Gazans flee their homes after an Israeli evacuation order but have few places to go
Updated October 13, 2023 at 8:01 PM ET
JERUSALEM — More than 1 million residents of the besieged Gaza Strip were told Friday in paper notices dropped from the sky to leave their homes.
The unprecedented evacuation order from the Israeli military unleashed a new level of panic and chaos in the territory, which has been plunged into darkness since the main power plant shut down completely two days ago after running out of fuel.
The order comes ahead of Israel's expected counterattack after Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip launched a large-scale attack last week on southern cities in Israel, breaking through a barrier and gunning down civilians and soldiers. About 1,300 people in Israel were killed, and more than 100 hostages were taken to Gaza, Israeli officials say.
"This is just the beginning," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a nationally televised speech on Friday. "We will end this war stronger than ever."
Some 300,000 Israeli reservists are positioned along Israel's border with Gaza for an anticipated ground invasion. Israeli officials have vowed to defend Israel and stamp out Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza and whose military wing led the assault on Israel.
The evacuation order — which marks a dramatic escalation of Israel's retaliation — impacts half of Gaza's population and encompasses its largest city, Gaza City, and the territory's main medical center, Al-Shifa Hospital.
After days of retaliatory airstrikes, the death toll in Gaza has reached 1,900, many of them children, according to Palestinian health officials. More than 7,600 people have been wounded.
Evacuation order evokes "catastrophic" 1948 displacement
Hamas called on Palestinians to ignore the Israeli evacuation order and remain "steadfast in your homes."
Hamas interior ministry spokesman Eyad Al-Bozom accused Israelis of an intent to "displace us once again from our land," a reference to what Palestinians call the Nakba — the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 when the state of Israel was established. The Arabic word means "catastrophe."
Noor Harazeen, a freelance journalist whose home is in central Gaza, evacuated Friday with her children and husband to the south to take shelter in a hospital.
Her parents refused to leave, she said, calling the evacuation order a "second Nakba."
"They will not do what happened in the previous Nakba. They will not leave their home," she told NPR.
No safe place to evacuate to in Gaza
Harazeen's family was "lucky" to evacuate by car, she said. On the drive south, she saw hundreds of people walking the 20 miles or more to safety.
"People are shocked. People are trying to understand what is really happening in Gaza," she said. "Will we go back to our homes? Will our homes be there? Will our homes be destroyed? What will happen? So many questions in my head and in other people's heads.
"It's a new catastrophe. It's a new Nakba for the Palestinian people here in Gaza," she said.
As Palestinian families in Gaza tried to evacuate Friday, some were struck in their cars by Israeli airstrikes, killing dozens of people — many of them women and children, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
There is no safe place for people to flee to. The territory, which is roughly 140 square miles in area — far smaller than most U.S. counties — is completely sealed off.
All of Gaza's border crossings have been closed by Israel, and its crossing with Egypt was bombed and remains shut. All of Gaza's residents are trapped inside for now.
Order to evacuate is "impossible," the U.N. says
The evacuation order drew immediate outcry from humanitarian groups. Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, called on Israel to reverse the evacuation order. "Absent of any guarantees of safety or return, [it] would amount to the war crime of forcible transfer," he said.
The United Nations, which has several humanitarian facilities in the evacuation area, reported that Israel advised U.N. staff to evacuate within 24 hours.
The U.N. said it would be "impossible" to move so many Gazans without "devastating humanitarian consequences."
The U.N. said it is not able to take in so many evacuees. "We believe that it cannot happen in a safe manner and certainly not in 24 hours," Lynn Hastings, the United Nations' top humanitarian coordinator in Gaza, told NPR.
The U.N.'s relief organization in Gaza, known as UNRWA, is already sheltering some 270,000 displaced Palestinians in 102 schools across Gaza, about half of which were not previously equipped to be shelters.
UNRWA said it had moved its operations center and international staff to the southern part of Gaza, which has also been under days of constant heavy bombardment by Israel.
Crisis in Gaza worsens as residents try to flee
There is no way for hospitals and clinics in northern Gaza, treating the stream of wounded victims from near-constant bombings, to be evacuated. Roads are damaged, and ambulances, which have also been stuck, are driving in the dead and wounded from continuous airstrikes.
On Friday, hours after the evacuation leaflets began to land, Hussam Abu Safiya, a doctor in Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza, was still treating a stream of patients wounded by airstrikes. His hospital, like others, has reached capacity and is running on generators with around a week's worth of fuel supply left.
Abu Safiya, who also works with the international nonprofit MedGlobal, said his hospital is treating complex injuries, with missing limbs and full body burns.
"Most of the injured, they're all children, all children," he told NPR in a voice message. (Airstrikes have disrupted phone connectivity in Gaza.) "There's been evacuation orders. People have children, elderly. Where should they go?"
There are also dwindling food and water supplies. The majority of Palestinians in Gaza no longer have access to safe drinking water, not even bottled water, said Hastings, the United Nations' resident coordinator for the Palestinian territories.
U.S. pledges support to Israel, is working to get citizens out
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's arrival in Israel on Friday came on the heels of Thursday's visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
By Friday, Blinken had traveled to Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah II and, later, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
Blinken is visiting five Arab states over the next few days as he tries to contain the conflict in Gaza to prevent it from becoming regional.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog said Thursday that his country has the right to defend itself.
"I agree there are many, many Palestinians who don't agree to this," he told reporters. "But unfortunately, in their homes there are missiles shooting at us, [at] my children, on the entire nation of Israel. We have to defend ourselves."
The U.S. diplomatic efforts come as concerns grow that the chaos — the worst outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza in recent memory — could spread to the occupied West Bank. It already has: 49 Palestinians have died in the region since Saturday, either in clashes with Israeli security forces or Jewish settlers, and more than 950 Palestinians have been wounded there.
North of the West Bank, a Reuters journalist was killed on Friday in southern Lebanon. At least six other journalists from Reuters, AFP and Al Jazeera were injured, according to the news agencies. Reuters said it's investigating the incident.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his condolences to the families of the journalists, who he said are unfortunately paying with their lives.
"I want to say how much this demonstrates the enormous risk of spillover of this conflict, namely in relation to Lebanon," Guterres told reporters.
Charter flights to evacuate U.S. citizens who remain in Israel began Friday. Other countries, such as China, France and the United Kingdom, have also reported citizens killed or missing in the conflict.
Diplomatic conversations are happening about how citizens from the U.S. and other countries could have safe passage out of Gaza.
Meanwhile, Hamas' military wing, Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades, said 13 hostages, among them foreigners, were killed in Israeli strikes in different locations in Gaza over the past 24 hours. That brings to 17 the number that the group says were killed by Israeli fire since their abduction Saturday.
At least 27 U.S. citizens were killed in the weekend's Hamas attacks, the White House said Friday. Another 14 Americans are currently unaccounted for.
On Friday, President Biden held a call with the families of the 14 Americans who are missing, along with U.S. hostage envoy Roger Carstens and other senior officials. A small number of the unaccounted-for Americans are believed to be held hostage.
Aya Batrawy reported from Jerusalem; Becky Sullivan reported from Washington, D.C. Daniel Estrin contributed reporting from Tel Aviv; Emma Bowman contributed reporting from Los Angeles; Linah Mohammad contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.
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