Israel says 50,000 Palestinians have fled as its troops enter the 'heart' of Gaza City

An Israel Defense Forces spokesperson says “time is running out” for civilians to leave northern Gaza and move south, but even there, residents have faced bombing.


TEL AVIV — The bombs kept coming, and their families and countrymen kept dying, but it wasn't until this week that thousands of Palestinians still in northern Gaza decided it was time to leave.

Many set off on foot Wednesday, forming a mileslong exodus to southern Gaza as the Israeli military intensified its assault and ground troops closed in on the center of Gaza City.

Some Palestinians carried white flags, hoping to fend off attacks in a war that has taken a heavy toll on civilians. Others cradled babies or pushed the elderly in wheelchairs. Videos verified by NBC News showed some Palestinians with their hands up as they passed bombed-out buildings and Israeli tanks. One Palestinian said he walked passed decomposing bodies on the roadside.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that the number of Palestinians leaving northern Gaza on Tuesday had tripled to 15,000, from 5,000 the day before. On Wednesday, Israel opened a brief humanitarian corridor for civilians to escape along Salah al-Din Road, which runs down the center of the Gaza Strip.

In a briefing Wednesday, an IDF spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, estimated that 50,000 Palestinians had moved south on Wednesday.

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A boy carries a makeshift white flag next to his mother in Gaza City.Bashar Taleb / AFP - Getty Images

The Israel Defense Forces said it had opened humanitarian corridors for civilians in northern Gaza to flee south in the past several days. This follows repeated warnings from Israel for Palestinians to evacuate the north, amid a month of relentless aerial bombardment, a mounting ground offensive and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian conditions.

Hamas denied that Israeli troops had made significant gains or entered Gaza City, The Associated Press reported. NBC News could not independently verify the battlefield claims of either Hamas or Israel. In a separate statement, Hamas accused the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, of “colluding” with Israel in the “forced displacement” of civilians in response to people fleeing south.

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Pushing an older relative in a wheelchair down Salah al-Din Road, Ameer Ghalban, said the two of them had been living off one piece of bread a day.

“The majority of people have left their land because the siege has become absolute in Gaza,” Ghalban told The AP. “We have no water, no electricity, and no flour.”

The U.N. noted that the corridors have been opened only for a short window — from 10 a.m. local time to 2 p.m. — and they have at times been closed early because of fighting, according to the IDF.

Satellite images released Tuesday show people walking Salah al-Din Road toward southern Gaza.Maxar Technologies / AFP - Getty Images

In video posted on social media, including by COGAT, Israel’s military liaison with the Palestinians, a long stretch of people could be seen walking along a packed road. Satellite imagery also showed large numbers of people walking along Salah al-Din Road on Tuesday.

IDF spokesperson Avichay Adraee warned in a social media post on Wednesday that “time is running out” for civilians to leave northern Gaza, which he said has become a “fierce combat zone.”

Civilians in the north and humanitarian groups have said those short windows of time are not enough for people to flee safely, while medical personnel at hospitals where thousands of people are sheltering have said they cannot relocate all of their patients, especially those in critical condition.

Those who do flee south are not guaranteed safety from Israel’s bombardment, which has hit residential areas and refugee camps, despite the Israeli military’s repeated warnings for civilians in the north to seek refuge in the south.

Satellite images show groups of people evacuating south from Gaza City, along Salah al-Din Road, on Tuesday with what appears to be an Israeli tank on the side of the road.Maxar Technologies / AP

As Israeli troops make their way through Gaza City, even from a bird’s eye view it’s clear the metropolis has already been irreversibly changed, with satellite images released by Maxar Technologies on Tuesday showing fires raging across the city amid shelling from Israel.

Still, there are those who will not, or cannot, leave.

“We will not go to the south or the north. Screw Netanyahu and America. We will remain steadfast in our land, and we will not leave,” Mahasen Al-Khateeb, who was sheltering in place at Rantisi Specialist Hospital, a pediatric facility, told NBC News.

Shahal Ibrahim, also at the hospital, worried that if Palestinians keep moving south the forced displacement could become permanent. He feared they would eventually be pushed to the Sinai Desert, echoing the trauma of the “Nakba” — Arabic for catastrophe, the 1948 displacement of roughly 700,000 Palestinians who were expelled from their land in what would become Israel.

The Israeli military has ordered the evacuation of the hospital, claiming armed groups were using its premises and surroundings. But health officials in Gaza have said the facility’s evacuation could jeopardize the lives of dozens of children on life support, undergoing kidney dialysis and relying on artificial respiratory devices.

Civilians wave a white flag as they walk along Salah al-Din Road in Gaza on Tuesday.Mohammed Dahman / AP

Fares Abu Fares, a 53-year-old volunteer with the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, said he won't be leaving Gaza City, even as Israeli troops advance toward the area he's taking shelter in.

Fares, who is Palestinian American and lives in the U.S. with his wife and children, said he was visiting family in Gaza when the war broke out and has remained there with his mother and brothers. Much of his neighborhood had been destroyed, but for now his house still stands.

With food and water scarce, he said he fears his family is "on the verge of starving," but he's also afraid that if they try to move south, they could be killed.

“I can’t trust those people," he said of the Israeli army. For now, he said: “I am not leaving. I’m going to stay with my family."

"It’s not safe," he said.

Chantal Da Silva reported from Tel Aviv, and Mithil Aggarwal from Hong Kong.