Amid continued Israeli bombardment, Palestinians said they received renewed warnings from Israel’s military to move from north Gaza to the south of the strip, with the added threat that they could be identified as sympathisers of a “terrorist organisation” if they stayed put.
The message was delivered in leaflets marked with the Israel Defense Forces name and logo from Saturday and sent to people via mobile phone audio messages across the Gaza Strip, a narrow territory that is just 45 km (28 miles) long.
“Urgent warning, to residents of Gaza. Your presence north of Wadi Gaza puts your life in danger. Whoever chooses not to leave north Gaza to the south of Wadi Gaza might be identified as an accomplice in a terrorist organisation,” the leaflet said.
Israeli airstrikes continued through the night, killing at least 55 Palestinians in Gaza, raising the total number of casualties since October 7 past 4,300.
Israeli officials claim surprise offensive by Hamas on October 7 left 1,400 dead and 212 hostages were taken. The occupying state has pounded Gaza with airstrikes besides enforcing a “total siege” since then. Israel has massed troops and armour on the border with Gaza ahead of an expected land incursion, aiming to annihilate Hamas, after several inconclusive wars dating to its seizure of power there in 2007.
“We are going to go into the Gaza Strip… to destroy Hamas operatives and Hamas infrastructure,” Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi told troops in a video distributed by the Israeli military on Saturday. “We will have in our mind the memories of the images and those who fell on Saturday two weeks ago.”
The Israeli military said in a statement it had “no intention to consider those who have not evacuated … as a member of the terrorist group”.
It added that it did not target civilians.
“In order to minimize civilian harm, the IDF sent a request to the residents of the northern area of the Gaza Strip to evacuate southward of Wadi Gaza,” it said.
Israel has previously urged Palestinians to move south, although Palestinians said they had not previously been told they could be considered “terrorist” sympathisers if they did not. They also say making the journey south remains highly risky amid airstrikes and say areas of the south have also been hit.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said on Saturday that Israel’s air and missile strikes in retaliation had killed at least 4,385 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, with more than a million of the tiny territory’s 2.3 million people displaced.
It added that more than 30 homes had been destroyed in the hours after an Israeli military spokesman said that raids would be increased.
US sends military assets
Meanwhile, fears that the Israel-Palestinian conflict might spread through the Middle East ratcheted higher on Sunday, with the US sending more military assets to the region as Israel pummelled targets in Gaza and elsewhere.
An Israeli missile attack targeted Damascus and Aleppo international airports in neighbouring Syria early on Sunday, killing a civilian worker and putting the airports out of service, Syrian state media reported.
Israel said its aircraft struck Hezbollah targets in Lebanon on Saturday and that one of its soldiers was hit by an anti-tank missile in cross-border fighting that the Iran-backed group said killed six of its fighters.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Saturday that the Lebanese people would be affected if his country were drawn in, the State Department said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington would send more military assets to the Middle East to support Israel and strengthen the US defence posture in the region following “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces”.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and additional Patriot air defence missile system battalions will be sent to the region, and more troops will be put on standby, Austin said.
Washington has already sent a significant amount of naval power to the Middle East in recent weeks, including two aircraft carriers, their support ships and about 2,000 Marines.
Drones and rockets targeted two military bases housing US forces in Iraq last week, the latest in a series of attacks after Iraqi militants warned Washington against intervening to support Israel against Iran-backed Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
A deadly blast at the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza on Tuesday was likely caused by an errant rocket fired from Gaza, not an Israeli strike, Canada’s National Department of Defence said, reaching similar conclusions to the US and France.
Israeli aircraft struck a compound beneath a mosque in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank early on Sunday that the military said was being used by militants to organise attacks.
Israeli forces killed a fifth Palestinian in the West Bank overnight, bringing the number of deaths there to 90 since the war began, the Palestinian health ministry said on Sunday.
Palestinian media reported at least 11 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli strike in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, and that Israel was striking the southern city of Rafah.
The strikes came hours after Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari called on Gazans to move south out of harm’s way.
“For your own safety move southward. We will continue to attack in the area of Gaza City and increase attacks,” Hagari told Israeli reporters on Saturday.
Meanwhile, in southern Lebanon, at least 27 people have been killed, according to an AFP tally. Most have been combatants but at least four civilians, including a Reuters journalist, have also been killed.
Israel has ordered dozens of northern communities to evacuate, and several thousand Lebanese have also fled border regions for the southern city of Tyre.
On Sunday, the Israeli defence ministry said they were evacuating 14 additional communities from the area.
Israel has levelled blame at Lebanese group Hezbollah for dragging Lebanon into the conflict.
Aid arrives, invasion looms
The first humanitarian aid convoy allowed into the enclave since war broke out arrived through the Rafah border crossing on Saturday. The United Nations said the 20-truck convoy brought life-saving supplies that would be received by the Palestinian Red Crescent.
But the UN humanitarian office said the volume of goods that entered on Saturday was just 4% of the daily average of imports into Gaza before the hostilities and a fraction of what was needed after 13 days of siege of the crowded enclave.
Biden, long a firm supporter of Israel, cheered the arrival of the aid after days of intense negotiations. He said the US was committed to ensuring more aid gets to Palestinians running out of food, water, medicines and fuel.”We will continue to work with all parties,” Biden said in a statement.