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Palestinians flee within Gaza after Israel orders mass evacuation and stages brief ground incursions

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinians scrambled to flee northern Gaza on Saturday after the Israeli military ordered nearly half the population to evacuate south and carried out limited ground forays ahead of an expected land offensive a week after Hamas’ bloody, wide-ranging attack into Israel.

Israel renewed calls on social media and in leaflets dropped from the air for some 1 million residents to move south, while Hamas urged people to stay in their homes. The U.N. and aid groups have said such a rapid exodus would cause untold human suffering, with hospital patients and others unable to relocate.

Families in cars, trucks and donkey carts packed with possessions crowded a main road heading away from Gaza City as Israeli airstrikes continued to hammer the small, besieged territory. Palestinian witnesses said Israel struck cars rushing south, and Hamas said the strikes killed more than 70 people.

The Israeli military, which has not commented on the strikes, posted a message in Arabic on social media saying Palestinians could travel along two main routes without being harmed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. local time.

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Thousands of people who fled their homes crammed into a U.N.-run school-turned-shelter in Deir al-Balah, a city south of the evacuation zone. Many slept outside on the ground without mattresses, or in chairs pulled from the classrooms.

“I came here with my children. We slept on the ground. We don’t have a mattress, or clothes,” Howeida al-Zaaneen, 63, who is from the northern town of Beit Hanoun, said. “I want to go back to my home, even if it is destroyed.”

The military said its troops conducted temporary raids into Gaza to battle militants and hunted for traces of some 150 people — including men, women and children — who were abducted during Hamas’ shocking Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel.

Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip after the Israeli army issued an evacuation warning to a population of over 1 million in northern Gaza and Gaza City to seek refuge in the south ahead of a possible Israeli ground invasion, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip after the Israeli army issued an evacuation warning to a population of over 1 million in northern Gaza and Gaza City to seek refuge in the south ahead of a possible Israeli ground invasion, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

The mass evacuation order applies to all of Gaza City, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Israel’s military said it planned to target underground Hamas hideouts, but Palestinians and some Egyptian officials fear Israel’s ultimate aim is to push Gaza’s people out through the southern border with Egypt.

The U.N. called on Israel to reverse the unprecedented directive.

Families in Gaza faced agonizing dilemmas in deciding whether to leave or stay. Israeli strikes have leveled entire city blocks, and Gaza has been sealed off from food, water and medical supplies — all under a near-total power blackout.

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The Gaza Health Ministry said Friday that roughly 1,900 people have been killed in the territory. The Hamas assault killed more than 1,300 Israelis, most of them civilians, and roughly 1,500 Hamas militants were killed during the fighting, the Israeli government said.

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ISRAELI TROOPS MAKE FORAY INTO GAZA

Raids into Gaza on Friday were the first indication that Israeli troops had entered the territory since the military began its round-the-clock bombardment in retaliation for the Hamas massacre. Palestinian militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israel since the fighting erupted.

A military spokesman said the ground troops left after conducting the raids.

Israel has called up some 360,000 reserves and massed troops and tanks along the border with Gaza, but no decision has been announced on whether to launch a ground offensive. An assault into densely populated Gaza would likely bring even higher casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting.

Israeli soldiers carry the flag-covered coffin of Maya Villalobo during her funeral at the military cemetery in Givatayim, Israel, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. Villalobo was killed when Hamas militants went on a brutal rampage through southern Israel last Saturday, part of an unprecedented, multi-front attack on the country. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Israeli soldiers carry the flag-covered coffin of Maya Villalobo during her funeral at the military cemetery in Givatayim, Israel, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. Villalobo was killed when Hamas militants went on a brutal rampage through southern Israel last Saturday, part of an unprecedented, multi-front attack on the country. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

“We will destroy Hamas,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Friday night.

Hamas said Israel’s airstrikes killed 13 hostages, including foreigners. It did not provide their nationalities. The military denied the claim. Hamas and other Palestinian militants hope to trade the hostages for thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

In Israel, residents stunned by the Hamas rampage faced the fright of continual rocket fire out of Gaza. The Israeli public is overwhelmingly in favor of a military offensive, and TV stations have set up special broadcasts with slogans like “Together we will win” and “Strong together.” Their reports focus heavily on the aftermath of the Hamas attack and stories of heroism and national unity, and they make scant mention of the unfolding crisis in Gaza.

In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Health Ministry reported 16 Palestinians were killed Friday, bringing the total of Palestinians killed there to 51. The U.N. says attacks by Israeli settlers have surged there since the Hamas assault.

ISRAEL URGES MASS EVACUATION OF GAZA CIVILIANS

The U.N. said the Israeli military’s call for civilians to move south affects 1.1 million people. If carried out, the territory’s entire population would have to cram into the southern half of the 40-kilometer (25-mile) Gaza Strip. And Israel is still carrying out strikes across the territory, including in the south.

An Israeli military spokesperson, Jonathan Conricus, said the evacuation was aimed at keeping civilians safe and preventing Hamas from using them as human shields. He urged people in the targeted areas to leave immediately and to return “only when we tell them that it is safe to do so.”

Palestinian worshippers pray outside Jerusalem's Old City while Israeli forces stand guard, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. At Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Israeli police had been permitting only older men, women and children to the sprawling hilltop compound for prayers, trying to prevent the potential for demonstration as tens of thousands attend on a typical Friday. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Palestinian worshippers pray outside Jerusalem’s Old City while Israeli forces stand guard, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. At Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Israeli police had been permitting only older men, women and children to the sprawling hilltop compound for prayers, trying to prevent the potential for demonstration as tens of thousands attend on a typical Friday. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

“The Palestinian civilians in Gaza are not our enemies. We don’t assess them as such, and we don’t target them as such,” Conricus said. “We are trying to do the right thing.”

The U.S. and Israel’s other allies have pledged ironclad support for the war on Hamas. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, however, said Saturday that the Israeli military needed to give people more time to get out of northern Gaza ahead of any military action.

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Josep Borrell, speaking to news media on a visit to China, welcomed the evacuation order but said, “You cannot move such a volume of people in (a) short period of time,” noting a lack of shelters and transportation.

PALESTINIANS IN GAZA GRAPPLE WITH WHERE TO GO

Hamas’ media office said airstrikes hit cars in three locations as they headed south from Gaza City, killing 70 people. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.

Two witnesses reported a strike on fleeing cars near Deir el-Balah, in an area where Israel had advised Palestinian evacuees to go. Fayza Hamoudi said she and her family were driving from their home in the north when the strike on the road hit some distance ahead and two vehicles burst into flames. A witness from another car on the road gave a similar account.

“Why should we trust that they’re trying to keep us safe?” Hamoudi said, her voice choking. “They are sick.”

Many feared they would be unable to return or would be gradually displaced to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Palestinians flee from northern Gaza to the south after the Israeli army issued an unprecedented evacuation warning to a population of over 1 million people in northern Gaza, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Palestinians flee from northern Gaza to the south after the Israeli army issued an unprecedented evacuation warning to a population of over 1 million people in northern Gaza, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

More than half of the Palestinians in Gaza are descendants of refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from what is now Israel. For many, the evacuation order dredged up fears of a second expulsion. Already, at least 423,000 people — nearly 1 in 5 Gazans — have been forced from their homes by Israeli airstrikes, the U.N. said Thursday.

“Where is the sense of security in Gaza? Is this what Hamas is offering us?” said one resident, Tarek Mraish, standing by an avenue as vehicles flowed by.

The U.N. estimated that tens of thousands had fled homes in the north by Friday night.

HOSPITALS STRUGGLE WITH PATIENTS

Gaza’s Health Ministry said it was impossible to safely transport the wounded from hospitals, which are already struggling with high numbers of dead and injured. “We cannot evacuate hospitals and leave the wounded and sick to die,” spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said.

Al Awda Hospital struggled to evacuate dozens of patients and staff after the military contacted it and told it to do so by Friday night, said the aid group Doctors Without Borders, which supports the facility. The military extended the deadline to Saturday morning, it said.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said it would not evacuate its schools, where hundreds of thousands have taken shelter. But it relocated its headquarters to southern Gaza, according to spokesperson Juliette Touma.

“The scale and speed of the unfolding humanitarian crisis is bone-chilling. Gaza is fast becoming a hellhole and is on the brink of collapse,” said Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner general.

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Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem, Samya Kullab in Baghdad, Samy Magdy in Cairo, and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.