The Israeli military said on Saturday it had seen a “significant movement” south of Palestinian civilians, a day after ordering Gaza City residents to flee, as Israel’s prime minister promised further retaliation for Hamas’ rampage last week.
US President Joe Biden said consultations were underway with regional governments on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza as trapped Palestinians endured a power blackout and shortages of food and water amid fierce Israeli bombing.
Israel has vowed to annihilate Hamas for the attack a week ago, in which its fighters killed 1,300 Israelis, mainly civilians, and seized scores of hostages.
Israel has since put the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million Palestinians, under a total siege and bombarded it with unprecedented air strikes. Gaza authorities say 1,900 people have died.
On Friday, more than one million residents of northern Gaza received a notice from Israel to flee south within 24 hours, a deadline that passed at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT).
“We have seen a significant movement of Palestinian civilians towards the south,” Israeli military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus told a video briefing early on Saturday. He did not mention the deadline and did not take questions.
“Around the Gaza Strip, Israeli reserve soldiers in formation (are) getting ready for the next stage of operations. They are all around the Gaza Strip, in the south, in the centre and in the north, and they are preparing themselves for whatever target they get, whatever task.”
“The end state of this war is that we will dismantle Hamas and its military capability and fundamentally change the situation so that Hamas never again has the ability to inflict any damage on Israeli civilians or soldiers.”
Hamas vowed to fight to the last drop of blood and told residents to stay.
An Israeli military spokesperson said on Friday tank-backed troops had mounted raids to hit Palestinian rocket crews and gather information on the location of hostages, the first official account of ground troops in Gaza since the crisis began.
At least 1,900 Gazans — most of them civilians and including more than 600 children — have been killed in missile strikes on the densely populated enclave, the health ministry said.
“Where to go?” asked Umm Hossam, 29, who was among the thousands fleeing.
“How long will the strikes and death last? We have no homes left, every area of Gaza is under threat,” said the 29-year-old, her face streaked with tears.
Hamas took about 150 Israeli, foreign, and dual national hostages back to Gaza in the initial attack, Israel has said.
The group said on Friday that 13 of them had been killed in Israeli air strikes.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, in Israel on 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.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to find them,” he told CBS’s “60 Minutes”.
He also stressed that addressing the swelling humanitarian crisis in Gaza was a “priority”.
“The overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas and Hamas’s appalling attacks, and they’re suffering as a result as well,” Biden said in a speech.
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 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.
In the occupied West Bank, at least 16 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces during protests supporting Gaza, the health ministry said.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said Israel was 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 was visiting on Saturday, as part of a regional tour seeking to keep calm in the Arab world.
UN calls for ‘impossible’ evacuation order to be rescinded
In Gaza, UN officials said the Israeli military, whose troops are massing at the border, had said some 1.1 million people in the north of the enclave needed to evacuate to the south “within the next 24 hours”.
Israel did not confirm it had set the deadline but later admitted it would take more time. A ground offensive would be complicated by the presence of hostages.
The United Nations described the immediate movement of nearly half of the 2.4 million in the Gaza Strip as “impossible” and called for the evacuation order to be rescinded.
“Moving more than one million people across a densely populated war zone to a place with no food, water, or accommodation, when the entire territory of Gaza is under siege, is extremely dangerous — and in some cases, simply not possible,” UN chief Antonio Guterres said on X, formerly Twitter.
Hospitals are struggling to cope with the dead and wounded and the health system is “at a breaking point”, the World Health Organization said.
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 the dilemma of accepting refugees with the possibility that Israel may never let them return, weakening Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
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.
The army said it “will continue to operate significantly in Gaza City and make extensive efforts to avoid harming civilians”.
“Hamas terrorists are hiding in Gaza City inside tunnels underneath houses and inside buildings populated with innocent civilians,” it claimed.
Netanyahu has vowed to “crush” Hamas and has likened it to the Islamic State group.
But in Geneva, the Red Cross said the unjustifiable “horrific” attacks on Israel could equally not justify “the limitless destruction of Gaza”.
Evacuation order is a ‘crime’: Arab League chief
Hamas has 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 in Gaza, according to the UN.
Protesters shout slogans and wave flags during a rally in support of Palestinians, in Athens on October 13, 2023. — Reuters
Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit said Israel’s evacuation order is a “forced transfer” that constitutes “a crime”.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said it would 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 last Saturday.
They said they found the bodies of 1,500 Hamas fighters, as well as large numbers of civilians “killed by Hamas fighters”.
Yossi Landau, with the Zaka organisation that recovers the bodies of people who suffer unnatural deaths, said he found a dead woman with her stomach “ripped open, a baby was there, still connected with the cord, and stabbed”.
They were among more than 100 people killed in Beeri, just outside Gaza, while around 270 were gunned down or burned in their cars at the nearby Supernova music festival.
Hamas has denied that its fighters killed infants.
Israel faces a potential second front in the north after the Iran-backed Hezbollah group in Lebanon said it was “fully prepared” to join Hamas in the war when the time was right.
There has been a cross-border fire in recent days, sparking concern about regional stability and prompting the United States to send additional munitions and its largest aircraft carrier.
Israeli forces said on Saturday they had “struck a Hezbollah terror target in southern Lebanon” in response to a drone crossing the border.
Biden has warned other regional powers not to get involved.
Russian senior diplomat may discuss hostages with Hamas
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov may meet Hamas officials in Qatar next week and discuss a possible release of hostages seized by the militant group in its attack on Israel a week ago, Russian state news agency RIA reported on Saturday.
Bogdanov told RIA he was heading to Qatar and usually met with Hamas every time he was there.
“If they wish, we always maintain contact. Moreover, in this situation, this (meeting) is useful for resolving practical issues, including the release of hostages,” Bogdanov said.
Russia has drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire.
President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that an expected Israeli ground assault on Gaza would lead to an “absolutely unacceptable” level of civilian casualties.