Home Top Stories Gaza residents, under the threat of a ground invasion, desperately seek safety but their options are dire

Gaza residents, under the threat of a ground invasion, desperately seek safety but their options are dire

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Gaza residents, under the threat of a ground invasion, desperately seek safety but their options are dire

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The leaflets gently floated from the sky early Friday, but the message for Palestinians living in Gaza City couldn’t have been more forceful. 

“Gaza City has turned into a battlefield,” they said in Arabic. “You have to leave your homes immediately and head south of Wadi Gaza,” they added, referring to the small river bisecting the Gaza Strip. “For your safety: Don’t return to your homes until further notice from the Israel Defense Forces.”

As fears grew about an imminent Israeli ground invasion, Gaza residents scrambled to gather what they could and leave. 

“We’re just going, if you have a car just run. No one knows where we’re going, but we’re all evacuating,” Salma Shurrab, a 22-year-old dental student from Gaza City, told NBC News in a series of video diaries, shortly after the order was issued. “Just pray for us and hopefully we’ll come back home.”

The drop came after a separate statement from the IDF ordered people to evacuate from northern Gaza, a plan the United Nations said would entail moving more than 1 million people — just under half of its population — and was “impossible” to do “without devastating humanitarian consequences.”

Follow live updates from NBC News here.

An IDF spokesman on Friday shared a map on X with what he said was a safe route out of northern Gaza, adding that “the Israeli army will refrain from touching the route marked on the map until” 8 p.m. local time. The IDF has massed its forces on the border and has bombarded Gaza after Hamas terrorists killed 1,300 people in Israel. Approximately 1,800 people in Gaza have been killed in the Israeli airstrikes. 

Rights, aid and refugee advocacy groups also condemned the order, which came four days after Israel began a blockade on food, water, electricity and fuel to Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, half of them children. 

Mai Abushaban, a Palestinian American citizen, said Friday that, together with her extended family, her mother and sister were moving south after they were trapped in the enclave while visiting her sick grandfather.  

“When you see that Israel and the United States are urging people in Gaza to leave, it’s not as simple as they make it out to be,” said Abushaban, a 22-year-old Houston native, adding she had personally crossed the border at Rafah 10 times.   

“It’s not like the border between the United States and Mexico,” she said. “It’s not efficient, it’s not reliable, it’s dangerous and unstable.” 

Scenes from Gaza City this afternoon show civilians trying to rush to the southern side of the strip by any means necessary. Video shows residents making the journey in beaten-up cars crammed with their belongings, by foot and, in one case, an entire family packed in a horse-drawn carriage.

A Palestinian family heads for safety in a horse-drawn carriage in Rafah, Gaza.
A Palestinian family heads for safety in a horse-drawn carriage in Rafah, Gaza. Abed Rahim Khatib / picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Some will not be able to escape. 

In Gaza’s Dar Al-Shifa Hospital, where patients continued to line the corridors and crowd rooms, Dr. Mohamed Ziara said in a series of video messages that the staff and patients “were not safe and waiting for the worst.”   

The surgeon added that the hospital was “overloaded with patients,” some of whom were waiting in the streets to be treated. Others were seeking sanctuary in the hospital, because there were no shelters, he said. 

Ziara’s comments came after a spokesperson for the World Health Organization said that moving severely ill people who are on life support was effectively “a death sentence.” Doctors Without Borders General Director Meinie Nicolai also called the Israeli order “outrageous” in a statement.  

If people do move from north to south Gaza, there won’t be anywhere else to go. Already in southern Gaza, some have been forced to flee their homes because of Israeli bombing. 

Rahaf Abuzarifa, 21, said the Red Cross had advised her family to leave their home in the small southern city of Abasan, after an Israeli airstrike obliterated a nearby house Tuesday.   

“I have a survival mode backpack wherever I go. So it’s always ready,” Abuzarifa, 21, told NBC News by telephone Wednesday, adding that it contained essentials such as clothes, a first-aid kit and identification documents, as well as a Swiss army knife, her schoolwork and letters from her friends. 

Along with her mother, father, younger brother and three sisters, including her twin sister, she set off on foot to a friend’s house in Khan Younis, around 5 miles away, walking past rubble, glass and debris from Israeli airstrikes. Her family asked not to be named for fear of safety.

Questioning the Israeli evacuation order in a second interview Friday, the computer science student at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said there was “literally no place” for people to stay. 

“Even us from the south have evacuated,” she said. “Where are they evacuating to exactly? No one knows.”

Women flee after an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza
People walk past scenes of destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza, on Thursday.Said Khatib / AFP – Getty Images

Her family members are now just 15 minutes drive away from the Rafah border crossing, which sits next to the Sinai Peninsula in northeast Egypt.  Egypt and Israel have together maintained a blockade of the enclave since 2007, after Hamas took power. Rafah would be the only possible exit from Gaza currently — if it were open. 

The crossing has been shut for days and the area surrounding it has been repeatedly targeted by Israeli airstrikes. Even if the family wanted to leave their homeland, getting out of the besieged enclave was not an option. 

“It’s all closed, no one can get out,” Abuzarifa said, adding that even if they could leave, they would not want to abandon their homeland for the uncertainty of refugeehood.  

Describing Egypt as “a last resort,” she said: “No one is ready to leave their houses, their land, their families, their whole lives to escape and do what Israel wants … What is it that we are going to do if we escape to Egypt? Live in camps for the rest of our lives?”

Whether they would be welcomed in Egypt is another matter. 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said in a speech Thursday that Palestinians “must stay steadfast and remain on their land,” but said he was trying to get humanitarian assistance to them.

Egypt was the first Arab country to reach a peace agreement with Israel, that came after the two countries fought four wars between 1948 to 1973. But since then, the nations have had strong security cooperation, particularly since the rise of an Islamic State terrorist group affiliate in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula. 

A report from Human Rights Watch last year accused Egypt of “restrictive policies” at the Rafah crossing, which it described as “the primary outlet to the outside world for Gaza residents.”

People carry their belongings around destroyed buildings in Gaza City
People carry their belongings around destroyed buildings in Gaza City, on Wednesday. Mustafa Hassona / Anadolu via Getty Images

In times of relative calm, sporadic and unannounced closures that can sometimes last months, “mistreatment by border officials” contributes to the misery, the report said. It added that a bureaucratic permitting system can leave some people waiting for months, only for them to be denied entry. There have also been “allegations of the payment of bribes in Gaza and in Egypt to ensure travel and a faster response,” it said. 

Currently, there are around 500 to 600 Palestinian Americans in Gaza, a senior U.S. official said Thursday. Not all of them want to leave but for those who do, the United States is having discussions with the governments of Israel and Egypt about how to arrange their safe passage, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, adding that these were “wartime conditions.” 

But as Abuzarifa waited at her friend’s house in Khan Younis, she said that she was still hopeful that some sort of normality might return and that she might be able to graduate with a degree this semester. 

“We are not thinking about leaving Gaza. It’s the worst-case scenario,” she said.



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