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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Israel calls for Gaza City to evacuate, affecting hundreds of thousands

Palestinians mourn over the deaths of loved ones following an Israeli bombardment in Deir el-Balah in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.  (Eyad Baba/AFP/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/TNS)
By Miriam Berger, Adela Suliman, Bryan Pietsch and Hajar Harb Washington Post

JERUSALEM – Israel issued a sweeping directive for all Palestinians to leave Gaza City on Wednesday, sowing mass confusion and fear among hundreds of thousands of affected residents.

Leaflets dropped over Gaza City warned it was a “dangerous combat zone” and told civilians to flee south along two designated routes and toward shelters in central Gaza. Gazans and humanitarian groups have repeatedly warned there is no place in the territory safe from Israel’s nine-month-long air and ground assault that has devastated the enclave. Designated humanitarian zones are also crammed with those fleeing the fighting, leaving little room for new arrivals.

More than six hours after the leaflets were dropped, the Israel Defense Forces contacted the Washington Post to clarify that it was not issuing an order but an “evacuation recommendation” because the area was too dangerous for people to remain.

Two days earlier, Israeli forces issued evacuation orders for about half of Gaza’s largest city. Wednesday’s recommendation marked the broadest expansion yet of Israel’s renewed assault on Gaza City, which began in late June in the eastern Shejaiya neighborhood and this week expanded into central and western areas.

The Israel Defense Forces said its renewed assault on Gaza City is aimed at rooting out Hamas fighters who have regrouped in the area. Israeli forces withdrew from the city in January but have since returned for targeted operations.

Hamas’s military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, released a video on social media Wednesday showing its fighters in Gaza City’s Tel al-Hawa neighborhood detonating explosives under Israeli bulldozers and firing rockets at Israeli soldiers. In a statement, the Government Media Office warned residents of Gaza City not to heed Israel’s orders and leave.

It remained unclear how many people have fled the city so far. Israel ordered residents to evacuate Gaza City in the war’s first weeks and in subsequent orders in the months since, but some 300,000 residents remained, according to U.N. estimates.

Several Gaza City residents contacted Wednesday told the Post they did not intend to leave after already facing repeated rounds of Israeli operations and displacement.

Local journalists reported Wednesday afternoon that they saw only a trickle of families fleeing along the route south.

Mahmoud Basal, a spokesman for Gaza’s Civil Defense, told the Post that “the city has already been a combat zone for 10 months” and that “people realize that death will follow them everywhere.”

The broadening assault has already forced two hospitals to close and patients to evacuate, according to the World Health Organization, adding further stress to Gaza’s already collapsing health system.

The Palestine Red Crescent said in a statement Wednesday on X, formerly Twitter, that its emergency services could not reach the sick and wounded.

“Operation room teams are receiving dozens of humanitarian distress calls from Gaza City, but our ambulance teams are unable to reach them due to the danger of the targeted areas and the intensity of the bombardment,” it said.

What else to know

-Cease-fire and hostage-release negotiations are resuming in Doha on Wednesday, and an Israeli delegation has left for the Qatari capital to continue talks, which have so far stalled, an Israeli official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues confirmed to The Washington Post.

-Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel has “eliminated or injured” 60% of Hamas fighters, after nine months of conflict. He said in remarks to the Knesset that “the vast majority” of battalions have been “dismantled.”

-A husband and wife were identified as the two people killed in a Hezbollah rocket attack Tuesday on the Golan Heights. The Golan Regional Council said Wednesday that Noa and Nir Baranes, parents of three children, were killed in the attack while they were heading home. “The entire Golan community is shocked, grieving and mourning,” it said.

-The Israel Defense Forces said it was “looking into reports that civilians were harmed” in an attack near a school in eastern Khan Younis. The Gaza Health Ministry said at least 25 people were killed and 53 were injured in the strike; the school had been sheltering displaced people. The IDF said it used “precise munition,” striking a “terrorist from Hamas’s military wing” who allegedly participated in the group’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. “The incident is under review,” the IDF said.

-At least 38,295 people have been killed and 88,241 injured in Gaza since the war started, the Gaza Health Ministry said Wednesday. It does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, including more than 300 soldiers, and it says 325 soldiers have been killed since the start of its military operations in Gaza.

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Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.