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Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza flee amid clashes and warnings of wider regional war

Jerusalem: As Israeli forces massed along the border with Gaza on Sunday before an expected ground invasion, escalating clashes on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, as well as strikes in Syria and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, intensified fears of a widening regional conflict.

Leaders from nearly every party involved ratcheted up their warnings, and many urged civilians to move out of the way. Israel dropped leaflets telling Palestinians to leave northern Gaza, and relocated Israelis living along the border with Lebanon. The United States ordered some diplomatic personnel to leave Iraq. Lebanese civilians have also fled their villages, fearing Israeli shelling and the possibility of a new war.

Israel’s military said Sunday that increasing attacks from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia that controls southern Lebanon, had resulted in civilian and military casualties. Israel said it was moving residents from an additional 14 villages near the border with Lebanon to safer areas, an expansion of its evacuation plan.

While visiting Israeli troops on the border with Lebanon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that if Hezbollah decided to join the war, it would result in “devastating consequences to Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon.”

“We’ll hit it with a force it can’t even imagine,” he said.

A Hezbollah lawmaker, Hassan Fadlallah, claimed in a news conference that the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was directly overseeing the clashes on Lebanon’s border with Israel, adding that ​​when “the battle requires his appearance, he will do so.”

The escalating violence in the region came just over two weeks after hundreds of Hamas gunmen in Gaza surged across the border into Israel, killing more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians. Israel on Sunday updated the number of hostages that Hamas is holding in the Gaza Strip to 212 from 210. Hamas released an Israeli-American mother and daughter Friday.

The Biden administration has advised Israel to delay a ground invasion of Gaza, hoping to allow more humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians in the sealed-off enclave and to buy time for more negotiations to release more than 200 other hostages, officials said.

Amid negotiations to free more hostages, Israel continued to launch airstrikes on Gaza and conduct raids in the enclave, as armed groups there fired rockets toward central Israeli cities Sunday morning.

At least 4,385 people have been killed in Gaza and more than 13,500 injured, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza. More than half of Gaza’s approximately 2.3 million residents have been displaced.

Amid concerns the conflict could spill over, the Pentagon said late Saturday that it was sending an anti-missile battery and battalions of the Patriot ground-based air-defense system to the Middle East after “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces.”

The US State Department also ordered the departure of all nonemergency government employees and family members from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Irbil, Iraq.

“We expect that there’s a likelihood of escalation — escalation by Iranian proxies directed against our forces, directed against our personnel,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “We are taking steps to make sure that we can effectively defend our people.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Sunday that the Middle East was “a powder keg,” according to Iranian state news media. He warned the United States and Israel that “there could be any possibility, any moment” and that “things will get out of control” if Israel continued its strikes on Gaza, which he called “genocide and crimes against humanity.”

In the West Bank, where violence has been surging over the past two weeks, the Israeli military carried out a rare airstrike on a mosque in the densely packed Jenin refugee camp.

Israel’s military said it had targeted a “terror compound” beneath the Al-Ansar Mosque that Hamas and Islamic Jihad were using to organize an imminent attack. Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesperson, called the area a “ticking time bomb.” The claims were not independently verified.

Two people were killed and three others injured in the strike, according to Palestinian health officials. Video showed significant damage to the mosque.

Syria’s state-run news agency said airports in Damascus and Aleppo were shut after a morning strike by Israel killed a civilian worker in Damascus. The report could not be independently verified, and Israel has a policy of not commenting on possible operations in Syria. Israel has said Iran uses the two airports to ferry weapons to its allies in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel said Sunday that one of its tanks had accidentally fired on an Egyptian post at Kerem Shalom, a border crossing between Israel and Egypt, that is just over 2 miles from the Rafah crossing, where small convoys of aid trucks traveled from Egypt into Gaza on Saturday and Sunday.

The blast injured nine Egyptian soldiers and destroyed a watchtower, according to an ambulance worker and two officials with Egypt’s North Sinai governorate, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly. In a statement, the Israeli military expressed its “sorrow” and said the episode was under investigation.

While conducting a raid in Gaza, one Israeli soldier was killed and three others injured by an anti-tank missile, the Israeli military said. The troops were operating “to dismantle terror infrastructure, clear the area of terrorists and weapons and locate missing persons and bodies,” the military said.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesperson, said Israel had stepped up its attacks in Gaza, targeting senior Hamas figures and others who took part in the October 7 assault. He called on civilians still in northern Gaza to move south, saying, “Hamas is using you as a human shield.”

The Israeli military also dropped Arabic-language leaflets over parts of northern Gaza on Saturday, warning that anyone who did not move south “may be considered as a partner in a terrorist organization.”

Francesca Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, called that message a threat to collectively punish Palestinian civilians who were unwilling or unable to move south. She said it could possibly amount to ethnic cleansing.

In response to questions from The New York Times, the Israeli military said in a statement that it “treats civilians as such, and does not target them.” A spokesperson for Israel’s Foreign Ministry said there was no basis for the suggestion that its evacuation warnings could amount to ethnic cleansing.

Despite Israel’s warnings to leave, many civilians in northern Gaza said that doing so was impossible because of the cost, and that moving south was no guarantee of safety.

Amani Abu Odeh, who lives in the town of Jabalia in Gaza’s north, said the risk of Israeli airstrikes on the road meant that drivers were now charging $200 to $300 to take a family south. Before the war, the same trip cost about $3 a person, she said.

“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.

Yasser Shaban, 57, a civil servant in Gaza City, said he was not moving south “mainly because I know no one there; where am I to go?”

“We will end up in the streets,” Shaban said.

He said his cousin had moved south with members of his family after airstrikes on Gaza City. But a week ago, he said, an Israeli airstrike hit the building where they were sheltering in the southern city of Khan Younis, killing the cousin’s wife and two daughters.

Aid groups have warned that Gaza’s residents are facing severe shortages of food, fuel and water.

On Sunday, Wael Abu Omar, a spokesperson for the border crossing at Rafah, confirmed that an additional 14 trucks carrying basic necessities had crossed from Egypt into Gaza, a day after 20 aid trucks were allowed into the enclave.

Martin Griffiths, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, called the latest shipment “another small glimmer of hope for the millions of people in dire need of humanitarian aid.”

“But they need more, much more,” he said in a statement.

As negotiations over further aid continued, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that an Israeli invasion of Gaza would be comparable to the grinding urban battle that Iraqi soldiers, backed by the American military, waged in 2017 to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State group.

“This may be a bit more difficult because of the underground network of tunnels that Hamas has constructed over time, and the fact that they’ve had a long time to prepare for a fight,” Austin said on This Week on ABC.

(Published 23 October 2023, 03:15 IST)

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