DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Palestinians scrambled to flee northern Gaza on Saturday after the Israeli military ordered nearly half the population to evacuate south and carried out limited ground forays ahead of an expected land offensive a week after Hamas’ bloody, wide-ranging attack into Israel.
Israel renewed calls on social media and in leaflets dropped from the air for some 1 million Gaza residents to move south, while Hamas urged people to stay in their homes. The U.N. and aid groups have said such a rapid exodus would cause untold human suffering, with hospital patients and others unable to relocate.
Families in cars, trucks and donkey carts packed with possessions crowded a main road heading away from Gaza City as Israeli airstrikes continued to hammer the 25-mile long territory, where supplies of food, fuel and drinking water were running low because of a complete Israeli siege.
Egyptian officials said the southern Rafah crossing would open later Saturday for the first time in days to allow foreigners out. Israel said Palestinians could travel within Gaza without being harmed along two main routes from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. local time.
The Israeli military said “hundreds of thousands” of Palestinians had already heeded the warning and headed south. But some live up to 12 miles away, and roads demolished by airstrikes and fuel shortage hindered their journeys.
Thousands of people crammed into a U.N.-run school-turned-shelter in Deir al-Balah, a farming town south of the evacuation zone. Many slept outside on the ground without mattresses, or in chairs pulled from classrooms.
“I came here with my children. We slept on the ground. We don’t have a mattress, or clothes,” Howeida al-Zaaneen, 63, who is from the northern town of Beit Hanoun, said. “I want to go back to my home, even if it is destroyed.”
The 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 — who were abducted during Hamas’ shocking Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel.
The Gaza Health Ministry said Saturday that over 2,200 people have been killed in the territory, including 724 children and 458 women. The Hamas assault killed more than 1,300 people on the Israeli side, most of them civilians, and roughly 1,500 Hamas militants were killed during the fighting, the Israeli government said.
Fearing a mass exodus of Palestinians, Egyptian authorities erected “temporary” blast walls on Egypt’s side of the heavily-guarded Rafah crossing, which has been closed for days because of Israeli airstrikes, two Egyptian officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Raids into Gaza on Friday were the first acknowledgment that Israeli troops had entered the territory since the military began its round-the-clock bombardment in retaliation for the Hamas massacre. Palestinian militants have fired more than 5,500 rockets into Israel since the fighting erupted, the Israeli military said.
The military said the ground troops left after conducting the raids.
Israel has called up some 360,000 reserves and massed troops and tanks along the border with Gaza, 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh on Saturday, and both called for Israel to protect civilians in Gaza.
“As Israel pursues its legitimate right to defend its people and to trying to ensure that this never happens again, it is vitally important that all of us look out for for civilians, and we’re working together to do exactly that,” Blinken said.