Israel pressed on Sunday with preparations for a ground offensive in Gaza, after giving Palestinians a little more time to flee northern areas it has vowed to target in response to the deadliest attack in its history.
Hamas fighters gunned down, stabbed and burned to death more than 1,300 people in the attack that Israel has compared to 9/11 in the United States, sparking a massive retaliatory bombing campaign targeting the Islamist group that has killed over 2,200 in Gaza.
Israel had warned around 1.1 million Gazans living in the north of the Palestinian territory to flee to the south ahead of a ground incursion which the military has indicated will focus on Gaza City, the base of the leadership of the Hamas militant group.
The military said Gaza City residents must not delay their departure but a spokesperson said late Saturday they still had time to leave ahead of the ground offensive.
Israel pummeled northern Gaza with fresh air strikes on Saturday. Troops fire at the densely populated enclave, sending huge plumes of black smoke into the sky, AFP reports.
The Israeli military on Saturday, said 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 that 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 war escalating into a regional conflict, the United States deployed a second aircraft carrier that would “deter hostile actions against Israel”, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said.
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.
Aid agencies have said forcing Gazans to move is impossible while the war 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.
“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 Organization said 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 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.
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.