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1.1m Gazans given 24 hours to evacuate ahead of ground assault

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Israel on Friday gave Palestinians 24 hours to leave Gaza City ahead of an expected ground offensive in retaliation against Hamas for the deadliest attack in Israeli history.

The United Nations said it had been informed of the evacuation order shortly before midnight Thursday, six days after hundreds of Hamas gunmen broke through the militarized border barrier around the Gaza enclave and killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, drawing comparisons to the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The UN said the mass relocation, affecting 1.1 million or about half the entire population of the Gaza Strip, to the territory’s south was “impossible” and urgently appealed for the order to be rescinded.

Any Israeli ground operation is complicated by Hamas’s holding — according to Israel’s government — of around 150 Israeli, foreign and dual-national hostages.

Hamas on Friday said 13 hostages, including foreigners, had been killed in Israeli strikes. The terrorists had previously reported four hostages killed in strikes, and the latest deaths came at “five locations targeted by Israeli fighter jets,” they said.

Israel has retaliated by hitting targets in Gaza with thousands of munitions, in strikes claiming more than 1,530 lives — 500 of them children, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

The Israeli army confirmed Friday it had called on Gaza City residents to move “to the area south of the Wadi Gaza,” which is just below Gaza City in the 40 kilometer-long territory.

“In the following days, the IDF will continue to operate significantly in Gaza City and make extensive efforts to avoid harming civilians,” the army said. “Hamas terrorists are hiding in Gaza City inside tunnels underneath houses and inside buildings populated with innocent civilians.”

UN officials working in Gaza said earlier they were informed by the Israeli military that the evacuation should be carried out “within the next 24 hours.”

Agence France-Presse correspondents said there were “heavy strikes” in the northern Gaza Strip on Friday morning, including Al-Shati refugee camp and Gaza City, primarily targeting residential buildings.

The Hamas media office reported Israeli air raids on Khan Yunis and Rafah in the south.

Israel’s army said its “fighter jets struck 750 military targets in the northern Gaza Strip overnight” including “residences of senior terrorist operatives used as military command centers”.

Israel says it seeks to eliminate the capability of Hamas, which itself wants Israel’s destruction and said its attack Saturday sought to end Israel’s “rampaging without being held accountable”.

Hamas, in a statement, said “our Palestinian people” rejected Israel’s Gaza evacuation order.

FLEEING FROM, MASSING FOR WAR. A boy carries a mattress as Palestinians with their belongings flee to safer areas in Gaza City after Israeli air strikes, on October 13. Meanwhile, Israeli army Merkava battle tanks and other vehicles deploy along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on Friday. AFP

Carrying plastic bags of belongings, with suitcases on their shoulders and children in their arms, Gazans were, however, moving to safer areas on Friday.

More than 423,000 people have already fled their homes in the territory, according to the UN.

Such an evacuation order could transform “what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation,” a UN spokesman said.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) later said it had moved its central operations center and international staff to the south of Gaza.

Egypt’s Rafah crossing is the only route out of Gaza not controlled by Israel and has been bombed on several occasions this week.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Egypt remains committed to ensuring the delivery of aid to Gaza, but urged Palestinians to “remain on their land” in a speech Thursday.

‘Very painful’

Gaza’s 2.4 million residents are enduring the fifth war in 15 years.

Israeli fighter jets and drones have leveled entire blocks and destroyed thousands of buildings.

The territory had already been under a land, air and sea blockade since 2006.

Israel has cut off water, food and power supplies to Gaza in a total siege it has vowed will not end until all hostages are freed.

Hamas has threatened to kill captives if Israel bombs Gaza civilian targets without advance warning.

“I know he’s out there somewhere,” a distraught Israeli, Ausa Meir, said of her brother Michael, who is among the captives.

“It’s very, very painful.”

US support

The United States has vowed unwavering support for Israel in its war on Hamas.

“You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a joint press conference in Tel Aviv with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.

“But as long as America exists, you will never, ever have to. We will always be there by your side.”

Netanyahu voiced appreciation for the US support, which includes additional military aid, and said Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, should be “crushed” like the Islamic State group.

Blinken stressed Hamas did not represent the Palestinian people.

Blinken then traveled to Jordan, where he will meet King Abdullah II and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas on Friday.

He will also go to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Qatar to put pressure on Hamas and secure the release of hostages.

Hospital morgues

The International Committee of the Red Cross Middle East chief Fabrizio Carboni warned Gaza’s hospitals “risk turning into morgues.”

An uninterrupted stream of ambulances arrived Thursday at Gaza’s biggest hospital, Al-Shifa, where relatives of the dead wailed in anguish and others sought news of loved ones.

An AFP team saw dozens of bodies wrapped in white shrouds in cold storage units and covering the floor of the mortuary.

The UN humanitarian agency has launched an urgent appeal for nearly $300 million to address the most urgent needs in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Military build-up

Israel has called up 300,000 reservists and rushed forces, tanks and heavy armor to the southern desert areas around Gaza from where Hamas fighters launched their attack on Saturday.

Israeli soldiers have since then swept the southern towns and kibbutz communities and said they found the bodies of 1,500 militants, while making ever more shocking discoveries of large numbers of dead civilians.

Yossi Landau, who has 33 years’ volunteer experience with Zaka, which recovers the bodies of people who suffered unnatural deaths, says he has almost reached breaking point recovering the remains of those killed by Gaza militants.

In Beeri, a community just north of Gaza, he recalled finding a dead woman in a home.

“Her stomach was ripped open, a baby was there, still connected with the cord, and stabbed,” said Landau.

They were among more than 100 people killed in Beeri, while around 270 were gunned down or burned in their cars at the nearby Supernova music festival.

Hamas denied its fighters killed infants during the attack on Saturday.

Hezbollah threat

Israel’s war now flaring in the south is further complicated by a threat from the north, the Iran-backed Hezbollah group based in Lebanon.

The army has massed tanks on the border after repeated clashes with Hezbollah in recent days, including cross-border rockets and shelling.

The United States has sent additional munitions to Israel and deployed an aircraft carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean in a show of support, while warning Israel’s other enemies not to enter the war.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel on Friday on a visit also aimed at showing solidarity, after Blinken’s stop.

In London, the UK said it was sending two Royal Navy ships and surveillance aircraft to the eastern Mediterranean to support Israel, as well as “ensure regional stability and prevent further escalation.”

Israel’s arch foe Iran has long financially and militarily backed Hamas and praised its attack, but insists it was not involved.

The Washington Post reported that US and Qatari officials have agreed to prevent Iran from using a $6 billion humanitarian assistance fund, following the Hamas attack.

“The US government knows that it can NOT renege on the agreement,” Ali Karimi Magham, spokesperson of Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations, said late Thursday in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Thousands of Iranians took to the streets on Friday in a sign of support for the Palestinians. A similar number demonstrated in the Iraqi capital Baghdad where they chanted, “No to the occupation! Not to America!”

Looming crisis

Blinken spoke with Jordan’s king Friday about how to address a looming humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip as Israel readies a US-supported offensive following deadly attacks by Hamas.

Blinken huddled with King Abdullah II as well as Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Amman at the start of a tour of six Arab countries that will also take the top US diplomat to Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

The Jordanian king, a longtime US partner, called for “opening humanitarian corridors to allow for the entry of urgent medical and relief aid to Gaza, and protecting civilians and stopping the escalation and war on Gaza,” a statement from the royal court said.

US officials are working with Egypt, which also borders Gaza and was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, on a plan for a safe corridor from Gaza.

But Jordan, home to two million Palestinian refugees, warned against permanent displacement.

“The crisis should not be spread to neighboring countries and exacerbate the refugee issue,” the king told Blinken, according to the palace.

Hamas is financially backed by US arch-enemy Iran but also has longstanding ties with US partner Qatar, which has been seen as an intermediary in freeing the hostages.

“We’ll continue pressing countries to help prevent the conflict from spreading, and to use their leverage with Hamas to immediately and unconditionally release the hostages,” Blinken said late Thursday in Tel Aviv.

Saudi Arabia in the weeks before the attacks had spoken of progress in US-led diplomacy to normalise relations with Israel — a landmark step for the conservative kingdom that is guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites.

Iran meanwhile, said the United States must rein in Israel to avert a regional spillover of the war with Hamas.

ister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian spoke as Hamas and Israel traded heavy fire for a seventh day, after hundreds of Hamas gunmen stormed across the border from Gaza into Israel on Saturday and killed 1,200 people.

Israel has retaliated by raining air and artillery strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, leaving more than 1,350 people dead.

“America wants to give Israel a chance to destroy Gaza, and this is… a grave mistake,” Amir-Abdollahian said, adding, “if the Americans want to prevent the war in the region from developing, they must control Israel.” — AFP

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