900,000 Palestinians face Israeli onslaught, those fleeing recount terrifying journey

JEDDAH/GAZA: Up to 900,000 Palestinian civilians remained in northern Gaza and Gaza City on Tuesday surrounded by Israeli tanks and troops preparing for a military onslaught.

Israel urged civilians to flee south and offered a four-hour window to travel, but southern Gaza also came under attack. At least 23 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes on the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah.

“We are civilians,” said Ahmed Ayesh, who was rescued from the rubble of a house in Khan Younis where 11 people were killed. “This is the bravery of the so-called Israel — they show their might and power against civilians, babies inside, kids inside, and elderly.”

As he spoke, rescuers at the house used their hands to try to free a girl buried up to her waist in debris.

Adam Fayez Zeyara, a Gaza City resident who headed south, said: “The most dangerous trip of my life. We saw the tanks from point blank. We saw decomposed body parts. We saw death.”

Israel said its forces were pushing deep into Gaza City, where tanks were positioned on the outskirts for a storming of Gaza’s urban heartland.

From early on in the war, now in its second month, the army has urged civilians to move south, including by announcing brief windows for what it said would be safe passage through Salah Al-Din, which runs through the center of the besieged enclave.

But tens of thousands of civilians have remained in the north, many sheltering in hospitals or UN facilities.

Those who have stayed say they are deterred by overcrowding in the south, along with dwindling water and food supplies, and continued Israeli airstrikes in what are supposed to be safe areas.

On Monday, Health Ministry in Gaza spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidra dismissed the Israeli offers of safe passage as “nothing but death corridors.”

He said bodies have lined the road for days, and called for the International Committee of the Red Cross to accompany local ambulances to retrieve the dead.

Israel’s military said that, at one point, troops came under Hamas fire when trying to open the road temporarily for civilians.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the army’s claims in an interview with ABC News broadcast late Monday.

“We are fighting an enemy that is particularly brutal. They are using their civilians as human shields, and while we are asking the Palestinian civilian population to leave the war zone, they are preventing them at gunpoint,” Netanyahu said.

The claims could not be verified independently.

“For the first time in decades, IDF is fighting in the heart of Gaza City. At the heart of terrorism,” said Maj.Gen. Yaron Finkelman, head of the military’s southern command. “Every day and every hour the forces are killing militants, exposing tunnels and destroying weapons and continuing onward to enemy centers.”

The military wing of Hamas said its fighters were inflicting heavy losses and damage on advancing Israeli forces.

The war began on Oct. 7 when Hamas fighters burst across the fence enclosing Gaza and killed 1,400 Israelis and abducted more than 200. Since then, Israel has unrelentingly bombarded Gaza, killing more than 10,000 people, around 40 percent of them children. “It has been one full month of carnage, of incessant suffering, bloodshed, destruction, outrage and despair” UN human rights chief Volcker Turk said.

Discussing longer term plans for the first time, Netanyahu said Israel would take security responsibility for Gaza “for an indefinite period.”

Simcha Rothman, a member of Netanyahu’s far-right extremist coalition, said: “Our forces must not shed blood to give the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority wrapped in a bow. Only full Israeli control and a complete demilitarisation of the strip will restore security.”

But White House spokesman John Kirby said US President Joe Biden opposed Israeli reoccupation. “It’s not good for Israel, it’s not good for the Israeli people,” he said.

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