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Israel readies troops near border as hundreds of thousands in Gaza try to evacuate

Israeli army Puma armoured personnel carrierss (APCs) move in a column near the Gaza border in southern Israel
Israeli army Puma armoured personnel carrierss (APCs) move in a column near the Gaza border in southern Israel Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Euronews with AFP
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Hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents sought to heed Israel’s order to evacuate roughly the northern half of the territory.

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Israel pressed on Sunday with preparations for a ground offensive in Gaza, after giving Palestinians a little more time to flee northern areas it has vowed to target in response to the deadliest attack in its history.

Last week, Hamas fighters gunned down, stabbed and burned to death more than 1,300 people in an attack that Israel has compared to 9/11 in the United States, sparking a massive retaliatory bombing campaign that has killed more than 2,200 in Gaza.

Israel has warned around 1.1 million people living in the north of the Palestinian enclave to flee to the south ahead of a ground incursion which the military has indicated will focus on Gaza City, the base of the leadership of the Hamas militant group.

The military said Gaza City residents must not delay their departure but a spokesperson said late Saturday they still had time to leave and that the ground offensive would not start on Sunday.

Since Friday thousands of Gazans, who cannot leave the enclave as it is blockaded by both Israel and Egypt, have packed what belongings they can into bags and suitcases, to trudge through the rubble-strewn streets.

A stream of cars, trucks, three-wheeled vehicles and donkey-drawn carts joined the frantic mass movement south, all loaded with families and their belongings, mattresses, bedding and bags strapped onto the roofs of packed vehicles.

'More is coming'

The Israeli army announced on Saturday evening that it had found "corpses" of hostages kidnapped by Hamas during last week's surprise assault on Israel without giving further details.

A potential Israeli ground invasion has also increased fears for the safety of the 150 hostages, including foreigners, that Israel said Hamas seized during its deadly rampage.

Hamas has threatened to kill the hostages one by one for every unannounced Israeli air strike.

A total of 22 have already been killed in bombardments, the militant group said, without elaborating. 

At the Israel-Gaza border, a stern-looking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a flak jacket, visited troops and raised expectations of an imminent invasion.

"Are you ready for what is coming? More is coming," he is heard telling several soldiers on a video released by his office. He later held security talks with ministers in his emergency government.

'The situation is catastrophic'

Alarm has grown over the fate of Palestinian civilians in blockaded and besieged Gaza -- one of the world's most densely populated areas, home to 2.4 million - if it becomes the scene of intense urban combat and house-to-house fighting.

Aid agencies have said forcing Gazans to move is impossible while the war rages.

But with food, water, fuel and medical supplies running low because of an Israeli blockade, aid agencies are warning of a deepening humanitarian crisis.

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"The situation is catastrophic," said Jumaa Nasser, who travelled from Beit Lahia in northern Gaza with his wife, mother and seven children.

"We've had no food or sleep. We don't know what to do. I've given my fate up to God," he said. 

The World Health Organization said on Saturday that forcing thousands of hospital patients to evacuate to already overflowing hospitals in the southern Gaza Strip could be "tantamount to a death sentence".

Exiled Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh accused Israel on Saturday of committing "war crimes" in Gaza but he ruled out any "displacement" of Gazans, including to Egypt.

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Hamas is regularly accused by Israel of using civilians as human shields.

On the diplomatic front, Chinese envoy Zhai Jun will visit the Middle East next week to push for a ceasefire and promote peace talks, state broadcaster CCTV reported Sunday.

Saudi Arabia has also pressed for an "immediate ceasefire". Russia said it had asked the UN Security Council to vote on Monday on its ceasefire resolution.

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