Surge in number of people fleeing Gaza City as fighting intensifies

Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip (AP)
Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip (AP)

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled south from Gaza City, seeking to escape fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas – as well as the accompanying aerial bombardment.

The exodus took place in a window of five hours announced by Israel. The military has told residents to evacuate the area encircled by its armoured forces or risk being trapped in the violence of its war to eradicate Hamas.

The military said troops have advanced into the heart of the city claiming Hamas has lost control of the north of Gaza.

Chief Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said that combat engineers were using explosive devices to destroy a tunnel network that stretches for hundreds of miles beneath Gaza, with a statement saying that 130 tunnel shafts had been destroyed so far. Israeli tanks are said to have faced Hamas using the tunnels to stage ambushes.

The Israeli military also announced that airstrikes had killed a Hamas weapons maker, Mohsen Abu Zina, and several fighters. “Mohsen Abu Zina served as one of Hamas’s leading weapon developers, with expertise in strategic weapons and rockets, and his department facilitated the arming of Hamas in the current conflict,” a statement said. It comes after Israeli forces said they had cornered Yahya Sinwar, the most senior Hamas leader in Gaza in his bunker, without giving a location.

Mr Sinwar is believed to be one of the key planners behind the Hamas attack inside Israel on 7 October that saw 1,400 people killed and around 240 taken hostage back into Gaza. In response, Israel has put Gaza under continual aerial bombardment, with ground operations also ramping up in the last 10 days. Rockets have also been fired by Hamas into Israel. The health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip has said more than 10,500 people have been killed in the bombardment. Israel has also blockaded the Strip, with the UN and aid agencies saying that far more aid needs to be allowed into the besieged territory as fuel used for power, water, food and medical supplies all run low or out.

Smoke rises in the northern Gaza Strip following an Israeli airstrike (Reuters)
Smoke rises in the northern Gaza Strip following an Israeli airstrike (Reuters)

As fighting has intensified, the number of those seeking to leave Gaza City has surged, although Palestinian officials say hundreds of thousands still remain in northern Gaza. On Sunday, 2,000 people moved south, mostly along the main Salah al-Din highway. On Monday that number was 5,000. About 15,000 people fled on Tuesday according to the UN. Israel said about 50,000 Palestinians left the Gaza City area on Wednesday.

Families filled the road, almost all on foot, with men and women carrying young children or pushing the elderly on makeshift carts. Most had only a few belongings in backpacks. A few families rode on donkey carts, holding white flags as they approached Israeli tanks. The UN said some reported people being arrested as they crossed Israeli checkpoints.

“We didn’t have food or drinking water ... They struck the bakeries. There is no life in Gaza,” Abeer Akila, who left her home in Gaza City with her family and neighbours after heavy bombardment overnight, told Reuters.

But the central and southern parts of the Gaza Strip also came under fire from air strikes on Wednesday. Health officials in the Hamas-controlled territory said that half of those killed in Gaza in the past 24 hours were killed in the south of the Strip.

Israel has faced growing calls for a “humanitarian pause” in its war as the death toll mounts. The UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said on Wednesday that the number of civilians killed in the Gaza Strip shows that there is something “clearly wrong” with Israel’s military operations.

“There are violations by Hamas when they have human shields. But when one looks at the number of civilians that were killed with the military operations, there is something that is clearly wrong,” Mr Guterres said. “It is also important to make Israel understand that it is against the interests of Israel to see every day the terrible image of the dramatic humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people,” he added. “That doesn’t help Israel in relation to the global public opinion.”

Yahya Sinwar (AFP via Getty)
Yahya Sinwar (AFP via Getty)

While strongly condemning the Hamas attack on Israel, Mr Guterres said: “We need to distinguish – Hamas is one thing, the Palestinian people [are] another... If we don’t make that distinction, I think it’s humanity itself that will lose its meaning.”

After intensive meetings in Tokyo, the G7, which includes the UK, released a statement condemning Hamas and supporting Israel’s right to self-defence. But the group also called for the “unimpeded” delivery of food, water, medicine and fuel, and for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has left open the possibility of small pauses to deliver humanitarian aid, but has ruled out a broader cease-fire unless all hostages are freed. Negotiations mediated by Qatar are said to be ongoing to secure the release of 10 to 15 hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a one or two-day humanitarian pause, a source briefed on the negotiations told Reuters.

Israel has so far been vague about its long-term plans if it achieves its aim in Gaza. Mr Netanyahu told ABC News in the US earlier this week that Israel would seek to have security responsibility for the Strip “for an indefinite period” although other Israeli officials have sought to temper that language somewhat.

In Tokyo, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said that Israel must not reoccupy Gaza, but that it might control the territory for a transition period. “Gaza cannot … continue to be run by Hamas; that simply invites repetition of 7 October,” Mr Blinken said.

“It’s also clear that Israel cannot occupy Gaza. Now, the reality is that there may be a need for some transition period at the end of the conflict ... We don’t see a reoccupation and what I’ve heard from Israeli leaders is that they have no intent to reoccupy Gaza,” he added.

Elsewhere, more than 150 British nationals have left Gaza via the Rafah crossing with Egypt as of Tuesday night, a Foreign Office minister has said.

Making a statement in the Commons, Andrew Mitchell said: “Working with partners, we have been engaging intensively with Israel and Egypt to allow foreign nationals to leave Gaza via the Rafah border crossing ... This has proved possible on five of the last seven days and I can confirm to the House that as of late last night, over 150 British nationals have made it through to Egypt.”

However, the US said the border crossing had been closed on Wednesday evening due to an unspecified “security circumstance”.