JERUSALEM — More than one million people have been forced from their homes in the northern Gaza Strip since Israel began its bombardment against Hamas, the United Nations (UN) said on Sunday (Oct 15), warning of dire conditions on the ground.
Israel declared war on the Islamist group last Sunday, a day after waves of its fighters broke through the heavily fortified border and shot, stabbed and burned to death more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians.
The relentless bombing since against those who masterminded the attack has flattened neighbourhoods and left at least 2,670 people dead in the Gaza Strip, the majority ordinary Palestinians.
But as Israel seeks to avenge the worst attack in its history, the Arab League and African Union warned the invasion could lead to “a genocide of unprecedented proportions”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Hamas to release all hostages and for Israel to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, warning that the region was “on the verge of the abyss”.
Israel also faced a grave warning about the wider security implications of putting boots on the ground in the densely populated enclave.
“No one can guarantee the control of the situation and the non-expansion of the conflicts” if Israel sends its soldiers into Gaza, said Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
“Those who are interested in preventing the scope of war and crisis from expanding need to prevent the current barbaric attacks… against citizens and civilians in Gaza,” he added.
Iran is Israel’s number one enemy and as well as funding Hamas also backs Hezbollah in Lebanon to the north, where cross-border fire has intensified in the last week, prompting Israel to shut the area to civilians.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel had “no interest in a war in the north, we don’t want to escalate the situation”.
“If Hezbollah chooses the path of war, it will pay a heavy price… but if it restrains itself, we’ll respect the situation,” he added.
The United States (US), which has given unequivocal backing to Israel, is concerned about violence spreading and has sent two aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean as a deterrent.
In Washington, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said they feared the prospect of Iran becoming “directly engaged”, after it praised the Hamas attack but insisted it was not involved.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has in recent days toured Middle Eastern capitals in a frantic round of diplomacy to try to avert a wider crisis in the volatile region.
On Sunday, he pointed to “determination in every country I went to make sure that this doesn’t spread”, as he left Egypt.
Mr Blinken has appealed to China to use its influence in the region to ease tensions.
But on Sunday Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Israel’s response had “gone beyond the scope of self-defence”.
He called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his emergency government to “cease its collective punishment of the people of Gaza”.
AID AGENCIES’ ALARM
Israel has massed thousands of troops and heavy weaponry in the desert south of the country, waiting for the green light to go into northern Gaza.
The army has told 1.1 million Palestinians in the north of the Gaza Strip — nearly half of its 2.4-million population — to head south to safety.
But there were still Israeli air strikes in the south, including in Rafah, where one resident said a doctor’s house was targeted.
“All the family was wiped out,” said Mr Khamis Abu Hilal.
Israeli military spokesmen Lieutenant Richard Hecht and Daniel Hagari said any ground offensive would be triggered by a “political decision”.
Mr Hecht singled out Yahya Sinwar, the chief of Hamas in Gaza blamed for the Oct 7 attacks, calling him “a dead man walking”.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Sunday urged Hamas to release all civilian hostages and also expressed concern at the price Palestinian civilians and children were paying in the Israeli attacks on Gaza.
Foreign governments and aid agencies, including the UN and ICRC, have repeatedly criticised Israel’s call for Gazans to leave their homes.
The UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees said on Sunday that some one million Palestinians had already been displaced in the first week of the conflict — but the number was likely to be higher.
UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini said Gaza was facing an “unprecedented human catastrophe” because of the blockade and bombings.
“Raise the alarm that as of today, my UNRWA colleagues in Gaza are no longer able to provide humanitarian assistance as I speak,” he told reporters.
Palestinians carrying whatever belongings they can, in bags and suitcases, or packed onto three-wheeled motorbikes, battered cars, vans and even donkey carts have become a common sight in recent days.
They have had to find shelter wherever they can in the increasingly crowded south of the Gaza Strip, including on the streets and in UN-run schools.
Israel had cut off water, fuel and food supplies to Gaza for the duration of the conflict. Local hospitals are becoming overwhelmed with increasing numbers of dead and injured.
Health officials on Sunday said some 9,600 people had been wounded.
Israeli energy minister Israel Katz on Sunday said water supplies to southern Gaza had been switched back on.
“This will push the civilian population to the southern Strip,” he said.
But power outages threaten to cripple life-support systems, from seawater desalination plants to food refrigeration and hospital incubators.
Even everyday functions — from going to the toilet, showering and washing clothes — are almost impossible, locals said.
“No electricity, no water, no internet. I feel like I’m losing my humanity,” said Mona Abdel Hamid, 55, who fled Gaza City to Rafah and is having to stay with strangers.
In Rome, Pope Francis called for humanitarian corridors in Gaza and urged that “children, the sick, the elderly, women and all civilians should not fall victim to the conflict”.
Gazans are effectively trapped, with Israeli-controlled crossings closed and Egypt also having shut the Rafah border in the south.
Mr Blinken said he was confident the crossing “will be open” for aid into the strip, amid reports that Egypt was blocking the passage of Gazans with foreign passports until relief supplies are allowed in.
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas said on Sunday that the policies and actions of Hamas “do not represent the Palestinian people”.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisations (PLO) was the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, he added, Wafa news agency reported.
The mood in Israel has swung between collective grief, fury and a strong desire to punish Hamas, which Mr Netanyahu has likened to the Islamic State group. It is proscribed as a terrorist group by several Western governments, including the US.
There are deep fears about the safety of 155 hostages taken to the Gaza Strip.
“We must bring them back home alive,” said a tearful Yrat Zailer, the aunt of children aged nine months and four years who were abducted with their mother.
Israel said last week it had found the bodies of 1,500 Islamist militants in southern towns near the Palestinian enclave recaptured by the army.
Israel pushed on with its evacuation of those towns, packed buses taking families to hotels in Jerusalem and the Red Sea resort city of Eilat.
“It’s hard, I’m crying,” said Helen Afteker, 50, an evacuee from the town of Sderot. “It’s terrifying every time there’s a warning, we have to leave. It’s better for the children.”
Planeloads of Israelis have returned from around the world to join the latest of the many wars in their country’s 75-year history. AFP