Israel gave civilians still trapped inside freshly encircled Gaza City a four hour window to leave on Tuesday, and residents escaping said they passed tanks in position to possibly begin storming it.
Israel says its forces have surrounded Gaza City, home to a third of the enclave’s 2.3 million people, and are poised to storm it soon in their campaign to annihilate the Hamas Islamists who attacked Israeli towns exactly a month ago.
War began on Oct. 7 when the fighters burst across the fence surrounding Gaza and killed 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, and abducted more than 200, according to Israeli tallies. Since then, Israel has pounded Hamas-run Gaza with strikes, killing more than 10,000 people, around 40 percent of them children, according to tallies by health officials there.
“It has been one full month of carnage, of incessant suffering, bloodshed, destruction, outrage and despair,” U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Volcker Turk said in a statement at the start of a trip to the region, during which he will visit the Rafah crossing from Egypt, the sole route for aid.
“Human rights violations are at the root of this escalation and human rights play a central role in finding a way out of this vortex of pain.”
Israel gave residents a window from 10:00 am until 2:00 pm to leave Gaza City on Tuesday. Residents say Israeli tanks have been moving mostly at night, with Israeli forces largely relying on air and artillery strikes to clear a path for their ground advance.
“For your safety, take this next opportunity to move south beyond Wadi Gaza,” the military announced, referring to the wetlands that bisect the strip.
“The most dangerous trip in my life. We saw the tanks from point blank. We saw decomposed body parts. We saw death,” resident Adam Fayez Zeyara posted with a selfie of himself on the road out of Gaza City.
While Israel’s military operation is focused on the northern half of Gaza, the south has also come under attack. Palestinian health officials said at least 23 people were killed in two separate Israeli air strikes early on Tuesday in the southern Gaza cities of Khan Younis and Rafah.
“We are civilians,” said Ahmed Ayesh, who was rescued from the rubble of a house in Khan Younis where health officials said 11 people had been killed. “This is the bravery of the so-called Israel, they show their might and power against civilians, babies inside, kids inside, and elderly.”
As he spoke, rescuers at the house used their hands to try to free a girl buried up to her waist in debris.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would consider “tactical little pauses” in Gaza fighting to let hostages leave or aid enter, but again rejected increasingly forceful calls for a ceasefire.
Israel’s military said it had captured a militant compound in the northern Gaza Strip and was set to attack fighters hiding in a warren of underground tunnels. It released footage showing troops using bulldozers to dig up earth and knock over walls.
Israeli aircraft struck several Hamas militants who had barricaded themselves in a building near the al-Quds Hospital inside Gaza City, the military said.
Both Israel and Hamas have rebuffed mounting calls for a halt in fighting. Israel says hostages should be released first. Hamas says it will not free them nor stop fighting while Gaza is under attack.
Unrelenting horror stories of civilian suffering on both sides have polarised world opinion over the past month and show no sign of easing.
In Shefayim, Israel, Avihai Brodutch described 31 days of agony after Hamas abducted his wife and three children from Kfar Aza, a kibbutz about three km (2 miles) from Gaza.
“My kids, they’re so young, and they’ve done nothing wrong to anybody,” he said of his 10-year-old daughter Ofri and sons Yuval, eight, and Uriah, four.
Since last week, hundreds of Gazans who hold foreign passports have been permitted to exit through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. But the overwhelming majority of Gazans are trapped inside the strip, and those who have been able to escape describe their torment at leaving loved-ones behind.
“It’s just a horror movie that keeps putting on repeat,” Suzan Beseiso, a 31-year-old Palestinian-American who managed to leave Gaza for Egypt last week, told Reuters in Cairo. “No sleep. No food. No water. You keep evacuating from one place to another.”
Her own escape was fraught with danger from Israeli bombardment on the route out, she said.
Netanyahu said a general ceasefire would hamper his country’s war effort, but pauses to fighting for humanitarian reasons could continue to be considered based on circumstances.
U.S. President Joe Biden discussed such pauses with Netanyahu by phone on Monday, reiterating his support for Israel while emphasising it must protect civilians, the White House said.
Washington backs Israel’s assertion that Hamas would take advantage of a full ceasefire to regroup. But many countries and agencies say a ceasefire is needed at once to help Gazans in peril.
The enclave is becoming a “graveyard for children“, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Monday. International organizations have said hospitals cannot cope with the wounded and food and clean water are running out with aid deliveries nowhere near enough.
“We need an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. It’s been 30 days. Enough is enough. This must stop now,” said a statement from the heads of several United Nations’ bodies on Monday.
The Israeli military on Monday released video of tanks moving through bombed-out streets and groups of troops moving on foot. Chief military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said troops were hunting Hamas field level commanders to weaken the militants’ ability “to carry out counter attacks.”
There are fears that the month-old conflict could spread to other fronts, including the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the northern border with Lebanon, both areas that have seen a surge in unrest to the deadliest in many years.
In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said on Tuesday a total 163 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli forces since Oct. 7 and the number killed since the start of this year reached 371.