The Israeli military said Saturday evening that preparations for an “integrated and coordinated attack from the air, sea, and land” on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip were nearing completion.
The threat of a ground invasion has loomed since Hamas fighters launched thousands of rockets toward Israel, breached border defences, and rampaged across communities of southern Israel a week ago, leaving more than 1,300 people dead.
More than 2,200 people have been killed so far in Israel’s bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip launched in retaliation.
Israel has sealed off the narrow Palestinian territory on the Mediterranean Sea and stopped the entry of food, fuel, water, and medicines.
Israel’s threatened ground assault aimed at crushing the Hamas militant group grew closer on Friday, when Israel gave about one million residents of northern Gaza about 24 hours to evacuate to the southern half of the coastal enclave.
On Saturday, Israel assured Gazans they now had until 4 pm (1300 GMT) to make a safe passage south on approved routes.
Hamas tried to prevent civilians from following Israel’s call to clear out of the north, saying people should not fall for what it described as “propaganda messages”.
Witnesses in Gaza described growing panic as people fled in cars, trucks, donkey carts, and on foot along the territory’s only main road.
Hamas said ongoing airstrikes by Israeli forces killed 70 people fleeing south and injured 200 others.
Most of the victims were children and women, a spokesman for the Islamist organisation said on Friday night.
Three convoys were hit in the “massacre,” he said, even though there was no confirmation from the Israeli military, which said the reports were being examined.
More rockets were fired from Gaza on Saturday towards Tel Aviv and the centre of the country, but there were no reports of injuries.
At least 265 Israeli soldiers were among those killed in Hamas terror attacks, military spokesman Richard Hecht said on Saturday.
The vast majority of those killed in the large-scale attacks are civilians.
Hecht said that it was certain that 120 people had been abducted into the Gaza Strip.
The government has spoken of up to 150 hostages.
According to the al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, nine more of the hostages taken from Israel were reportedly killed in Israeli airstrikes in the past 24 hours.
Hamas had already reported 13 abductees killed by Israeli airstrikes on Friday, among them foreigners, though it did not specify their nationalities.
The number of Palestinians killed in Israeli counter-attacks on Gaza stands at 2,215, while 8,714 people have been injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Israel’s army says its airstrikes only target militant sites and accuses Hamas of using Gazans as human shields.
It says that through airstrikes on the Gaza Strip it had killed top Hamas commanders behind the attack plot.
There has been extensive criticism of Israel’s repeated demands that people evacuate Gaza, and the United Nations called on Israel to revoke its order, pointing to the threat of a “catastrophic situation.”
The top diplomats of Turkey and Egypt on Saturday urged Israel to facilitate the safe passage of humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Across the Gaza Strip, more than 2 million people are at risk as the supply of potable water runs out, amid a blockade on humanitarian supplies.
Medicine was also in short supply and hospitals reported being overhwhelmed.
At the UN base in the southern Gaza Strip – where the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has moved its operations – drinking water is also running out.
Three water desalination plants, previously producing 21 million litres of drinking water per day, are no longer operating.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the border area near Gaza for the first time since the Hamas attack.
Netanyahu visited the kibbutzim of Be’eri and Kfar Aza to see the homes destroyed in the “terrible massacre,” his office said after the visit on Saturday.
On Friday, the IDF said troops had carried out “localised raids” into Gaza, in what was seen as a precursor to an all-out ground invasion.
Meanwhile, in the north of Israel, the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah movement launched new attacks on Israeli posts in the disputed Shebaa Farms area on the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Two civilians were killed in retaliatory Israeli shelling on the village of Shebaa in the afternoon, Lebanese lawmaker Kassem Hashem, who is from Shebaa and is close to Hezbollah, told dpa.
Since Hamas’ attacks on Israel and the Israeli army’s counter-attacks on the Gaza Strip, there have been regular skirmishes on the border between Israel and Lebanon, fuelling fears of an escalation of violence at the northern Israeli border with Lebanon.
Hezbollah said on Saturday another one of its fighters died while performing “jihadist duties,” bringing the total to four since Oct. 7. (dpa/NAN)