Israel troops start ground raids in Gaza
Shift from Israel's air war to ground operations begin, say military
JERUSALEM — Israel said its infantry and tanks had carried out raids inside the Gaza Strip on Friday, its first announcement of a shift from an air war to ground operations to root out Hamas fighters a week after their deadly rampage in southern Israel.
Some Gaza residents were abandoning homes on Friday to escape from the path of an Israeli onslaught, after Israel ordered more than a million people to leave the northern half of the Gaza Strip within 24 hours. Hamas told them not to go.
Israel troops in Gaza
Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said troops backed by tanks had mounted raids to attack Palestinian rocket crews and seek information on the location of hostages, the first official account of ground troops in Gaza since the crisis began.
Several thousand residents could be seen on roads heading out of the northern part of the Gaza Strip, but it was impossible to assess their numbers. Many others said they would not go.
Hamas, which controls the densely populated Palestinian territory, vowed to fight until the last drop of blood. The Israeli military said a significant number of Gazans had begun moving southwards “to save themselves”.
‘I was born here, and I will die here’
“Death is better than leaving,” said Mohammad, 20, standing in the street outside a building reduced to rubble in an earlier Israeli air strike near the centre of Gaza.
“I was born here, and I will die here. Leaving is a stigma.”
Mosques broadcast the message: “Hold on to your homes. Hold on to your land”.
“We tell the people of northern Gaza and from Gaza City, stay put in your homes, and your places,” Eyad Al-Bozom, spokesman for the Hamas Interior Ministry, told a news conference.
Gaza authorities said 70 people were killed and 200 were wounded when Israel struck cars and trucks carrying people fleeing the north of the strip for the south. Reuters could not independently verify the reported incident.
The United Nations and other organisations warned of a disaster if so many people were forced to flee.
“The United Nations considers it impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said, prompting a rebuke from Israel that the U.N. should condemn Hamas and support Israel’s right to self-defence.
“The noose around the civilian population in Gaza is tightening. How are 1.1 million people supposed to move across a densely populated war zone in less than 24 hours?” U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths wrote on social media.
‘Needs are staggering’
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it would be impossible for aid organisations to help while Gaza is under Israeli siege: “The needs are staggering, and humanitarian organisations must be able to increase aid operations.”
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said such a huge evacuation was a “tall order”, but that Washington would not second guess Israel’s decision to tell civilians to get out.
“We understand what they’re trying to do and why they’re trying to do this – to try to isolate the civilian population from Hamas, which is their real target,” he said on MSNBC.
Israel’s evacuation order applies to the northern half of the Gaza Strip, including the enclave’s biggest settlement Gaza City. The U.N. said it had been told that Israel wanted the area’s entire population – around half the 2.3 million Gazans – to move across the Gaza Wadi wetland that bisects the enclave.
“Civilians of Gaza City, evacuate south for your own safety and the safety of your families and distance yourself from Hamas terrorists who are using you as human shields,” the Israeli military said.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority that is a rival of Hamas, told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jordan that the forced displacement of Palestinians in Gaza would constitute a repeat of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from what is now Israel. Most Gazans are the descendants of such refugees.
Gaza is already one of the most crowded places on earth, and for now there is no way out. Israel has imposed a total blockade, and Egypt, which also has a border with the enclave, has so far resisted calls to open it to fleeing residents.
‘I promise you we will win’
Since Hamas fighters burst across the barrier fence and killed 1,300 Israelis on Saturday, Israel has responded with the most intensive air strikes of its 75-year conflict with the Palestinians. Gaza authorities say 1,800 people have been killed; the United Nations says 400,000 people have already been made homeless.
Hamas issued a video on Friday purporting to show its fighters cuddling a baby and a toddler in one of the villages it ransacked. Israel has said entire families were slaughtered.
“We are fighting for our home. We are fighting for our future,” Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said, meeting U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who came to Israel a day after a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “The path will be long, but ultimately I promise you we will win.”
Austin said military aid was flowing into Israel but that this was the time for resolve and not revenge.
On Friday Blinken travelled to Jordan where he met King Abdullah as well as Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank but lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007. Blinken later travelled to Qatar, a U.S. ally with influence among Islamist groups.
West Bank, Lebanon
In the West Bank, demonstrators supporting Gaza fought gun battles with Israeli security forces. Palestinian officials said 11 people were shot dead.
There have also been fears of hostilities spreading to new fronts, including Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where clashes this week have already been the deadliest since 2006.
Reuters news videographer Issam Abdallah was killed on Friday while working in southern Lebanon. Reuters said it was seeking more information and working with the authorities in the region.
Earlier, Reuters reported that Israeli shelling had struck a Lebanese army observation post at the border. The Israeli military said it fired in response to a suspected armed infiltration, which it later said had been a false alarm. Lebanese state media reported that shells struck near Alma Al-Shaab and Dhayra, sites of repeated clashes in the past week.
Israel’s U.N. envoy said it would investigate what had happened in the area following the journalist’s death.
“We always try to mitigate and avoid civilian casualties. Obviously, we would never want to hit or kill or shoot any journalist that is doing its job,” Gilad Erdan said.
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