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Israel orders unprecedented evacuation of 1 million in Gaza as possible ground offensive looms

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s military told some 1 million Palestinians on Friday to evacuate northern Gaza and head to the southern part of the besieged territory, an unprecedented order applying to almost half the population ahead of an expected ground invasion against the ruling Hamas militant group.

The U.N. warned that so many people fleeing en masse would be calamitous. Hamas, which staged a shocking and brutal attack on Israel nearly a week ago and has fired thousands of rockets since, dismissed it as a ploy and called on people to stay in their homes.

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Palestinians evacuate wounded people after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)Israel orders the evacuation of 1.1 million people from northern part of Gaza, the UN saysPalestinians leave their houses following Israeli airstrikes in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)Live Updates: Israel orders hundreds of thousands of civilians in Gaza City to evacuateIsraeli soldiers surround a Palestinian who ran at them with a knife at the site of a music festival near the border with the Gaza Strip Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. At least 260 Israeli festival-goers were killed during the attack last Saturday. (AP Photo/Erik Marmor)A music festival survivor fleeing the attack, a pair of Hamas militants and a deadly decision

The evacuation order, which includes Gaza City, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, sparked widespread panic among civilians and aid workers already running from Israeli airstrikes and contending with a total siege and a territory-wide blackout.

“Forget about food, forget about electricity, forget about fuel. The only concern now is just if you’ll make it, if you’re going to live,” said Nebal Farsakh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza City, as she broke into heaving sobs.

The war has already claimed over 2,800 lives on both sides and sent tensions soaring across the region. Weekly Muslim prayers later Friday could bring mass protests at a flashpoint holy site in east Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and elsewhere. Israel has traded fire in recent days with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, sparking fears of an ever wider conflict, though that frontier is currently calm.

Tensions ran high in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Islamic endowment that manages the contested Al-Aqsa Mosque compound said Israeli authorities were barring all Palestinian men under the age of 50 from entering.

Israel has bombarded Gaza round-the-clock since a weekend attack in which Hamas fighters stormed into the country’s south and massacred hundreds, including killing children in their homes and young people at a music festival. Militants also snatched some 150 people and dragged them into Gaza.

Hamas said Israel’s bombardment has killed 13 of the hostages, including foreigners. It did not give the nationality of the foreigners, saying they were killed over the last 24 hours. An Israeli military spokesperson said authorities would comment once they had reliable information.

The military urged all civilians in Gaza’s north to move to the south, according to spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari — an order that the U.N. said affects 1.1 million people.

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Israel said it needed to target Hamas’ military infrastructure, much of which is buried deep underground. Another spokesperson Jonathan Conricus said the military will use “significant force” while making “extensive efforts to avoid harming civilians.” He said residents would be allowed to return when the war is over.

Hamas militants operate in civilian areas, where Israel has long accused them of using Palestinians as human shields. A mass evacuation of civilians, if carried out, would leave their fighters exposed as never before.

Hagari added “if Hamas prevents residents from evacuating, the responsibility lies with them.” He said “every part of the Hamas infrastructure will be attacked.”

U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said it would be impossible to stage such an evacuation without “devastating humanitarian consequences.” He called on Israel to rescind any such orders, saying they could “transform what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation.”

The evacuation orders were taken as a further signal of an already expected Israeli ground offensive, though Israel has not yet announced such a decision.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to “crush” Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007. His government is under intense public pressure to topple the group rather than merely bottle it up in Gaza as it has for years.

A visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, along with shipments of U.S. weapons, offered a powerful green light for Israel to drive ahead with its retaliation. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel on Friday.

Still, a ground offensive in densely populated and impoverished Gaza would likely bring even higher casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting.

Hamas, meanwhile, called on Palestinians to stay in their homes, saying Israel “is trying to create confusion among citizens and harm the cohesion of our internal front.” It called on Palestinians to ignore what it said was ”psychological warfare.”

Yasser Hassouna, an activist in Gaza City, said “everyone panicked” when they saw the U.N. staff leaving. “Hamas said it was psychological warfare, and we know there has been a lot of that. No one knows what is real and what is fake news right now.”

Farsakh, of the Palestinian Red Crescent, said there was no way so many people could be safely moved — especially those with ailments.

“What will happen to our patients?” she asked. “We have wounded, we have elderly, we have children who are in hospitals.” Farsakh said many of the medics were refusing to evacuate hospitals and abandon patients. Instead, she said, they called their colleagues to say goodbye.

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Beyond the immediate fear and logistical difficulties, the order has deep resonance in Gaza, where more than half of the Palestinians are the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from what is now Israel. That exodus is deeply seared into their collective memory.

Already, at least 423,000 people — nearly one in five Gazans — have been forced from their homes by Israeli airstrikes, the U.N. said Thursday.

Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for UNRWA, said it relocated its headquarters to southern Gaza but only transferred international staff there. She said the agency was not aware of any plans to evacuate its thousands of Palestinian staff and their families, who would make their own decisions.

UNRWA also said it was not evacuating its schools, where hundreds of thousands have taken shelter.

Neighboring Egypt has meanwhile taken “unprecedented measures” to reinforce its border with Gaza and prevent any breaches, a senior Egyptian security official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

Egypt, which made peace with Israel decades ago and has long served as a regional mediator, is staunchly opposed to resettling Palestinians on its territory, both because of the costs involved and because it would undermine their quest for an independent state. The Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt, the only one not controlled by Israel, has ben closed because of airstrikes.

Hamas’ unprecedented assault last Saturday, and days of heavy rocket fire since, have killed more than 1,300 people in Israel, including 247 soldiers — a toll unseen in Israel for decades. The ensuing Israeli bombardment has killed more than 1,530 people in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Israel says roughly 1,500 Hamas militants were killed inside Israel, and that hundreds of the dead in Gaza are Hamas members.

On Thursday, Israel said its complete siege of Gaza — which has left Palestinians desperate for food, fuel and medicine — would remain in place until Hamas militants free the hostages taken.

“Not a single electricity switch will be flipped on, not a single faucet will be turned on and not a single fuel truck will enter until the Israeli hostages are returned home,” Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz said on social media.

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Shurafa reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip and Lederer from Chicago. Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem, Samya Kullab in Baghdad and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.