Palestinians flee northern Gaza after Israel orders 1 million to evacuate as ground attack looms

Israeli warplanes pounded the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City early Thursday, reducing entire swaths of the crowded camp to ruins. (Oct. 12) (AP Video: Shadi Tabatibi)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinians began a mass exodus from northern Gaza Friday after Israel’s military told some 1 million people to evacuate toward the southern part of the besieged territory, an unprecedented order ahead of an expected ground invasion against the ruling Hamas militant group.

The U.N. warned that so many people fleeing en masse — almost half the Gaza population — would be calamitous, and it urged Israel to reverse the order. Families in cars, trucks and donkey carts packed with blankets and possessions streamed down a main road out of Gaza City, the biggest city, even as Israeli strikes hammered neighborhoods in southern Gaza.

Hamas, which staged a shocking and brutal attack on Israel nearly a week ago and has fired thousands of rockets since, called on people to stay in their homes, saying the order was “psychological warfare” to break their solidarity.

Many hesitated to leave, mostly because safety was uncertain everywhere in the tiny territory under constant bombardment by Israeli airstrikes. Gaza is sealed off from food, water and medical supplies and under a virtual total power blackout.

“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.

The week-old war has sent tensions soaring across the region. Israel has traded fire in recent days with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, sparking fears of an ever wider conflict, though that frontier is currently calm.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Friday that roughly 1,800 people have been killed in the territory — more than half of them under the age of 18, or women. 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.“The camouflage of the terrorists is the civil population,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said at a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “Therefore, we need to separate them. So those who want to save their life, please go south.”

But U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said it would be impossible to stage such an evacuation without “devastating humanitarian consequences.” He called on Israel to rescind any such orders, saying they could “transform what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation.”

Many Palestinians in Gaza still struggled with indecision, not knowing whether to leave or stay.

Gaza City resident Khaled Abu Sultan at first didn’t believe the evacuation order was real, and now isn’t sure whether to evacuate his family to the south. “We don’t know if there are safe areas there,” he said. “We don’t know anything.”More than half of the Palestinians in Gaza are the 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 mass evacuation order dredged up fears of a second expulsion. Already, at least 423,000 people — nearly one in five Gazans — have been forced from their homes by Israeli airstrikes, the U.N. said Thursday. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, also 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.

Egypt has been alarmed by the potential of tens of thousands of Palestinians flooding out of Gaza into its Sinai Peninsula. It has moved thousands of security forces toward the border to prevent a breach, a senior Egyptian security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. At the same time, it is trying to negotiate entry of humanitarian aid to Gaza. Egypt’s Rafah crossing, the only entry not controlled by Israel, has been closed because of airstrikes.

The evacuation order was taken as a further signal of an already expected Israeli ground offensive, though no such decision has been announced.

A visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, along with shipments of weapons, offered a powerful green light for Israel to drive ahead with its retaliation. Defense Secretary Austin, who met with Israeli leaders Friday, reiterated the United States’ ironclad support for Israel, saying military assistance would flow in “at the speed of war.”

Still, a ground offensive in densely populated and impoverished Gaza would likely bring even higher casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting.

By Associated Press

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