Gaza residents flee their homes as Israeli military threats escalate

Palestinians with their belongings flee from their homes following Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City on Friday. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV, Israel — More than 1 million residents of the besieged Gaza Strip have been warned to leave their homes, as an unprecedented evacuation order from the Israeli military unleashed a new level of panic and chaos in the besieged territory.

The evacuation order, which applies to Gaza City, affects about half of the population in the territory, which is roughly 140 square miles in area — far smaller than most U.S. counties. All of Gaza’s border crossings are currently closed, leaving civilians largely trapped inside. Israel told U.N. officials to evacuate within 24 hours.

Within hours of the order, many Palestinians had begun to evacuate to the south of Gaza — some making the exit from Gaza City on foot. Practical concerns prevented others from evacuating on short notice: a lack of available taxis; elderly family members with limited mobility; or simply nowhere to go.

Order to evacuate is “impossible,” the U.N. says

The evacuation order has drawn outcry from humanitarian groups. The United Nations said it would be “impossible” to move so many people without “devastating humanitarian consequences.”

Several United Nations facilities, along with the territory’s main medical center, Al-Shifa Hospital, are located inside the evacuation zone.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, called on Israel to reverse the evacuation order. “Absent of any guarantees of safety or return, [it] would amount to the war crime of forcible transfer,” he said.

The U.N. said it is not able to take in so many evacuees. “We believe that it cannot happen in a safe manner, and certainly not in 24 hours,” Lynn Hastings, the United Nations’ top humanitarian coordinator in Gaza, told NPR.

The U.N.’s relief organization in Gaza, known as UNRWA, is already sheltering more than 300,000 displaced Palestinians in 92 schools across Gaza, about half of which were not previously equipped to be shelters.

Crisis in Gaza worsens as residents try to flee

The humanitarian situation in Gaza was already a crisis due to Israel’s retaliation over the past week after the Islamist militant group Hamas, which governs Gaza, launched a wave of attacks in Israel last weekend that authorities say left more than 1,300 people dead.

Palestinian health officials say that Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 1,500 civilians over the past week, including hundreds of children. Israel’s siege of Gaza has halted the flow of food, water, fuel and electricity into the territory.

Hamas leadership called on Palestinians to ignore the Israeli order. “We say to the citizens of northern Gaza and Gaza City, remain steadfast in your homes,” said Hamas interior ministry spokesman Iyad Al-Bozom, because Israel’s goal, he said, was to “displace us once again from our land ….”

UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said early Friday on the social media site X that it had moved its operations center and international staff to the southern part of Gaza.

It remains unclear how hospitals and clinics in northern Gaza, treating the stream of wounded victims from near-constant bombings, could be evacuated. Hospitals are already at full capacity across Gaza.

A simultaneous crisis unfolding is the dwindling food and water supplies that will run out in the next few days in U.N.-run shelters, Lynn Hastings, United Nations Resident Coordinator for the Palestinian territories, told NPR. She said the majority of Palestinians in Gaza do not have access to safe drinking water now, not even bottled water.

a wounded child
An emergency responder carries a wounded child in a hospital following Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Friday. (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s evacuation order comes as it presses its military campaign against Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip and anticipation grows of a coming Israeli ground assault in Gaza. Israel has been bombarding Gaza all week in retaliation to last weekend’s deadly incursion into Israel by Hamas militants. Israel’s military has not yet announced a decision on a ground assault.

The order also comes as the U.S. ramps up its diplomatic and military support for Israel in the wake of the unprecedented attacks by Hamas that killed at least 1,300 people over the weekend.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s arrival in Israel on Friday came on the heels of Thursday’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Earlier Friday, Blinken met with King Abdullah II in Amman, Jordan, and was meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Jordanian capital. Blinken is visiting five Arab states over the next few days, as he tries to contain the conflict in Gaza.

Palestinian officials say more than 1,500 people have died in the strikes, and the United Nations reports that 340,000 Palestinians have been displaced. Those numbers will surely rise: Scores of people were killed overnight in Gaza. In one attack, 17 people were killed in a bombing of a house in the Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. Rescue workers were struggling to reach all the areas hit by Israeli bombs.

a news conference
Family and friends of Livnat Levi, who was taken hostage by Hamas during an attack on Israel, hold up large photos of her as they are interviewed ahead of a press conference on Friday in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Hamas’ military wing, Ezzedin Al Qassam Brigades, said 13 hostages, among them foreigners, were killed by intense Israeli bombardment in different places of Gaza in just the past 24 hours. That brings to 17 the number the group says were killed by Israeli fire since Saturday.

An Israeli siege continued to block the transport of food, water and humanitarian supplies into the territory.

Israel said Thursday it would not lift its siege of Gaza — even for the transport of humanitarian aid — until Hamas releases all remaining hostages. Between 100 and 150 people, including an unknown number of Americans, are believed to be held by the Islamist militant group that rules the Palestinian territory.

The U.S. diplomatic efforts come as concerns are growing the chaos — the worst outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza in recent memory — could spread to the occupied West Bank and different countries across the Middle East.

Blinken has urged Israel to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians in Gaza as it retaliates.

“We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard, even when it’s difficult,” Blinken said.

Israeli officials say the bombardment campaign is necessary to stamp out Hamas and defend Israel.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said Thursday his country has the right to defend itself after the deadly attacks.

“I agree there are many, many Palestinians who don’t agree to this. But unfortunately, in their homes there are missiles shooting at us, [at] my children, on the entire nation of Israel. We have to defend ourselves,” he said while speaking to reporters.

At least 27 U.S. citizens were killed in the Hamas attacks and 15 Americans are currently unaccounted for, a White House spokesperson said Thursday. Charter flights to evacuate U.S. citizens who remain in Israel begin Friday. Other countries, such as China, France and the United Kingdom, have also reported citizens killed or missing in the conflict.

NPR’s Michele Kelemen and Kevin Drew contributed to this report.

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