Hamas, which controls the strip, told residents to stay put, and vowed to fight to the last drop of blood. By Friday afternoon there was no sign of any mass exodus as Israel prepared its onslaught.
“Death is better than leaving,” said Mohammad, 20, standing in the street outside a building reduced to rubble in an Israeli air strike two days ago near the centre of Gaza.
“I was born here, and I will die here, leaving is a stigma.”
The United Nations said evacuating everyone was impossible with power supplies cut and food and water in the Palestinian enclave running short after a week of retaliatory air strikes and a full Israeli blockade. The U.S. called it a “tall order“.
The northern half of the Gaza Strip includes the enclave’s biggest settlement Gaza City. The U.N. said it had been told that Israel wanted the entire population to move across the wetlands that bisect 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, accusing Hamas of hiding in and under civilian buildings.
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.
Abbas called for aid to be allowed into Gaza immediately. Israel has said it will not lift its blockade until scores of hostages captured by Hamas are set free. The Red Cross has said hospitals could soon run out of emergency fuel.
International talks focused on providing aid and safe zones in Gaza amid fears the conflict could spread, with Iran warning of a response from its allies, which include Hamas and the powerful Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.
Pro-Palestinian protests were held around the world and in some places, Jewish communities feared they could be targeted after Israel’s military response to the unprecedented weekend attacks that killed more than 1,300 people, mostly civilians.
Israel has already responded with the most intensive air strikes of its 75-year conflict with the Palestinians. Gaza authorities say more than 1,500 people have been killed.
“We are ready to join the fight and rid the Palestinians of the Israeli atrocities,” said Muntadhar Kareem, 25, a teacher among thousands of Iraqis protesting in Baghdad.
The Israeli military pledged to operate “significantly” in coming days.
“We are fighting for our home. We are fighting for our future,” Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said. “The path will be long, but ultimately I promise you we will win.”
Israel says the horrific attack on its civilians means it must annihilate the militant group and others must get out of the way. Hamas tunnels, military compounds, senior operatives’ residences and weapons storage warehouses were among 750 military targets struck overnight, it said.
The military wing of Hamas said the latest air strikes had killed 13 of the captives it brought back from Israel and that it had fired 150 rockets at Israel in response.
The United Nations said Israel’s call for Gaza civilians to leave could not happen “without devastating humanitarian consequences”, prompting a rebuke from Israel which said it should condemn Hamas and support Israel’s right to self-defence.
A ground invasion of the narrow and densely populated Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million people, poses serious risk, with Hamas threatening to kill its hostages.
Hours after the Israeli evacuation call, there were no signs people were leaving Gaza City, where dozens gathered at the al-Shifa Hospital, vowing to stay put.
Palestinians in southern and central areas of the enclave, where people were expected to flee to, said air strikes had hit there overnight, with central parts also hit on Friday morning. “No place is safe in the entire Gaza Strip,” the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said.
The U.N. humanitarian office (OCHA) said more than 400,000 people had already been made homeless in Gaza and 23 aid workers had been killed. “Mass displacement continues,” it said.
The U.N. Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) said it had moved its central operations centre and international staff to Gaza’s south and urged Israel to spare its shelters.
‘RIDDLED WITH BULLETS’
Seeking to build support for its response, Israel’s government showed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO defence ministers graphic images of those killed.
“It’s simply depravity in the worst imaginable way,” Blinken said, joining others in urging Israel to show restraint while also reiterating America’s support, saying: “We will always be there by your side.”
On Friday he met Jordan’s 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 is also set to visit Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – some with influence on Hamas, which is backed by Iran.
Iran’s foreign minister met the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nassrallah, in Lebanon, where there have been cross-border clashes with Israel since the weekend, Lebanese media outlets reported.
“The continuation of war crimes against Palestine and Gaza will receive a response from the rest of the axis,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said.
The foreign minister of Turkey, which has offered mediation, talked with his counterpart from the UAE, a Turkish foreign ministry source said, and will visit Egypt on Friday.
The U.S. military is placing no conditions on its security assistance to Israel, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, adding Washington expected it to “do the right things”. Austin was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on Friday.
SAFETY CONCERNS PROMPT SECURITY MEASURES
The United States and Japan were among countries offering charter flights for their citizens wanting to leave Israel while police in Paris used tear gas and water cannon to break up a banned rally in support of the Palestinians.
Some Jewish schools in Amsterdam and London were set to close temporarily due to safety concerns and police in New York and Los Angeles stepped up their presence around synagogues and Jewish community centres.
Abbas and the Palestinian Authority say they oppose killing civilians but have stopped short of directly condemning the Hamas attacks, blaming the escalation on Israel having strengthened extremists by ignoring Palestinian grievances.
Gazans have suffered economic collapse and repeated Israeli bombardment under a blockade since Hamas seized power there 16 years ago. Talks to create a Palestinian state collapsed a decade ago and Israel’s right-wing government has cracked down in the West Bank and talked of seizing more land. Israel says it has had no reliable partner for negotiations.
By Henriette Chacar, Michelle Nichols and Humeyra Pamuk
(Reporting by Henriette Chacar, Dedi Hayun, Maayan Lubell, Emily Rose, James Mackenzie in Jerusalem, Michelle Nichols in New York, Emma Farge in Geneva, Jeff Mason in Washington, Humeyra Pamuk in Tel Aviv, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Emma Farge in Geneva; Writing by Michael Martina, Michael Perry, Michael Georgy and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Howard Goller, Diane Craft, Lincoln Feast, Nick Macfie, Peter Graff)