Frightened Palestinians, heeding Israel’s warnings to abandon their homes in northern Gaza, raced on Friday to flee to the south of the blockaded coastal strip, as aid groups warned that the evacuation of more than a million civilians would have “devastating consequences.”
There was a palpable sense of crisis in Gaza on Friday, as a buildup of Israeli soldiers near Gaza fueled concerns that Israel was preparing to invade the Hamas-held territory. Many Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza were reluctant to leave their homes for the south, which has even fewer resources, across routes that have already been damaged by a week of Israeli strikes. The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said on Friday that airstrikes had killed at least 70 Palestinians and wounded 200 others who were attempting to flee northern Gaza by car on a main highway. And an ongoing siege pushed Gaza’s medical system to the brink of collapse.
Aid groups warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe and said that the Israeli order to evacuate was illegal under international law. The United Nations also warned that moving more than a million people across Gaza would lead to “devastating consequences,” saying that its priority was negotiating with Israel to allow the opening of a humanitarian channel for deliveries of essential aid, including water.
“It is clear to us that the clock is ticking,” said Stéphane Dujarric, a U.N. spokesman.
Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes since Saturday, when Hamas’s incursion into Israel killed more than 1,300 people, have wiped out entire neighborhoods. The Palestinian Ministry of Health said on Friday that at least 1,900 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, and more than 7,600 injured since the war began.
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Protests erupted across the Middle East over Israel’s siege of Gaza. Hamas had called for worldwide demonstrations on Friday against Israeli actions in Gaza.
Ten Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces on Friday during confrontations in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. At least 49 Palestinians have been killed and more than 950 injured in the West Bank since Saturday, the ministry said.
The U.S. government is talking with Israeli and Egyptian officials about getting safe passage for American citizens, including Palestinian Americans, and other foreigners out of Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, a senior State Department official said on Friday.
The U.S. secretary of defense, Lloyd J. Austin III, said on Friday that American security assistance “is already rapidly flowing into Israel” as he met with the Israeli defense minister in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli military is still identifying victims of the Hamas assault last weekend, which officials say number at least 1,300, most of them unarmed civilians. Cargo containers near Ramla, in central Israel, held hundreds of bodies on Friday. “Notice the small-sized bags,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a military spokesman, said outside one of them. “They are of children and babies.”
Victoria Kim and Mike Ives contributed reporting.