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

JERUSALEM — Palestinians fled in a mass exodus Friday from northern Gaza after Israel’s military told some 1 million people to evacuate to the southern part of the besieged territory ahead of an expected ground invasion in retaliation for the surprise attack by the ruling Hamas militant group.

The U.N. warned that evacuating almost half of crowded Gaza’s population would be calamitous, and it urged Israel to reverse the unprecedented directive. As airstrikes hammered the territory throughout the day, families in cars, trucks and donkey carts packed with possessions streamed down a main road out of Gaza City.

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Hamas’ media office said warplanes struck cars fleeing south, killing more than 70 people. The Israeli military said its troops conducted temporary raids into Gaza to battle militants and hunted for traces of some 150 people abducted in Hamas’s assault on Israel nearly a week ago.

In urging the evacuation, Israel’s military said it planned to target underground Hamas hideouts around Gaza City. But Palestinians and some Egyptian officials fear that Israel ultimately hopes to push Gaza’s people out through the southern border with Egypt.

Hamas told people to ignore the evacuation order, and families in Gaza faced what they saw as a no-win decision to leave or stay, with no safe ground anywhere. Hospital staff said they couldn’t abandon patients.

Unrelenting Israeli strikes over the past week have leveled large swaths of neighborhoods, magnifying the suffering of Gaza, which has also been 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.

In the nearly week-old war, the Gaza Health Ministry said Friday that roughly 1,900 people have been killed in the territory — more than half of them under the age of 18, or women. The Hamas assault last Saturday killed more than 1,300 Israelis, most of whom were civilians.

Israeli troops make foray into Gaza

Israel’s raid was the first word of troops entering Gaza since Israel launched its round-the-clock bombardment in retaliation for Hamas’ massacre of hundreds of civilians in southern Israel.

A military spokesman said Israeli ground troops left after conducting the raids.

The troop movements did not appear to be the beginning of an expected ground invasion.

The evacuation order was taken as a further signal of an expected Israeli ground offensive, although no such decision has been announced. Israel has been massing troops along the Gaza border.

An assault into densely populated and impoverished Gaza would likely bring even higher casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting.

“We will destroy Hamas,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Friday night in a speech, adding, “This is only the beginning.”

Hamas said Israel’s airstrikes killed 13 of the hostages in the past day. It said the dead included foreigners but did not give their nationalities. Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari denied the claim.

In Israel, the public remained in shock over the Hamas rampage and frightened by continual rocket fire out of Gaza. The public is overwhelmingly in favor of the military offensive, and Israeli TV stations have set up special broadcasts with slogans like “together we will win” and “strong together.” Their reports focus heavily on the aftermath of the Hamas attack and stories of heroism and national unity, and they make scant mention of the unfolding crisis in Gaza.

In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Health Ministry reported 16 Palestinians killed Friday, bringing the total of Palestinians killed there since Hamas’ rampage to 51.

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