Palestinian families in cars, trucks and donkey carts packed with their possessions crowded a main road southward from Gaza City as Israeli airstrikes hammered the territory.
With a third of a million soldiers reportedly massed around the perimeter of Gaza, Israel has warned it is planning an attack by land, air and sea to exact revenge on Hamas for the terrorist attacks a week ago.
The Israeli military has not given any more specifics, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told frontline soldiers: “The next stage is coming.”
Israel gave civilians in Gaza, including those being treated in hospital 24 hours to leave the northern part of the territory.
Israel renewed calls on social media and in leaflets dropped from the air for Gaza 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 along with Israel's siege of the territory would cause untold human suffering.
The evacuation directive covers an area of 1.1 million residents, or about half the territory's population. The Israeli military said "hundreds of thousands" of Palestinians had heeded the warning and headed south. It gave Palestinians a six-hour window that ended Saturday afternoon to travel safely within Gaza along two main routes.
A week after Hamas' attack, Israel was still working to assess the full extent of the casualties. With special rabbinic approval, workers at a military base in central Israel continued the gruelling task of identifying the bodies of the Israelis and foreign nationals who were killed, mostly civilians. Work is normally halted on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Beeri and Kfar Azza, two southern border communities where Hamas militants killed dozens of Israelis in their initial attack, to meet with soldiers and tour the ruins of homes where the killings happened. Netanyahu has faced criticism that his government has not done enough to meet with relatives of the victims.
Hundreds of relatives of the scores of people captured by Hamas and taken to Gaza gathered outside the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, demanding the release of their loved ones. Protesters put up flyers with the faces and names of their relatives under the word KIDNAPPED.
"This is my cry out to the world: Please help bring (back) my family, my wife and three kids," said Avihai Brodtz of Kfar Azza. Many expressed anger toward the government, saying they still have no information about their relatives.
At a news conference, relatives of hostages with medical conditions called on Hamas to allow a humanitarian corridor for the delivery of medicine to them. "My aunt suffers from Parkinson's Disease. She's 63," said Yifat Zailer. "Every day without her medication is torture."
In a nationally broadcast address Saturday night, Israel's chief military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, accused Hamas of trying to use civilians as human shields and issued a new appeal to Gaza residents to move south.
"We are going to attack Gaza City very broadly soon," he said, without giving a timetable for the attack against the 40-kilometre (25-mile) long territory.
Hamas remained defiant. In a televised speech Saturday, Ismail Haniyeh, a top Hamas official, said that "all the massacres" will not break the Palestinian people.
Meanwhile, attacks continued, with Hamas launching rockets into Israel and Israel carrying out strikes in Gaza.
An Israeli airstrike near the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza killed at least 27 people and wounded another 80, Gaza health authorities said. Most of the victims were women and children, the authorities said. Doctors from Kamal Edwan Hospital shared chaotic footage of charred and disfigured bodies.
It was not clear how many Palestinians remained in northern Gaza by Saturday afternoon, said Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. An estimated 1 million people have been displaced in Gaza in one week, she said.
Some 35,000 displaced civilians crammed into the grounds of Gaza City's main hospital, sitting under trees as well as inside the building's lobby and corridors, hoping to be protected from the fighting, medical officials said.
"People think this is the only safe space after their homes were destroyed and they were forced to flee," said Dr. Medhat Abbas, a Health Ministry official.
The European Commission has announced it will immediately triple humanitarian assistance for Gaza to over 75 million euros.
At least 2,215 Palestinians, including 724 children, have been killed and 8,700 wounded. The number of people killed in Israel has reached over 1,300, with more than 3,400 wounded