Thousands of Gazans fled their homes in two northern areas of the coastal strip on Sunday after Israel warned that it would “strike with might” against what it says are rocket-launching sites.
The exodus from Beit Lahia and Attatra came after Israel dropped leaflets and sent text messages warning civilians to evacuate northern Gaza by midday on Sunday in advance of a large-scale bombing campaign. The area is home to at least 100 000 people.
A senior Israeli military officer, in a telephone briefing with foreign reporters, said Israel would strike the Beit Lahzia area from the late evening on Sunday. “The enemy has built rocket infrastructure in between the houses [in Beit Lahia],” the officer said. “He wants to trap me into an attack and into hurting civilians.”
The leaflet warned: “Those who fail to comply with the instructions will endanger their lives and the lives of their families. Beware.”
As the ultimatum drew near, large numbers raced by in pick-up trucks or on donkey carts, waving white flags, with many heading to UN-run schools that were taking in refugees. “They are sending warning messages,” said one resident, Mohammad Abu Halemah. “Once we received the message, we felt scared to stay in our homes. We want to leave.”
Outside one UN school, there were rows of horses tied up by families anxious to protect their animals.
During a visit to Beit Lahia after the deadline had expired, the Guardian saw that most residents had opted to stay in their homes. Some shops were open and hospitals called for volunteers from medical schools to help treat an expected influx of casualties.
The warning was issued hours after Israeli naval commandos launched an early morning raid on a beach in the Sudaniya neighbourhood in the north of Gaza City, targeting another rocket-launching site. On Saturday, the coastal enclave suffered the bloodiest day of the six-day Israeli assault, with 54 Palestinians reported killed.
There has been speculation that Israel may launch a ground offensive into Gaza, a move likely to sharply increase the number of civilian casualties. So far 166 people have been killed, including 30 children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. There have been several Israeli injuries but no fatalities.
In the worst single incident of the conflict so far, at least 17 people were killed and 45 injured when two large Israeli bombs hit a house in the Tuffah neighbourhood of Gaza City where the city’s chief of police, Tayseer al-Batsh, was sheltering. Five other people were missing, presumed dead.
Most of the injured were returning home from a mosque when they were caught by shrapnel from the blast.
Wider offensive feared
Israel has been massing tanks and soldiers at Gaza’s borders, which some fear could signal a wider ground offensive that would cause heavy casualties. “We don’t know when the operation will end,” the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, told a Cabinet meeting on Sunday. “It might take a long time.”
The beach raid by several dozen commandos at 2am on Sunday was the first time Israeli forces have set foot on the ground in Gaza since the beginning of the current campaign. Four commandos were reportedly lightly injured after apparently being spotted approaching and being engaged by waiting Palestinian fighters.
Saad al-Dawla, the night watchman of the al-Mathaf hotel, said he was sleeping when the commandos came to the beach. “I was sleeping in the lobby with a friend,” he said. At the beginning we heard shooting from the Palestinian side. I got up and looked out the window and saw that there were people shooting from the water. Almost immediately an [Israeli] helicopter came and started shooting at the water as well.
“Later I heard shelling from the sea and the sounded of a warship’s siren. The whole thing lasted about two hours.”
Asked whether Hamas or other groups had watchers near the beach, Dawla said he did not know. Ladders at a mosque overlooking the beachfront and leading to its tower strongly suggested that a sentry had been posted there.
Another local resident, who would only give his nickname, Abu Adam, said he was woken by the sound of fighting coming from the beach. “I was lying on the floor with my children. We could hear the sounds of shelling and gunfire and see the windows lit up by the explosions and the flares,” he said.
Girl killed in ‘huge explosion’
Earlier in the evening two bombs demolished a house belonging to Majid Batsh, a cousin of the Hamas chief of police Tayseer. All that remained of the substantial building on Sunday morning were a few concrete stumps of the pillars that had supported it. A girl aged three was among those killed in the bombing.
“They were my cousins,” said Mohammad al-Batsh (20), a civil engineering student. “I was coming home from mosque when I heard a huge explosion. At first I didn’t know where the sound was coming from. The air was full of dust and smoke. It felt like an earthquake.
“When I got here, I saw destruction everywhere. The bodies were so badly burned I could not recognise anyone. Thirteen of the dead came from my cousin Majid’s family. He was just a driver. There are five still missing including a pregnant woman.”
On Sunday, Palestinians with foreign passports began leaving Gaza through the Erez border crossing. Israel, which is cooperating in the evacuation, says 800 Palestinians living in Gaza have passports from countries including the UK, US and Australia.
Ahmed Mohana, a US citizen, said he had mixed feelings about leaving friends and family behind in the Gaza Strip. “It is very hard, it is very tough,” he said. “We are leaving our family, our relatives and brothers and sisters in this horrible situation we have to do what we have to do.”
Israel has launched more than 1 300 air strikes since the offensive began, the military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said. Palestinian militants have launched more than 800 rockets at Israel, including 130 in the last 24 hours, the Israeli military.
Israel has said it is acting in self-defence against rockets that have disrupted life across much of the country. It also accuses Hamas of using Gaza’s civilians as human shields.
Critics say Israel’s heavy bombardment of one of the most densely populated territories in the world is the main factor putting civilians at risk. – © Guardian News & Media 2014