Israel readies troops for invasion as Gaza civilians flee

In Gaza, health officials said more than 2,200 people had been killed. As on the Israeli side, most of them were civilians

Published - October 15, 2023 03:16 am IST - Gaza Strip

A fireball erupts during Israeli bombardment in the northern Gaza Strip on October 14, 2023.

A fireball erupts during Israeli bombardment in the northern Gaza Strip on October 14, 2023. | Photo Credit: AFP

Israel pummelled northern Gaza with fresh air strikes on Saturday, one week on from the deadliest attack in its history, as it asked Palestinians to flee the area before an expected ground offensive against Hamas commanders.

AFP reporters near the southern Israeli city of Sderot saw troops fire at the densely populated enclave, sending huge plumes of black smoke into the sky.

There was no let-up as night fell, with explosions lighting up the darkness all around.

A stern-looking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a flak jacket, earlier visited troops on the border front line, raising expectations of an imminent invasion.

“Are you ready for what is coming? More is coming,” he is heard telling several soldiers on a video released by his office. He later held security talks with ministers in his emergency government.

A week of Israeli salvos was sparked by the Islamist fighters’ dawn raid, which saw them break through the heavily fortified border and gun down, stab and burn to death more than 1,300 people.

In Gaza, health officials said more than 2,200 people had been killed. As on the Israeli side, most of them were civilians.

But with food, water, fuel and medical supplies running low because of an Israeli blockade, aid agencies are warning of an impending humanitarian crisis.

The Israeli military for the first time said the bodies of some of the dozens of hostages abducted by Hamas in its attacks had been found.

On the diplomatic front, Saudi Arabia pressed for an “immediate ceasefire”, while the United States called on China to use its regional influence to push for calm.

Military operations

Israel, which has likened last week’s attacks to those on September 11, 2001 in the United States, has fired thousands of missiles at northern Gaza.

One air strike killed Ali Qadi, described as “a company commander of the Hamas ‘Nukhba’ commando force” involved in the unprecedented attack, the army said.

“Localised” raids have also taken place, as Israeli troops encircle the Gaza Strip, said army spokesman Jonathan Conricus.

“We will likely evolve into additional significant combat operations,” he added. “When we do so, remember how this started... All of this is Hamas-made.”

But National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi admitted intelligence lapses that failed to spot the attack in advance.

Some 1.1 million people -- nearly half the population of 2.4 million -- live in the north of Gaza, and aid agencies have said forcing them to move is an impossibility as the war rages.

Exiled Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh accused Israel on Saturday of committing “war crimes” in Gaza and blocking the supply of much-needed aid.

In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, posted on the militant group’s website, he called Israel’s cutting off of electricity, water and fuel supplies “barbaric”.

Follow Israel-Hamas war, day 8 LIVE updates here

But he ruled out any “displacement” of Gazans, including to Egypt.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, which several Western governments, including the United States, have proscribed as a terrorist organisation, and likened to the Islamic State group.

But it maintains that ordinary Palestinians are not their target.

Safe passage

Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht urged civilians in northern Gaza, where Hamas’s leadership is based, not to delay in getting out.

He said there was a “window” for safe passage between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm, but did not disclose how many days it would remain open.

Several people, however, were reportedly killed in an Israeli bombardment while heading south on Saturday, according to Hamas officials and witnesses.

AFP could not immediately confirm the report.

Gazans, who cannot leave the enclave as it is blockaded by both Israel and Egypt, have packed what belongings they can into bags and suitcases, to trudge through the rubble-strewn streets.

A stream of cars, trucks, three-wheeled vehicles and donkey-drawn carts joined the frantic mass movement south, all loaded with families and their belongings, mattresses, bedding and bags strapped onto the roofs of packed vehicles.

Roads in the 40-kilometre (25-mile) long territory were jammed. Those who have already managed to leave have been forced to bed down wherever they can, including on the streets and in UN-run schools.

“The situation is catastrophic,” said Jumaa Nasser, who travelled from Beit Lahia in northern Gaza with his wife, mother and seven children.

“We’ve had no food or sleep. We don’t know what to do. I’ve given my fate up to God,” he told AFP.

International aid agencies, including the UN and Red Cross, plus several foreign diplomats are concerned about the feasibility of the evacuation plan.

“We fear an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe,” said Ivan Karakashian, of the Norwegian Refugee Council.


According to the UN, more than 1,300 buildings in Gaza have been destroyed, while local hospitals and their exhausted staff have become overwhelmed with growing numbers of dead and injured.

A potential Israeli ground invasion has also increased fears for the safety of the 150 hostages, including foreigners, that Israel said Hamas seized during its deadly rampage.

Hamas has threatened to kill the hostages one by one for every unannounced Israeli air strike.

A total of 22 have already been killed in bombardments, the militant group said, without elaborating.

Israel’s army says it has contacted the families of 120 civilians being held so far. They called for medicines to be transferred to the captives as soon as possible.

US President Joe Biden told US television on Friday that his administration was doing “everything” it could to locate 14 missing Americans.

Regional concern

The Hamas attack and the war it sparked -- Gaza’s fifth in 15 years -- have upended Middle Eastern politics, prompting fears that the violence will spread across the volatile region.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh accused Israel of “genocide” in Gaza, while clashes in the occupied West Bank have killed 53 Palestinians in the past week.

Angry protests condemning Israel and supporting the Palestinians in Gaza took place across the Arab world on Friday.

Western capitals, including London, also saw pro-Palestinian marches.

Israel faces the threat of a separate confrontation on its northern border with Lebanon and artillery exchanges have taken place with the Iran-backed Hezbollah group in recent days.

On Friday, a Reuters video journalist was killed and six other reporters, from AFP, Reuters and Al-Jazeera, were wounded in shelling that Lebanon blamed on Israeli forces.

Two Lebanese civilians were killed in Israeli shelling of a southern village on Saturday, its mayor told AFP. Hezbollah said one of its fighters was killed by Israeli fire.

Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari on Saturday night warned that the army “has very large forces in the north.”

“Whoever reaches the fence to infiltrate Israel, will die,” he said in televised remarks.

Mr. Blinken, who has told Israel of Washington’s full support for its fightback, said on Saturday he had a “productive” one-hour phone call with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

He is seeking Beijing’s help in restoring calm, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

In Beijing, Mr. Wang said China wanted urgent peace talks to resolve the situation, a read-out from the foreign ministry said.

Saudi Arabia, which has been seeking closer ties with Israel, has put “possible normalisation” talks on hold, a source familiar with the discussions told AFP.

After a meeting with Mr. Blinken, Riyadh said it was calling for “an immediate ceasefire in Gaza” and the surrounding area, and for the siege to be lifted to allow aid to get in.

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