Israel prepares for ‘significant’ ground operations as Gazans stream south

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Tens of thousands of Palestinians fled northern Gaza for a second day ahead of an evacuation deadline, as Israel extended an aerial bombardment and carried out limited raids into the enclave to search for hostages seized a week ago by Hamas fighters.

Israel has ordered 1.1mn Palestinian civilians to leave the northern part of the 40km Gaza Strip ahead of an expected full-scale ground invasion against Hamas, the militant group that staged a cross-border attack last Saturday.

Israeli authorities said Hamas killed at least 1,300 Israelis, mainly civilians, in the attack. At least 1,900 people have been killed in Gaza, local health officials said, since Israel started its bombardment.

The evacuation order, which Israel said it gave to protect civilians as it targeted Hamas, has been condemned by the UN while the EU’s chief diplomat said on Saturday that Israel needed to respect international law while at war with Hamas.

Josep Borrell said the evacuation order was impractical and would create an even worse humanitarian crisis in the territory.

“It’s utterly, utterly impossible to implement,” Borrell told reporters during a visit to Beijing.

“You cannot move such a vast volume of people in such a short period of time, especially [when there are] no shelters, neither transportation means . . . they have to give more time in order to make it possible and not to create a terrible humanitarian situation.”

Israel said on Saturday that it would restrict firing on some indicated streets to allow movement.

The border with Egypt remains largely closed, leaving no exit for the 2.3mn Palestinians hemmed inside Gaza since Israel imposed a 2007 blockade in response to Hamas’s violent takeover of the territory.

Israel has cut off food, fresh water and electricity to Gaza, after defence minister Yoav Gallant declared a “complete siege” this week. The UN said water supplies were drastically low, with people forced to drink brackish water, raising fears of disease.

IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus said early on Saturday that Israel intended to “enhance our military operations” in Gaza City, the largest city in the densely crowded enclave and a centre of Hamas’s political and military apparatus.

The IDF said on Friday that Israeli special forces had entered Gaza in the first known incursion since a 2014 war, hunting for hostages. They collected bodies of captives near the border fence, finding “evidence that would assist in the effort to locate hostages”, and fired at Hamas anti-tank missile crews attacking Israel.

Hamas has indicated it intended to trade the hostages for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel has identified 120 hostages, the IDF said.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said on Friday that hundreds of thousands of Gazans were fleeing south in cars, trucks and carts as fuel shortages and destroyed roads hampered their escape. Others were either choosing to stay or were unable to leave.

The displacement amounted to a second “Nakba” or catastrophe — the term used by Palestinians to describe their eviction from their homeland after the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 — Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said on Friday.

Israel-Hamas war

Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, said on Friday that the war with Hamas would “take time”.

“We’re striking our enemies with unprecedented power,” Netanyahu said in a rare Shabbat address. “This is only the beginning. Our enemies are only starting to pay the price.”

On Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, Iran-backed Hizbollah fighters fired anti-tank missiles at Israeli soldiers, sent two drones into Israel and fired surface to air missiles at Israeli aircraft, Conricus said on Saturday.

“The situation on the northern border remains very tense,” he said.

Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr