Israel called for the evacuation of more than a million citizens from the northern Gaza Strip and concentrated more armed forces around the enclave on Friday, signaling that it may be preparing to escalate the war with Hamas.
The United Nations and international aid and rights groups called Israel’s directive unworkable or unlawful, and urged it to rescind the evacuation. A U.N. spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said in a statement that the evacuation could not be conducted “without devastating humanitarian consequences,” and “could transform what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation.”
The Israeli military did not back away from the evacuation plan on Friday but softened its stance, suggesting there was no deadline, after initially saying that people should leave northern Gaza within 24 hours. “We understand it will take time,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief military spokesman, told reporters.
In Gaza, already cut off from vital supplies, many people fled with what they could carry, not knowing what conditions awaited them in the south or how long they would be gone. But many others remained, out of necessity, fear or defiance. Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza and conducted a deadly, large-scale incursion into Israel last weekend, has urged people to stay put, calling the Israeli directive “psychological warfare.”
On both sides, there is widespread anticipation of an Israeli ground invasion, after 360,000 reservists were mobilized and many units were dispatched to the southwestern region bordering Gaza. Israel has neither said it would invade nor ruled it out, but in a statement to Gazans the Israeli military left no doubt that conditions would worsen.
Israel “will continue to operate with significant force in Gaza City, and will make extensive efforts to avoid harming civilians,” it said.
Human rights groups and international institutions that condemned Hamas’s assault on Israel also criticized the Israeli response, including the evacuation directive, the bombing campaign and a complete blockade that has prevented fuel, water, food and medicine from entering and refugees from leaving, and shutting down electricity service for Gazans. Health care workers, international aid workers and journalists were among those killed in the bombing.
“The horrific attacks in Israel cannot justify the limitless destruction of Gaza,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement, adding that the call to evacuate northern Gaza violated international law. Another relief group working in Gaza, the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the evacuation amounted to “the war crime of forcible transfer.”
While Israel directed Palestinians to go to southern Gaza, its forces were striking sites there, too, underscoring the dangers of traveling there. The Interior Ministry in Gaza said that Israeli airstrikes had killed at least 70 Palestinians and wounded 200 others who were trying to flee northern Gaza in vehicles on a main highway to the south.
President Biden said relieving the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was one of his top priorities. He did not criticize Israel’s response to Hamas attacks he called “pure evil.”
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas and these appalling attacks, and they’re suffering as a result as well,” he said in a speech in Philadelphia.
The crisis reverberated far beyond Gaza on Friday, a day that a Hamas leader had declared a “day of rage” for its supporters around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out in rallies across the Middle East to express outrage over the Israeli response. A half-million people filled Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and large protests broke out in Beirut and Bahrain.
“They were subjected to various types of injustice, and now they are being subjected to starvation, siege and killing,” said Ali Hassan, 60, who participated in the demonstration in Bahrain on Friday.
In the West Bank, Israeli security forces killed eight Palestinians in clashes on Friday, and security was stepped up in cities around the United States.
An Israeli diplomat in Beijing was stabbed — not fatally — on Friday, a day after Israel criticized China for not condemning the Hamas assault. In France, a man the authorities said was under surveillance for suspected Islamist radicalization killed one person with a knife and wounded two others in the city of Arras. The authorities did not offer a motive in either case.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, after meeting with the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, flew to Qatar to meet with its ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Qatar has sometimes acted as an intermediary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a number of Hamas leaders have homes there.
U.S. officials said they were looking for ways to secure the release of hostages taken by Hamas, to create a “safe zone” for Palestinians within Gaza, to get humanitarian relief into Gaza and to evacuate foreigners who are trapped there, including some 500 to 600 American citizens.
Israel and Egypt, Gaza’s only immediate neighbors, which have imposed a blockade on the impoverished territory for 16 years, have refused to allow people to cross their borders in the past week. Egypt has said it would allow relief aid in, but the only border crossing from Egypt has been effectively sealed by Israeli bombing.
King Abdullah II of Jordan, meeting with Mr. Blinken, warned against forced displacement and “inflicting collective punishment against Gaza residents,” his government said in a statement. It also cautioned that the crisis could spill into neighboring countries.
The Hamas assault on Israel that began last Saturday appeared to have no immediate aims beyond indiscriminate slaughter and hostage-taking in dozens of small settlements, a military base and a music festival. It killed about 1,300 people in Israel and wounded almost 3,400, according to the Israeli government, not including the attackers who were killed and wounded when Israelis drove them from the places they had overrun. Some of the victims were foreigners, including at least 27 Americans and 15 French citizens who were killed.
A Hamas spokesman said on Thursday that the attack was carried out by a battalion of 3,000 fighters, with a 1,500-strong backup force.
In retaliation, Israel has conducted a far more intensive bombing campaign of Gaza than in previous conflicts, which it says is aimed at Hamas but which Palestinians and aid groups say has mostly harmed civilians. The Gazan authorities put the toll at 1,900 people killed, about 7,700 others wounded and many more whose homes have been destroyed. Out of more than 2 million Gazans living in area about the size of the city of Philadelphia, the United Nations says that about 400,000 people have been displaced from their homes.
Last Saturday, Israel suffered more fatalities in a single day than in any of its previous wars, and on Friday the Israeli authorities escorted international reporters on a tour of a makeshift morgue in Ramla in central Israel, where the arduous task of identifying the bodies is underway. About 500 bodies are being held there in more than a dozen refrigerated trucks.
Some were proving particularly difficult to identify because the Hamas assailants had burned them. The door to one of the cargo containers was opened — the one holding the bodies of children and infants.
“Notice the small-sized bags,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, the military spokesman. “They are of children and babies. The smaller bags are of their body parts,” he added.
The Israeli military said on Friday that allegations that it had used white phosphorous munitions in Gaza were “unequivocally false.” The groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had said there was evidence that Israel had used white phosphorus, an especially potent incendiary whose use in populated areas would violate international law.
In northern Gaza, including the region’s largest population center, Gaza City, many people fled southward on Friday with what they could carry. But many others stayed, citing a host of reasons: they had no vehicles or no fuel; they were infirm or caring for someone who could not readily be moved; they thought they would be no safer en route or in the south; or they feared that they would not be allowed to return.
“Hamas terrorists are hiding in Gaza City, inside tunnels, underneath houses and inside buildings populated with innocent Gazan civilians,” the Israeli military said in its statement to Palestinians, urging them to “distance yourself from Hamas terrorists who are using you as human shields.”
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, Farnaz Fassihi from New York, Edward Wong from Amman, Jordan, and Doha, Qatar, and Victoria Kim from Seoul. Reporting was contributed by Hiba Yazbek, Aaron Boxerman, Raja Abdulrahim, Monika Pronczuk, Peter Baker and Alexandra Stevenson.