Thousands of Palestinians started an exodus to southern Gaza on Friday after Israel warned them to evacuate the city’s northern areas ahead of an expected ground offensive following nearly a week of intensive bombardment.
According to the Israeli military, its ground forces have already made raids into Gaza over the past 24 hours. “Over the past 24 hours, IDF [Israeli military] forces carried out localized raids inside the territory of the Gaza Strip to complete the effort to cleanse the area of terrorists and weaponry,” it said. “During these operations, there was also an effort to locate missing persons,” it added, referring to Israelis taken hostage by Hamas when it attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, leaving 1,300 dead and over 3,000 others injured.
According to Hamas, 13 of the hostages have been killed by Israeli airstrikes.
The Israeli bombardment, ostensibly aimed at targeting Hamas, has killed nearly 2,000 Gazans—including over 600 children—and displaced 423,000 Palestinians. It has also seen attacks on hospitals and U.N. buildings—in violation of all norms of conflict—with Reuters confirming one of its journalists was killed while working in southern Lebanon. While the news agency did not identify the culprits, independent footage proved Israeli soldiers had killed the journalist. Additionally, six other journalists from AFP, Reuters and Al Jazeera were injured in the same attack.
Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of using white phosphorus munitions in its military operations in Gaza and Lebanon, saying the use of such weapons puts civilians at risk of serious and long-term injury. Israel’s military said it was “currently not aware of the use of weapons containing white phosphorus in Gaza.” Its military has further warned it would operate “significantly” in Gaza City in the coming days and civilians would only be able to return when they were told to do so. However, Gazans using the corridor suggested by Israel were targeted with airstrikes, leaving at least 150 dead, raising fears of a “trap” aimed at eradicating the Palestinian population.
“Our Palestinian people reject the threat of the occupation [Israeli] leaders and its call for them to leave their homes and flee from them to the south or Egypt,” Hamas said in a statement. “We are steadfast on our land and in our homes and our cities. There will be no displacement,” it added.
Earlier, reacting to Israel’s warning, the U.N. had said that immediate movement of some 1.1 million people—nearly half of the 2.4 million in the Gaza Strip—was “impossible.” It appealed for the order to be rescinded, as aid agencies warned that already depleted fuel, food and water supplies could not sustain any mass evacuation.
Hospitals are struggling to cope with the dead and wounded from the relentless bombardment, and the health system was already “at a breaking point,” the World Health Organization said. It emphasized that moving critically ill individuals within Gaza, including those dependent on life support, was tantamount to a “death sentence” given the current health infrastructure’s precarious state.
The United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, meanwhile, described Israel’s call to move more than one million civilians in northern Gaza in 24 hours as “horrendous” and said the enclave was rapidly becoming a “hell hole.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said fuel powering emergency generators at hospitals in Gaza could run out within hours and the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warned food and fresh water were running dangerously low. “The human misery caused by this escalation is abhorrent, and I implore the sides to reduce the suffering of civilians,” ICRC regional director Fabrizio Carboni said.
Global calls for peace
Russian President Vladimir Putin told a summit in Kyrgyzstan an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza would result in a level of civilian casualties that would be “absolutely unacceptable.” Maintaining that using heavy weaponry in residential areas was “fraught with serious consequences for all sides,” he said the main thing now was to “stop the bloodshed.”
However, he added, Israel had the right to defend itself after being subjected to “an attack unprecedented in its cruelty.” Calling for collective efforts to secure an early ceasefire and stabilize the situation on the ground, he said Russia was willing to coordinate with all “constructively minded partners.” He also blamed the failure of the U.S. policy in the Middle East for the current tragedy.
U.S. Secretary of State, currently on a tour of the Middle East to bolster support for Israel, has claimed the Israeli government has shown him and NATO defense ministers graphic images of children and civilians allegedly killed by Hamas last week. He said they showed a baby “riddled with bullets,” soldiers beheaded and young people burned in their cars. “It’s simply depravity in the worst imaginable way,” he said. “It’s really beyond anything that we can comprehend,” he added, while calling on Israel to show restraint even as he assured them of no let-up in support.
In Jordan, after a meeting with visiting Blinken, King Abdullah II called for “humanitarian corridors” to be opened urgently. Egypt, meanwhile, has refused to allow any Gazans to enter its territory as refugees.
Gazans, mainly descendants of refugees who fled or were expelled from homes in Israel at its founding in 1948, have suffered economic collapse and repeated Israeli bombardment under a blockade since Hamas seized power there 16 years ago. Palestinian anger has mounted in recent months, with Israel carrying out the deadliest crackdown for years in the West Bank and its right-wing government talking of seizing more land. A peace process meant to create a Palestinian state collapsed a decade ago, which Palestinian leaders say left the population with no hope, strengthening extremists.