaza City. “We are rooted in our lands,” he said. “We prefer to die in dignity and face our destiny.”
Others were looking desperately for ways to evacuate. “We need a number for drivers from Gaza to the south, it is necessary #help,” read a post on social media. Another person wrote: “We need a bus number, office, or any means of transport,” posted another.
The U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians expressed concern for those who could not leave their current locations, “particularly pregnant women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities,” saying they must be protected. The agency also called for Israel to not target civilians, hospitals, schools, clinics and U.N. locations.
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.”