Israel readies to invade Gaza where 1m Palestinians have fled homes

Published October 15, 2023
Palestinians flee their houses amid Israeli strikes after Israel’s call for more than 1 million civilians in northern Gaza to move south, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, October 14, 2023. — Reuters
Palestinians flee their houses amid Israeli strikes after Israel’s call for more than 1 million civilians in northern Gaza to move south, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, October 14, 2023. — Reuters
Palestinians walk by the site of Israeli strikes on houses in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 15, 2023. — Reuters
Palestinians walk by the site of Israeli strikes on houses in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 15, 2023. — Reuters
Palestinian man Mohammad Abu Daqa, who survived Israeli strikes that killed 8 family members and still searches for three others who are still trapped under the rubble of his house, reacts in front of the ruins in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 15, 2023. — Reuters
Palestinian man Mohammad Abu Daqa, who survived Israeli strikes that killed 8 family members and still searches for three others who are still trapped under the rubble of his house, reacts in front of the ruins in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 15, 2023. — Reuters

Israeli forces were on Sunday readying for a looming ground invasion of Gaza, where the United Nations estimated that one million Palestinians have been displaced in the war’s first week.

In the eight days since Hamas fighters killed more than 1,400 Israelis in their surprise onslaught, Israel has responded with a devastating bombing campaign that has left at least 2,450 people dead, authorities said.


Key developments

  • Rallies held in Karachi, Sydney, Morocco, Amsterdam in support of Palestinians
  • UN says Israel’s evacuation order has triggered a ‘mass displacement’ towards south of Gaza; UN official says situation is ‘catastrophic’
  • Over 2,400 killed in Gaza, over 400,000 people displaced; 1,400 Israelis dead
  • Egypt rejects plan to displace Palestinians ‘to the detriment of other countries’

Fear and chaos reigned in the 40 kilometre (25-mile) long strip that is one of the world’s most densely populated areas.

Entire Gaza city blocks lay in ruins and hospitals were overflowing with thousands of wounded in the besieged territory, but there were fears of worse to come.

“An estimated one million people have been displaced in the first seven days” of the war in Gaza, Juliette Touma of the UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees told AFP.

Israel has massed forces outside the long-blockaded enclave of 2.4 million in preparation for what the army has said would be a land, air and sea attack involving a “significant ground operation”.

Special forces have made forays into Gaza and recovered the bodies of some of the 126 confirmed hostages taken by Hamas, the army said without specifying how many.

A Gaza ground invasion threatens to bring the kind of gruelling house-to-house fighting that devastated Iraq’s Mosul and Fallujah in years past, further complicated for Israeli forces by Hamas’ vast tunnel network. The Arab League and African Union have warned the invasion could lead to “genocide”.

“No one can guarantee the control of the situation and the non-expansion of the conflicts” if Israel sends its soldiers into Gaza, said Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

‘Mass displacement’

According to the United Nations, Israel’s evacuation order has triggered a “mass displacement” towards the south of the Palestinian enclave.

“Mass displacement from the north to the south of the Gaza Strip has been ongoing since… Friday morning, after Israel ordered residents to evacuate the areas ahead of military operations,” the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA said in an update.

“Humanitarian partners report that the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has risen significantly over the last 24 hours; however the exact number is unknown.”

Palestinian families flee their homes following an Israeli attack on the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern of Gaza Strip on Octobers 15. — AFP
Palestinian families flee their homes following an Israeli attack on the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern of Gaza Strip on Octobers 15. — AFP

Beforehand, as of 11:00 pm (2000 GMT) on Thursday, there were 423,378 IDPs in Gaza, OCHA said.

Around 64 per cent were being hosted by UNRWA, the UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees, in 102 premises operated as designated emergency shelters.

“Some 33,054 IDPs had taken refuge at 36 public schools,” said OCHA.

“It is estimated that over 153,000 IDPs, whose homes have been destroyed or damaged, or have left their homes due to fear, are residing with relatives and neighbours, as well as in other public facilities.”

Since Friday thousands of Gazans, who cannot leave the enclave as it is blockaded by both Israel and Egypt, have packed what belongings they can into bags and suitcases, to trudge through the rubble-strewn streets.

A stream of cars, trucks, three-wheeled vehicles and donkey-drawn carts joined the frantic mass movement south, all loaded with families and their belongings, mattresses, bedding and bags strapped onto the roofs of packed vehicles.

Egypt pushes to break impasse over Gaza aid

Egypt said on Sunday it had stepped up diplomatic efforts to get humanitarian aid into Gaza and its president told visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel’s bombardment of the territory was disproportional.

“The reaction went beyond the right to self-defence, turning into collective punishment for 2.3 million people in Gaza,” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said of Israel’s retaliatory strikes for Hamas attacks a week ago.

Aid from several countries has been building up in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula due to a failure to reach a deal enabling its safe delivery to Gaza along with evacuations of some foreign passport holders through the Rafah crossing into Egypt.

Israeli bombardments on the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing into Egypt, the main crossing out of Gaza not controlled by Israel, have disrupted operations there.

There is alarm in Egypt over the prospect that residents in Gaza could be displaced by Israel’s siege and bombardment.

Like other Arab states, it has said Palestinians should stay on their lands and that it is working to secure delivery of aid.

A statement from Sisi’s office, issued after a meeting of the national security council, said Egypt rejected any plan to displace Palestinians “to the detriment of other countries” and that Egypt’s own security was a red line.

Sisi also proposed a summit to discuss the crisis, according to the statement.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told CNN on Saturday that the Rafah crossing was open but the roads leading to it in Gaza were “inoperable” due to Israeli bombardment. He said that if foreign nationals were able to cross the border Egypt would facilitate their departure to their home countries.

The United States has been part of the diplomatic push to facilitate aid and evacuations through Rafah, and told its citizens in Gaza on Saturday they could move closer to the crossing in case it opened.

Eight planes laden with aid from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Tunisia, and the World Health Organisation have landed in Sinai’s Al Arish airport in recent days and a convoy of more than 100 trucks is waiting in the city awaiting permission to enter Gaza, according to the Egyptian Red Crescent.

Returning home

Some Palestinians who went south said they were heading back north because they were attacked from the skies wherever they went.

“What’s the point? They are bombing in Gaza City and they are bombing here in Nusseirt (in central Gaza Strip), also in Khan Younis and Rafah,” said Abu Dawoud, a Gaza accountant.

“I am taking my family back into Gaza. I can’t continue to live in a school or outside my home, when no place is safe anyway, my home is better,” he said.

A Palestinian walks by the site of Israeli strikes on houses in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 15. — Reuters
A Palestinian walks by the site of Israeli strikes on houses in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 15. — Reuters

Hussam Abu Safiya, an intensive care doctor on a children’s ward at the Kamal Edwan hospital in the northern Gaza strip, said the order to evacuate was impossible.

“In this ward as you can see, there are children who are attached to ventilators, and now we have been asked to evacuate the hospital, where should we evacuate these children?”, he said.

Hamas has said dozens of people were killed in strikes on cars and trucks carrying refugees on Friday. Reuters could not independently verify this claim.

Some Gazans have vowed to stay, remembering the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” when many Palestinians were forced from their homes during the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s creation.

The Israeli military said on Saturday the bodies of some of the dozens of hostages abducted by Hamas in its attacks had been found during operations inside Gaza.

Hamas earlier reported 22 hostages had been killed in Israeli bombardments. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a flak jacket, earlier visited troops on the border front line, raising expectations of an imminent invasion.

“Are you ready for what is coming? More is coming,” he was heard telling several soldiers on a video released by his office.

To avert the risk of the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalating into a regional conflict, the United States deployed a second aircraft carrier that would “deter hostile actions against Israel”, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said.

Humanitarian crisis

Alarm has grown over the fate of Palestinian civilians in blockaded and besieged Gaza — one of the world’s most densely populated areas, home to 2.4 million — if it becomes the scene of intense urban combat and house-to-house fighting.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said early on Sunday that 300 people had been killed and 800 more had been injured in Gaza during the last 24 hours.

Aid agencies have said forcing Gazans to move is impossible while the conflict rages.

But with food, water, fuel and medical supplies running low because of an Israeli blockade, aid agencies are warning of a deepening humanitarian crisis.

Gaza’s electricity outage threatens to cripple the enclave’s life-support systems, from sea water desalination plants to food refrigeration and incubators in hospitals.

“The situation is catastrophic,” said Jumaa Nasser, who travelled from Beit Lahia in northern Gaza with his wife, mother and seven children.

“We’ve had no food or sleep. We don’t know what to do. I’ve given my fate up to God,” he told AFP.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Saturday that forcing thousands of hospital patients to evacuate to already overflowing hospitals in the southern Gaza Strip could be “tantamount to a death sentence”.

Exiled Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh accused Israel on Saturday of committing “war crimes” in Gaza but he ruled out any “displacement” of Gazans, including to Egypt.

Hamas is regularly accused by Israel of using civilians as human shields.

On the diplomatic front, Chinese envoy Zhai Jun will visit the Middle East next week to push for a ceasefire and promote peace talks, state broadcaster CCTV reported on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia has also pressed for an “immediate ceasefire”. Russia said it had asked the UN Security Council to vote on Monday on its ceasefire resolution.

Pope Francis called for humanitarian corridors in Gaza and urged that “children, the sick, the elderly, women and all civilians should not fall victim to the conflict”.

“There have already been so many deaths, please let’s not shed any more innocent blood,” he said, castigating “the diabolical force of hatred, terrorism and war”.

Worldwide protests

Thousands of people took to the streets in major cities across the world on Sunday to express solidarity with Palestinians and protest the Israeli aggression on Gazans.

Over the weekend, a swarm of people came to the streets in Paris, London, Washington DC, Germany and other countries despite resistance by authorities. Huge gatherings were also held in Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Iran, Lenabon and Syria.

Today, rallies were held outside the Karachi Press Club and on the city’s main artillery Sharea Faisal. Hundreds of people, including women, marched for the liberation of the people of Palestine and condemned Israeli atrocities.

Women rally outside the Karachi Press Club on Sunday. — APP
Women rally outside the Karachi Press Club on Sunday. — APP

They chanted slogans of “Death to Israel” and held banners that stated: “The blazing Gaza cries out to Muslims”.

Similar sights were seen in the Australian capital of Sydney as well. Protesters waved Palestine flags and chanted “Free, free Palestine” as hundreds of police patrolled the area around one of the largest rallies.

Women hold up flags during a a pro-Palestinian rally in Hyde Park, Sydney, Australia October 15, 2023. — Reuters
Women hold up flags during a a pro-Palestinian rally in Hyde Park, Sydney, Australia October 15, 2023. — Reuters

About 5,000 people attended, said the organisers, the Palestine Action Group, while a Reuters witness put the number at about 2,000.

Ayah, a Palestinian living in Sydney, said she was at the rally to “be peaceful, to support my country, nothing to do with burning flags”.

Thousands of people also marched in Morocco today, expressing support for Palestinians under siege in Gaza, in the biggest anti-Israeli protest since the 2020 normalisation of diplomatic relations.

“I denounce the double standards of many Western governments regarding Palestinians,” said Charki Lahrech at the protest, saying some nations were turning a blind eye to Israel’s retaliatory strikes after the attack by Hamas.

“You cannot denounce Hamas acts and look away from Israeli killing of civilians including children, women and the elderly … This is a message of solidarity with the Palestinian people to tell them you are not alone.”

Protesters also turned up at the central square in Amsterdam, submerging into a sea of Palestinian flags and placards reading: “Free Palestine”, “Stop The War” and “Stop The Attack on Gaza”, according to AFP reporters at the scene.

Three planes flew overhead trailing messages “Love Hummus, not Hamas”, “Make falafel, not war” and “Shalom, Salam”, the word “peace” in Hebrew and Arabic respectively.

Iran warns of ‘far-reaching consequences’ if Israel not stopped

Iran has warned in a social media post that if Israel’s “war crimes and genocide” are not stopped then the situation could spiral out of control with “far-reaching consequences.”

The post on X by Iran’s mission to the United Nations came after Axios reported Tehran warned Israel — in a message sent via the UN — that it would have to respond if Israel carries out a ground offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

“If the Israeli apartheid’s war crimes & genocide are not halted immediately, the situation could spiral out of control & ricochet far-reaching consequences — the responsibility of which lies with the UN, the Security Council & the states steering the Council toward a dead end,” Iran’s UN mission posted.

The United States has been working to keep Iran out of the ongoing war and broader international diplomacy has been focused on preventing it from spilling over — particularly into Lebanon — and sparking a regional war.

Lebanon’s Iran-backed, heavily armed Hezbollah group has clashed with Israel across the Lebanese border multiple times in the past week in the deadliest confrontations since they fought a month-long war in 2006.

UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Beirut on Saturday, the United Nations said.

Abdollahian then met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar, Al Jazeera TV reported.

When asked about the Axios report, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “All of (Wennesland’s) meetings have been to discuss diplomatic efforts to release hostages, secure humanitarian access and prevent a spillover of the conflict to the wider region. This includes his recent meetings in Lebanon.”

Israel’s mission to the United Nations declined to comment on the Axios report or the social media post by Iran.

Blinken raises Hamas with Saudi crown prince on Mideast crisis tour

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for pressure on Hamas during a meeting today with the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, which has warming ties with Israel but has put normalisation on hold.

The top US diplomat met for nearly an hour in the early morning with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the royal’s farm residence in the Riyadh area, a US official said.

“Very productive,” Blinken said when asked about the meeting after returning to his hotel.

Blinken “highlighted the United States’ unwavering focus on halting terrorist attacks by Hamas, securing the release of all hostages and preventing the conflict from spreading,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

“The two affirmed their shared commitment to protecting civilians and to advancing stability across the Middle East and beyond,” Miller said.

Blinken has been touring the region after Hamas fighters infiltrated Israel from the blockaded Gaza Strip on October 7. The attack sparked a massive retaliatory campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 2,300 people.

Before the violence, the Saudi crown prince had spoken of progress in US-led diplomacy to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Saudi Arabia has put the process on hold after the violence, and Blinken has said that disrupting Saudi-Israel normalisation efforts may have partly motivated the Hamas attack.

The State Department said Blinken and the crown prince also discussed Yemen, where an uneasy peace has been holding between the Saudi-backed government and Iranian-backed Huthi rebels.

They also addressed Sudan, on which the Saudis have been working with the United States to mediate between warring generals, with limited success.

Blinken will travel later on Sunday to Egypt, the sixth Arab country he will visit as he seeks to pressure Hamas and prevent the war from spreading.

Egypt is a key intermediary between Israel and Hamas, and US officials say Cairo worked on an arrangement to let US citizens leave the Gaza Strip but that Hamas impeded their movement on Saturday to the sole border crossing at Rafah.

Israeli minister seeks shutdown of Al Jazeera bureau

Israel’s communications minister said on Sunday he was seeking a possible closure of Al Jazeera’s local bureau, and accused the Qatari news station of pro-Hamas incitement and of exposing Israeli soldiers to potential attack from Gaza.

The proposal to shut down Al Jazeera had been vetted by Israeli security officials and was being vetted by legal experts, Shloma Karhi said, adding that he would bring it to the cabinet later in the day.

Al Jazeera and the government in Doha had no immediate comment.

“This is a station that incites, this is a station that films troops in assembly areas (outside Gaza) … that incites against the citizens of Israel — a propaganda mouthpiece,” Karhi told Israel’s Army Radio.

“It is unconscionable that Hamas spokespeople’s message goes through this station,” he said, adding: “I hope we will finish with this today.”

It was not clear if the latter statement referred to a cabinet discussion or implementation of a closure.

Biden calls

In a call on Saturday, US President Joe Biden told Netanyahu the United States was working with the United Nations, Egypt, Jordan and others in the region “to ensure innocent civilians have access to water, food, and medical care”.

Biden also spoke with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and pledged “full support” to the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to bring humanitarian assistance to Palestinians, “particularly in Gaza,” according to the White House.

Several people were reportedly killed in an Israeli bombardment while heading south on Saturday, according to Hamas officials and witnesses. AFP could not immediately confirm the report.

International aid agencies, including the UN and Red Cross, plus several foreign diplomats are concerned about the feasibility of the evacuation plan. “We fear an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe,” said Ivan Karakashian, of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

More than 423,000 Palestinians have already left their homes, and 5,540 homes have been destroyed, according to the United Nations.

Air strikes

Israel has fired thousands of missiles at northern Gaza. One air strike killed Ali Qadi, described as “a company commander of the Hamas ‘Nukhba’ commando force” involved in the unprecedented attack, the army said.

“Localised” raids have also taken place, as Israeli troops encircle the Gaza Strip, said army spokesman Jonathan Conricus.

“We will likely evolve into additional significant combat operations,” he added. “When we do so, remember how this started… all of this is Hamas-made.”

But National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi admitted intelligence lapses that failed to spot the attack in advance.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, which it has likened to the Islamic State group. But it maintains that ordinary Palestinians are not their target.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh accused Israel of “genocide” in Gaza, while clashes in the occupied West Bank have killed 53 Palestinians in the past week.

Angry protests condemning Israel and supporting the Palestinians in Gaza took place across the Arab world on Friday.

Western capitals, including London and Washington, also saw pro-Palestinian marches.

Northern threat

Israel faces the threat of a separate confrontation on its northern border with Lebanon and artillery exchanges have taken place with the Hezbollah group in recent days.

On Friday, a Reuters video journalist was killed and six other reporters, from AFP, Reuters and Al-Jazeera, were wounded in shelling that Lebanon blamed on Israeli forces.

Two Lebanese civilians were killed in Israeli shelling of a southern village on Saturday, its mayor told AFP. Hezbollah said one of its fighters was killed by Israeli fire.

Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari on Saturday night warned that the army “has very large forces in the north.” “Whoever reaches the fence to infiltrate Israel, will die,” he said in televised remarks.

A potential Israeli ground invasion has also increased fears for the safety of the 150 hostages, including foreigners, that Israel said Hamas seized.

Hamas has threatened to kill the hostages one by one for every unannounced Israeli air strike.

Israel’s army says it has contacted the families of 120 civilians being held so far. They called for medicines to be transferred to the captives as soon as possible.

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