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Thousands flee Gaza’s north in ‘forced’ displacement

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GAZA CITY: Thousands of Palestinian civilians trudged in a forlorn procession out of the north of Gaza on Wednesday seeking refuge from Israeli air strikes and artillery barrage.

The exodus took place in a four-hour “window of opportunity” announced by Israel, which has told residents to evacuate the north, encircled by its forces, or risk being trapped in the heavily bombarded territory.

Gaza City is now surrounded by Israeli forces. The military said troops had advanced to the heart of the city, while Hamas says its fighters have inflicted heavy losses on Israeli troops.

Meanwhile, Hamas accused the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees of “colluding” with Israel in the “forced displacement” of residents of Gaza.

“UNRWA and its officials bear responsibility for this humanitarian catastrophe, in particular the residents of the Gaza (City) area and north of it” who are following instructions to leave, said Salama Maruf, head of Hamas’s media bureau. He was referring to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

A spokesperson for UNRWA refused to comment on the statement.

The UN estimates that 1.5 million of the 2.4 million people living in the densely populated coastal territory have been displaced since the Hamas raid on Oct 7.

The pace of Palestinian civilians heading south from northern Gaza has accelerated with the intensification of Israel’s air strikes and ground invasion, according to UN observers.

People waving white flags have been leaving the battle-scarred places, while the steadily mounting death toll has meant vehicles from donkey-drawn carts to bulldozers have been pressed into transporting the dead.

Big numbers of the displaced from among Gaza’s 2.3 million people are already crammed into schools, hospitals and other sites in the south.

About 15,000 people left the enclave’s northern part on Tuesday, compared to 5,000 on Monday and 2,000 on Sunday, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.

Israel has ordered all 13 hospitals still operational in northern Gaza to evacuate patients, the agency said.

“It was so scary,” Ola Al Ghul, among the masses of civilians displaced over the past one month, said.

“We held our hands up and we kept walking. There were so many of us, we were holding white flags,” she said.

Military analysts warned of weeks of gruelling house-to-house fighting ahead in Gaza, with around 30 Israeli soldiers already killed since the ground invasion began late last month.

The operation is hugely complicated for Israel because of the prisoners taken by Hamas, who are believed to be held “inside a vast tunnel network”.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the besieged territory said the Israeli military action had killed more than 10,500 Palestinians, 40 per cent of them children.

According to the World Health Organisation, an average of 160 children die in Gaza every day.

No place to hide

But the central and southern parts of the small, besieged Pales­tinian enclave also came under fire on Wednesday Eighteen people were killed after an air strike hit houses in a refugee camp in southern Gaza.

In Khan Yunis, six people, including a young girl, were killed in an air strike.

“We were sitting in peace when all of a sudden an F-16 air strike landed on a house and blew it up, the entire block, three houses next to each other,” said a witness, Mohammed Abu Daqa.

“Civilians, all of them civilians. An old woman, an old man and there are others still missing under the rubble.”

But thousands of Gazans still remain inside the encircled north, including at Gaza City’s Al Shifa hospital.

Tunnel network

Chief Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admi­ral Daniel Hagari said combat engineers were using explosive devices to destroy a “Hamas tunnel network that stretches for hundreds of kilometres” beneath Gaza.

In a statement on Wednesday, the military said it had destroyed 130 tunnel shafts so far.

“Combat engineers figh­ting in Gaza are destroying the enemy’s weapons and are locating, exposing and detonating tunnel shafts,” it said.

Israeli tanks have met heavy resistance from Hamas fighters using the tunnels to stage ambushes, according to sources in the Islamic Jihad group. Israel says 33 of its soldiers have been killed.

‘Humanitarian pause’

United Nations officials and G7 world powers stepped up appeals on Wednesday for a “humanitarian pause” to help alleviate the suffering of civilians in Gaza.

“It is … important to make Israel understand that it is against (its) interests to see every day the terrible image of the dramatic humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told a conference on Wednesday. “That doesn’t help Israel in relation to the global public opinion.”

The level of death and suffering is “hard to fathom”, UN health agency’s spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said in Geneva.

Qatar as mediator

The government of Qatar is mediating negotiations between Israel and Hamas for the release of 10-15 prisoners held in Gaza in exchange for a short ceasefire, a source briefed on the talks said.

Doha has been engaged in intense diplomacy to secure the release of those held by Hamas, negotiating the handover of four prisoners — two Israelis and two Americans — in recent weeks.

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2023

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