TEL AVIV — The bombs kept coming and their families and compatriots continued to die, but it was only this week that thousands of Palestinians still in northern Gaza decided it was time to leave.
Many left on foot on Wednesday, forming an exodus of several kilometers towards southern Gaza as the Israeli army intensified its assault and ground troops closed in on the center of Gaza City.
Some Palestinians flew white flags, hoping to repel attacks in a war that has taken a heavy toll on civilians. Others rocked babies or pushed elderly people in wheelchairs. Videos verified by NBC News showed Palestinians with their hands raised as they walked past bombed buildings and Israeli tanks. A Palestinian said he came across decomposing bodies on the side of the road.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that the number of Palestinians leaving northern Gaza on Tuesday tripled to 15,000, compared to 5,000 the day before. On Wednesday, Israel opened a brief humanitarian corridor allowing civilians to escape along the Salah al-Din road, which runs through the central Gaza Strip.
At a press briefing on Wednesday, an IDF spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, estimated that 50,000 Palestinians had moved south on Wednesday.
The Israeli military said it had opened humanitarian corridors allowing civilians from northern Gaza to flee to the south in recent days. This follows Israel’s repeated warnings to Palestinians to evacuate the north, amid a month of relentless aerial bombardment, a growing ground offensive and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
Hamas denied that Israeli troops had made significant progress or entered Gaza City, the Associated Press reported. NBC News could not independently verify Hamas or Israel’s battlefield claims. In a separate statement, Hamas accused the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, of “collusion” with Israel in the “forced displacement” of civilians in response to people fleeing the south.
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Ameer Ghalban, pushing an elderly relative in a wheelchair on Salah al-Din Street, said they both lived on a piece of bread a day.
“The majority of people have left their lands because the siege has become absolute in Gaza,” Ghalban told the AP. “We have no water, no electricity, no flour. »
The UN noted that the corridors were only open for a short period – from 10 a.m. local time to 2 p.m. – and were sometimes closed earlier due to the fighting, according to the UN. Israeli army.
In a video posted on social media, including by COGAT, the military liaison body between Israel and the Palestinians, a long line of people could be seen walking along a crowded road. Satellite images also showed large numbers of people walking along Salah al-Din road on Tuesday.
IDF spokesperson Avichay Adraee warned in a social media post Wednesday that “time is running out” for civilians to leave northern Gaza, which he said has become a “fierce fighting zone.” .
Northern civilians and aid groups said these short periods of time were not enough for people to flee safely, while medical staff at hospitals where thousands are sheltering said they could not not relocate all its patients, especially those in critical condition.
Those fleeing to the south are not guaranteed safety from Israeli bombings, which have hit residential areas and refugee camps, despite repeated warnings from the Israeli military to civilians in the north to seek refuge in South.
As Israeli troops march through Gaza City, even from a bird’s eye view, it is clear that the metropolis has already been irreversibly changed, with satellite images released Tuesday by Maxar Technologies showing fires raging across the city amid Israeli bombardments.
Yet there are those who are unwilling or unable to leave.
“We will neither go south nor north. Damn Netanyahu and America. We will stand firm on our land and we will not leave,” Mahasen Al-Khateeb, who was sheltering in place at Rantisi Specialist Hospital, a pediatric facility, told NBC News.
Shahal Ibrahim, also at the hospital, worries that if Palestinians continue to move south, forced displacement could become permanent. He feared that they would ultimately be pushed towards the Sinai desert, echoing the trauma of the “Nakba” – catastrophe in Arabic, displacement in 1948 of around 700,000 Palestinians expelled from their lands in what would become Israel.
The Israeli army ordered the evacuation of the hospital, saying armed groups were using its premises and surrounding areas. But Gaza health officials said evacuating the facility could endanger the lives of dozens of children on life support, kidney dialysis and dependent on artificial breathing machines.
Fares Abu Fares, a 53-year-old volunteer with the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, said he would not leave Gaza City even if Israeli troops advance toward the area where he is sheltering.
Fares, who is Palestinian-American and lives in the United States with his wife and children, said he was visiting family in Gaza when the war broke out and stayed there with his mother and brothers . Much of his neighborhood was destroyed, but his house still stands.
With the shortage of food and water, he says he fears his family is “on the verge of starving,” but he also fears that if they try to move south, they could be killed.
“I can’t trust these people,” he said of the Israeli military. For now, he said: “I’m not leaving. I will stay with my family. »
“It’s not safe,” he said.
Chantal Da Silva reported from Tel Aviv and Mithil Aggarwal from Hong Kong.