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In northern Gaza, the price of a ride south is out of reach for many

As Israel’s military ramped up its warnings for civilians to flee northern Gaza, many people there said doing so was not an option because of cost — and that it was no guarantee of safety.

The Israeli military said Saturday night that it would intensify its already punishing bombardment of the besieged enclave ahead of an expected ground invasion. In Arabic-language leaflets dropped over the Gaza Strip on Saturday, it reiterated calls for people to move south, warning that anyone who did not “may be considered a partner in a terrorist organization.”

But Amani Abu Odeh, who lives in the town of Jabalia in Gaza’s north, said that the danger of Israeli airstrikes on the road had pushed up the cost of travel. Drivers were now charging between $200 and $300 to take a family south, she said. Before the war, the same trip cost about $3 a person.

“We can’t even afford to eat,” Abu Odeh said. “We don’t have the money to leave.” Instead, she and other members of her extended family have hunkered down together in one home.

Food, water and other supplies are in desperately short supply in Gaza, where officials say the health system is on the brink of collapse after Israel declared a complete siege of the already blockaded enclave nearly two weeks ago.

More than half of Gaza’s more than 2 million residents have been displaced within the enclave, which is about the size of the city of Philadelphia, since Israel launched its retaliatory airstrike campaign. And the leaflets dropped over Gaza calling for more people to move south drew condemnation from Francesca Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories.

Designating hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians who were unwilling or unable to flee as accomplices in terrorism was a threat of collective punishment and could possibly amount to ethnic cleansing, she wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Saturday. She added that deliberately targeting civilians was a war crime.

In response to questions from The New York Times, the Israeli military said that it did not intend to consider those who have not evacuated south to be members of armed Palestinian groups, which it considers terrorist organizations. It said in a statement that it “treats civilians as such, and does not target them.” A spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry also said that there was no basis for the suggestion that its evacuation warnings could amount to ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Even as Israel has told Palestinians in Gaza to head south, airstrikes have continued to hit that part of the enclave. And an Israeli military spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said Saturday night that Israel would “deepen” attacks on Gaza overall ahead of the “next stages” of the war — a reference to a widely expected ground offensive.

That — coupled with the escalating humanitarian crisis across the enclave — is one of several reasons some families say they are staying put in the north.

“I did not go to the south mainly because I know no one there; where am I to go?” said Yasser Shaban, 57, a civil servant in Gaza City. “We will end up in the streets.”

Shaban said a cousin took his family to the south soon after airstrikes on Gaza City began in the hours after Hamas fighters attacked Israel on Oct. 7. But a week ago, he said, an Israeli airstrike hit the place where they were sheltering in the city of Khan Younis, killing the cousin’s wife and two daughters. The cousin returned to Gaza City with his surviving family members — a wounded son and his sister — to be treated at Al Shifa Hospital.

“I heard of the new leaflets saying they will consider us members of Hamas if we don’t evacuate,” Shaban said. “But I simply can’t go south.”

(Published 23 October 2023, 02:59 IST)

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