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Gaza — Thousands of Palestinians fled the north of the Gaza Strip on Saturday from the path of an expected Israeli ground assault, while Israel pounded the area with more air strikes and said it kept two roads open to let people escape.

Israel has vowed to annihilate the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza in retaliation for a rampage by fighters, who stormed through Israeli towns a week ago, gunning civilians down and making off with scores of hostages.

Some 1,300 people were killed in the worst attack on civilians in Israel's history.

Israeli forces have since put the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million Palestinians, under a total siege and bombarded it with unprecedented air strikes.

Gaza authorities say more than 2,200 people have been killed, a quarter of them children, and nearly 10,000 wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Israeli infantrymen outside the Gaza Strip on Saturday, his office said in a statement, and an accompanying video showed him telling them: “You ready for the next stage? The next stage is coming.”

Israel had given the population of the northern half of the Gaza Strip, which includes the enclave's biggest settlement Gaza City, until Saturday morning to move south.

As that deadline approached it said it would guarantee the safety of Palestinians fleeing on two main roads until late afternoon. The new deadline expired with no immediate announcement from either side of any change in the situation.

Troops were massing about the Gaza Strip, “getting ready for the next stage of operations,” military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

Hamas has told people not to leave and says roads out are unsafe. It says dozens of people had been killed in strikes on cars and trucks carrying refugees on Friday, which Reuters could not independently verify. Israel says Hamas is preventing people from leaving to use them as human shields, which Hamas denies.

In Gaza City's Tel Al-Hawa neighbourhood, in the area Israel ordered evacuated, warplanes bombed a residential area during the night hitting several houses, according to residents who took refuge at the nearby Al Quds hospital and planned to flee south in the morning.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said it had received an Israeli order to evacuate the hospital by late afternoon, but would not do so because it had a humanitarian duty to keep providing services to the sick and wounded.

In Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, where Israeli planes struck a four-storey building overnight, neighbours rushed to rescue people.

A Gaza journalist filmed an ambulance crew searching for survivors of a night-time air strike. A paramedic could be seen walking into an alley lit by a headlamp when a huge flash from another strike burst in front of him. Medics raced into ambulances and sped off as planes roared above.

The attacks on Israel have plunged the nation into deep grief and galvanised it for war, with hundreds of thousands of reservists mobilised within days.

Israeli heavy armour and tanks are seen in a staging area near Sderot, Israel. Picture: LEON NEAL
Israeli heavy armour and tanks are seen in a staging area near Sderot, Israel. Picture: LEON NEAL

Families of the kidnapped Israelis are terrified for their safety.

Hamas' armed wing said nine captives including four foreigners had been killed overnight due to Israeli air strikes. It has previously threatened to kill one hostage for every building Israel strikes without warning.

Israel's attacks on Gaza failed to halt Hamas missile strikes deep into Israeli cities. Air raid sirens wailed in central Israel on Saturday and rockets smashed into a greenhouse in Ashqelon and wounded four people at a kibbutz.

The only route out of Gaza not under Israeli control is a checkpoint with Egypt at Rafah. Egypt officially says its side is open, but traffic has been halted for days because of Israeli strikes.

Egyptian security sources said the Egyptian side is being reinforced and Cairo has no intention of accepting a mass influx of refugees.

A senior US State Department official said the US was working to open the crossing on Saturday to let some people out, and had been in touch with Palestinian-Americans who want to leave Gaza. Washington later said it had told its citizens to try to reach the crossing.

Countries and aid agencies have sent supplies to Egypt but have so far been unable to bring them into Gaza. Israel says nothing can enter through Rafah without its co-ordination.

The Gaza Strip is one of the most crowded areas in the world, and Israel's evacuation order for the northern half meant those fleeing south were forced to shelter with relatives and friends, in schools or hastily rented apartments.

Israel says the order is a humanitarian gesture to protect residents from harm while it roots out Hamas fighters. The United Nations says so many people cannot be safely moved inside the besieged enclave without causing a humanitarian disaster.

Hamas has vowed to fight until the last drop of blood, and says the order to leave the north of the enclave is a trick to force residents to give up their homes.

Lebanon border clashes

The violence in Gaza has been accompanied by the deadliest clashes at Israel's northern border with Lebanon since 2006, raising fears of war spreading to another front.

Lebanon's armed Hezbollah movement, a close ally of Iran like Hamas, said it had fired at five Israeli outposts in the disputed Shebaa Farms area with guided missiles and mortar bombs.

Reuters reporters saw missiles fired at an Israeli army post and heard shelling from Israel and gunfire.

Israel's Kan radio reported five border villages had been put under lockdown in response to a suspected incursion from Lebanon.


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