Palestinians have fled northern Gaza after Israel’s military ordered 1 million people to evacuate to the southern part of the besieged territory in retaliation for a surprise attack by the ruling Hamas militant group. The U.N. warned that directing almost half the Gaza population to flee en masse would be calamitous and urged Israel to reverse the unprecedented order. As airstrikes hammered the territory, families in cars, trucks, and donkey carts packed with possessions streamed down a main road out of Gaza City. Hamas’ media office reported that warplanes struck cars fleeing south, killing more than 70 people.
Israel’s military has announced plans to target Hamas’ underground hideouts in the vicinity of Gaza City. Palestinians and some Egyptian officials are concerned that Israel plans to expel Gaza’s inhabitants through the southern border with Egypt. Hamas told people to ignore the evacuation order, and families in Gaza faced a no-win decision to leave or stay, with no safe ground anywhere. The Gaza Health Ministry reported that roughly 1,900 people have been killed in the territory, more than half of them under the age of 18, or women.
Israel has launched a raid on Gaza, marking the first time troops entered the territory since the bombardment began in response to Hamas’ massacre of civilians in southern Israel. The military spokesman stated that the troop movements did not signal an expected ground invasion. The evacuation order was seen as a signal of an expected Israeli ground offensive, although no decision has been announced. An assault into densely populated and impoverished Gaza would likely result in higher casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to destroy Hamas, adding that this is only the beginning.
Hamas claimed that Israel’s airstrikes killed 13 of the hostages, including foreigners, but Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari denied the claim. The public in Israel remains in shock over the Hamas rampage and rocket fire from Gaza, with Israeli TV stations focusing on the aftermath of the attack and national unity. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported 16 Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank, bringing the total killed since Hamas’ rampage to 51. The U.N. reports that the Israeli military’s call for civilians to move south affects 1.1 million people, and residents would be allowed to return when the war is over.
Israel has accused Hamas of using Palestinians as human shields, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has urged people to go south to save their lives. The UN spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, called for Israel to rescind any evacuation orders without “devastating humanitarian consequences.” Hamas’ media office reported airstrikes hitting cars in three locations as they headed south from Gaza City, killing 70 people. Two witnesses reported a strike on fleeing cars near Deir el-Balah, south of the evacuation zone and in the area Israel told people to flee to.
Hamas criticized the evacuation order as “psychological warfare” aimed at causing disruption to Palestinian solidarity and urged people to remain. However, there was no sign of it preventing the flight. Gaza City resident Khaled Abu Sultan initially didn’t believe the evacuation order was real and now is unsure whether to move his family to the south. Many fear they will not be able to return or will be gradually displaced to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Over half of the Palestinians in Gaza are descendants of refugees from the 1948 war when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from what is now Israel. The mass evacuation order has raised fears of a second expulsion, with at least 423,000 people, nearly 1 in 5 Gazans, forced from their homes by Israeli airstrikes. The Palestinian Health Ministry has stated that it is impossible to safely transport the many wounded from hospitals, which are already struggling with high numbers of dead and injured.
Some medics are refusing to abandon patients and are instead calling colleagues to say goodbye. Al Awda Hospital is struggling to evacuate dozens of patients and staff after the military contacted it and told it to do so by Friday night. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has said it will not evacuate its schools, where hundreds of thousands have taken shelter, but has relocated its headquarters to southern Gaza. The scale and speed of the unfolding humanitarian crisis is bone-chilling, and Gaza is fast becoming a hellhole and on the brink of collapse.