DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip: A Hamas militant who Israel said led a unit of commando forces that gunned down civilians in last week’s attack on southern Israel has been killed in an air strike, the military said Saturday.
Israeli military “aircraft killed Ali Qadi, a company commander of the Hamas ‘Nukhba’ (elite) commando force,” a statement said without specifying the location or timing of the strike.
A Hamas official told AFP the Palestinian group had “no comment” concerning the Israeli claim.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed Qadi, 37, was a unit commander in the elite Hamas force.
Both the Palestinian official and the Israeli military statement said Qadi was one of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel in 2011 in exchange for a soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006.
Qadi was arrested by Israel in 2005 over the kidnapping and murder of an Israeli man who media reports at the time identified as a broker for the Shin Bet internal security agency.
Palestinians scrambled to flee northern Gaza on Saturday after Israel ordered nearly half the population to flee south and carried out limited ground forays ahead of an expected land offensive, as the war appeared set to escalate a week after Hamas’ bloody, wide-ranging attack into Israel.
Israel has ordered some 1 million people to flee, including the entire population of Gaza City, despite warnings from the UN and aid groups that such an exodus would cause untold human suffering, with hospital patients and others unable to relocate.
Israeli army spokesman said forces will will allow safe movement for Gazans on two main roads south in territory between 10:00-16:00.
Families in cars, trucks and donkey carts packed with their possessions crowded a main road heading southward from Gaza City as Israeli airstrikes continued to hammer the besieged territory. Hamas’ media office said warplanes struck cars fleeing south, killing more than 70 people.
The Israeli military said its troops conducted temporary raids into Gaza to battle militants and hunted for traces of some 150 people — including men, women and children — abducted in Hamas’s shocking Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel.
In urging the evacuation, Israel’s military said it planned to target underground Hamas hideouts around Gaza City. But Palestinians and some Egyptian officials fear that Israel ultimately aims to push Gaza’s people out through the southern border with Egypt.
The UN called on Israel to reverse the unprecedented directive.
Hamas told people to ignore the evacuation order. Families in Gaza faced what agonizing dillemas in deciding whether to leave or stay, with no safe ground anywhere. Israeli strikes have leveled entire city blocks, and Gaza has been sealed off from food, water and medical supplies — all under a virtual total power blackout.
Haifa Khamis Al-Shourafa, 42, fled to the farming town of Deir Al-Balah in a group of about 150 people on Friday, after her apartment in an upscale neighborhood of Gaza City was demolished in an Israeli airstrike earlier in the week.
“We lost everything, our house, our belongings, everything,” she said. “All we have is our kids, and that’s why we left. We don’t want to lose them.” As her phone battery ran low and the sound of shelling echoed in the distance, she said: “I am using the last bit of power I have to tell you, we don’t deserve this.”
The Gaza Health Ministry said Friday that roughly 1,900 people have been killed in the territory. The Hamas assault killed more than 1,300 Israelis, most of whom were civilians, and roughly 1,500 Hamas militants were killed during the fighting, the Israeli government said.
ISRAELI TROOPS MAKE FORAY INTO GAZA
Israel’s raids into Gaza Friday were the first indication that troops had entered the territory since Israel began its round-the-clock bombardment in retaliation for the Hamas’ massacre. Palestinian militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israel since the fighting erupted.
A military spokesman said Israeli ground troops left after conducting the raids.
Israel has called up some 360,000 reserves and massed troops and tanks along the border, but no decision has been announced on whether to launch a ground offensive. An assault into densely populated Gaza would likely bring even higher casualties on both sides in brutal house-to-house fighting.
“We will destroy Hamas,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Friday night.
Hamas said Israel’s airstrikes killed 13 hostages, including foreigners, without giving their nationalities. The military denied the claim. Hamas and other Palestinian militants hope to trade the hostages for thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
In Israel, the public remained in shock over the Hamas rampage and frightened by continual rocket fire out of Gaza. Residents are overwhelmingly in favor of a military offensive, and Israeli TV stations have set up special broadcasts with slogans like “together we will win” and “strong together.” Their reports focus heavily on the aftermath of the Hamas attack and stories of heroism and national unity, and they make scant mention of the unfolding crisis in Gaza.
In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Health Ministry reported 16 Palestinians were killed Friday, bringing the total of Palestinians killed there to 51. The UN says attacks by Israeli settlers have surged there since the Hamas assault.
ISRAEL URGES MASS EVACUATION OF GAZA CIVILIANS
The UN said the Israeli military’s call for civilians to move south affects 1.1 million people. If carried out, that would mean the territory’s entire population would have to cram into the southern half of the 40-kilometer (25-mile) strip. And Israel is still carrying out strikes across the territory, including in the south.
An Israeli spokesperson, Jonathan Conricus, said the military would take “extensive efforts to avoid harming civilians” and that residents would be allowed to return when the war is over.
Israel has long accused Hamas of using Palestinians as human shields. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel wanted to separate Hamas militants from the civilian population.
“So those who want to save their life, please go south,” he said at a news conference Friday with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The US and Israel’s other allies have pledged ironclad support for its war on Hamas, but the European Union’s foreign policy chief said Saturday that the military needs to give more time for people to evacuate northern Gaza ahead of any military action.
Josep Borrell, speaking to news media on a visit to China, welcomed the evacuation order, but said “you cannot move such a volume of people in (a) short period of time,” noting a lack of shelters or transportation.
PALESTINIANS IN GAZA GRAPPLE WITH WHERE TO GO
Hamas’ media office said airstrikes hit cars in three locations as they headed south from Gaza City, killing 70 people. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
Two witnesses reported a strike on fleeing cars near Deir el-Balah, south of the evacuation zone and in the area where Israel told people to flee. Fayza Hamoudi said she and her family were driving from their home in the north when the strike hit some distance ahead on the road and two vehicles burst into flames. A witness from another car on the road gave a similar account.
“Why should we trust that they’re trying to keep us safe?” Hamoudi said, her voice choking. “They are sick.”
Many feared they would not be able to return or would be gradually displaced to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
More than half of the Palestinians in Gaza are descendants of refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from what is now Israel. For many, the evacuation order dredged up fears of a second expulsion. Already, at least 423,000 people — nearly 1 in 5 Gazans — have been forced from their homes by Israeli airstrikes, the UN said Thursday.
“Where is the sense of security in Gaza? Is this what Hamas is offering us?” said one resident, Tarek Mraish, standing by an avenue as vehicles flowed by.
The UN estimated that tens of thousands had fled homes in the north by Friday night.
HOSPITALS STRUGGLE WITH PATIENTS
Gaza’s Health Ministry said it was impossible to safely transport the wounded from hospitals, which are already struggling with high numbers of dead and injured. “We cannot evacuate hospitals and leave the wounded and sick to die,” spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidra said.
Al Awda Hospital struggled to evacuate dozens of patients and staff after the military contacted it and told it to do so by Friday night, said the aid group Doctors Without Borders, which supports the facility. The military extended the deadline to Saturday morning, it said.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said it would not evacuate its schools, where hundreds of thousands have taken shelter. But it relocated its headquarters to southern Gaza, according to spokesperson Juliette Touma.
“The scale and speed of the unfolding humanitarian crisis is bone-chilling. Gaza is fast becoming a hellhole and is on the brink of collapse,” said Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner general.