HomeNewsHundreds of thousands flee south in Gaza after Israel orders evacuation

Hundreds of thousands flee south in Gaza after Israel orders evacuation

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WADI GAZA — Evacuation orders from Israel’s military have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee south from their homes in northern Gaza since Friday, the largest wave of civilian displacement in a week of war with Hamas, according to the United Nations, even as others refused to leave, fearing that escape routes are too dangerous.

The main roads running north to south were crowded for a second day Saturday after the Israeli military announced a six-hour window for civilians to move along designated streets to parts of Gaza south of the Wadi Gaza wetlands here. In some areas traffic came to a standstill with trucks, buses, overpacked cars and people on foot all crowding on to the same narrow roads to head south.

But many civilians, including hospital staff, are refusing to leave. Ahmed Okal, 43, who lives in Gaza City’s Zaitoun neighborhood, said he didn’t trust that civilians traveling south wouldn’t be targeted with airstrikes.

“I am definitely afraid, very afraid, but I will not risk the lives of my wife and children on the way to the south,” he said, referring to reports that some of those fleeing were killed in an airstrike. “Let us die inside our homes,” he said. “The road is dangerous.”

Rawan Abu Hamda, 41, also from Gaza City, started out on an evacuation route but quickly returned home after hearing reports of a strike that hit civilians on the road. She said hundreds of other families have also stayed in her neighborhood, many sheltering near al-Shifa hospital, in hopes the building won’t be hit by airstrikes — although the ceiling of the nursery department collapsed on Oct. 9 after shelling nearby.

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Reports emerged Friday of a strike on cars packed with fleeing civilians. The Washington Post verified a graphic video of the aftermath recorded along Salah Al-Deen Road. The video shows bodies, including several young children, strewn along the road as black smoke rises from vehicles engulfed in flames. On the north-facing side of the road, bodies are laid out amid personal belongings, including a bicycle, on flatbed trailers attached to a truck.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health said 40 people injured in the attack were taken to al-Shifa hospital. Israel’s military said they could not confirm reports of a strike at the location.

The video was first geolocated by open-source researchers Chris Osieck and Gabòr Friesen and confirmed by The Post.

The Israel Defense Forces said Hamas is setting up checkpoints, preventing people from evacuating Gaza City and the north. But civilians who fled to the south since Friday told The Post they did not see any Hamas fighters in the streets.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared Palestinians will not leave Gaza. “There is no immigration from the West Bank or from Gaza,” he said in a statement on Telegram.

Israel first issued the order to evacuate Gaza City and the north on Friday. More than a million people live in the area under the order.

“They have time to move south, they have to start moving,” Israel Defense Forces spokesman Richard Hecht said Saturday morning. “We understand this will take time,” he added, but declined to say how long the deadline for the evacuation, which has passed, would be extended.

Israel launched a military campaign against Hamas after the group carried out unprecedented attacks on Israel last Saturday, killing more than 1,300 civilians and soldiers and taking more than 100 hostages.

“We’re not going to do carpet bombing of Gaza. Every target will have intelligence behind it,” Hecht said. Israeli officials have said the aim of the war in Gaza is to dismantle Hamas’s military and political capabilities.

Kariman Mashharawi, a 27-year-old architect from Gaza City, fled south with more than 50 members of her extended family, mostly children. The first night, she said, the group slept out in the open before finding a small apartment in Rafah that everyone packed into.

“We had no choice, we have kids, they sent us papers that said ‘you must move or you will be responsible for what may happen,’” she said, speaking to The Post through a messaging app because cellphone signals in the area were too weak to make calls.

Nearly every apartment in the area is housing 20, 30 or more people, and the cramped conditions make it almost impossible to sleep, Mashharawi said. “My head is spinning around,” she said, of the uncertainty, stress and fatigue.

“When we left our house, I looked at every corner and thought ‘will we come back here again?’”

U.S. officials said they negotiated a temporary opening at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt for American citizens seeking to flee, but a Palestinian border authority spokesman and witnesses in the area said the crossing remains closed.

The evacuation orders appear to signal Israel plans to significantly escalate its war against Hamas ahead of, or in tandem with, an expected ground invasion. But human rights groups and aid organizations are warning that civilians must continue to be protected, regardless of the orders to move out.

“Many persons particularly pregnant women, children, older people and people with disabilities, will not be able to flee the area,” the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said in a statement. “They have no choice and must be protected at all times.”

Human Rights Watch said the Israeli order is “not an effective warning.”

“The roads are rubble, fuel is scarce and the main hospital is in the evacuation zone,” said Clive Baldwin, a senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “This order does not alter Israel’s obligations to never target civilians and take all measures it can to minimize harm.”

The al-Quds hospital in Gaza City also received orders to evacuate by Saturday afternoon, but the Palestinian Red Crescent is refusing to shutter the facility, according to a statement from the group.

The hospital is providing care to a “large number” of patients, including children in incubators, and people in the intensive care unit, the Red Crescent said in a statement. The group said tens of thousands of civilians remain in the area and hundreds of people are also sheltering at or near the hospital

Red Crescent teams at the hospital “will continue to provide essential lifesaving services to the people remaining,” and the organization will “continue the provision of services to the sick and wounded.”

More than 2,000 people in Gaza have been killed, including 724 children and more than 8,700 have been wounded since clashes began last Saturday, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is “fast becoming untenable,” the U.N. relief head warned Saturday. Undersecretary General Martin Griffiths described the last week as one of “utter anguish and devastation,” but cautioned that he fears “the worst is yet to come.”

With the conflict entering its second week, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said that 2 million people in Gaza are now at risk of running out of water. “It has become a matter of life and death,” the agency said in a statement Saturday.

“We need to truck fuel into Gaza now. Fuel is the only way for people to have safe drinking water. If not, people will start dying of severe dehydration, among them young children,” said agency head Philippe Lazzarini, calling for an end to Israel’s siege of Gaza.

George reported from Jerusalem and Brown reported from Washington. Joyce Lee and Samuel Oakford in Washington contributed to this report.

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