GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Watching the pulverized alleys of Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza empty of people, Naji Jamal was frozen with indecision.
Should he heed the Israeli army’s demand that all Palestinians evacuate and make the risky trip to Gaza’s south, where his only certainty was homelessness? Or should he stay at his multistory building — within what the Israeli army has now designated a target zone — ahead of a likely Israeli ground invasion?
“It’s an existential question, but there is no answer,” Jamal, a 34-year-old health clinic worker, said. “There is no safe haven, there is no place that is not being shelled and besieged, there is no place to go.”
In an unprecedented order to civilians in northern Gaza and Gaza City, the Israeli military gave Jamal — and 1.1 million other Palestinians — 24 hours to make up their minds. It was the sixth day of Israeli bombing prompted by Hamas’ brutal attack that killed more than 1,300 Israelis and stunned the country.
As the clock ticked on the ultimatum, hundreds of thousands of Israeli army reservists were massing near Gaza’s northern border. Israeli warplanes roared overhead, diving low to hurl bombs at homes and residential high-rises. Aid groups appealed to the international community to stop what they denounced as a possible war crime of forcible population transfer.
In understaffed and poorly supplied hospitals, Palestinian doctors said they felt they had no choice but to stay put. There was no way to evacuate Shifa, Gaza’s biggest hospital, its general director Mohammad Abu Selim said. Even though the hospital was in chaos — its electricity dwindling under an Israeli siege, its beds overwhelmed, its morgue overflowing — Abu Selim said there was simply no other safe place in Gaza to put 600 patients, many of them in serious condition from the attacks.
“To ask us to evacuate is ridiculous, it’s impossible,” Abu Selim said.
But hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians across the territory wrangled over the agonizing choice as the Israeli retaliation intensified. The Israeli army says its airstrikes target militant infrastructure, not civilians — a claim that Palestinians reject.
Many fled south for their lives, squeezing into relatives’ cars and trundling through streets blocked by rubble even as thundering bombardment crashed around them. A jumbled line of tractors, horse carts and donkeys stretched some 30 kilometers (18 miles) across the strip, turning what is normally a breezy 45-minute trip into a harrowing — and for dozens of people, deadly — two-hour journey.
Israeli airstrikes on evacuating vehicles killed at least 70 people, the Hamas press office said.
“I don’t trust them,” said Ali Abdul Bari, a 37-year-old resident of Gaza City said of the Israeli army. “But I will always do whatever I can to keep my family safe.”
Bari’s apartment on the northwest edge of Gaza City was flattened in a huge airstrike late Thursday. Dazed and weary from nights spent awake, he arrived in Khan Younis, a city in southern Gaza, after the evacuation order, but couldn’t fit all his family members in the car. He promised his aunt and uncle that he would return for them Saturday. Bari said the decision was simple for him.
“I am responsible for my parents, my brothers and my sisters,” he said.
When asked about how civilians would be able to evacuate to safety even as heavy bombardment persisted, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters: “We will try to make sure that it will happen.”
Despite the danger, some stubbornly refused to leave their homes. They watched the convoys pass, remembering previous tides of Palestinian refugees who fled other wars only to never be able to return home. Some Palestinians point back to what they call the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” of Israel’s creation in 1948, when some 700,000 fled or were driven from their homes in what is now Israel. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have also urged people not to flee, describing Israel’s order as “psychological warfare” to break their solidarity.
“This is the Nakba, all of our traumas, all over again,” said activist Yasser Hasouneh, in Gaza City. “We will not be intimidated.”
Others did not have the means or the foresight to pack up and leave.
Jamal, in the Jabaliya camp, simply didn’t have a car. The thought of piling his infant son, ailing mother and 30 other family members onto a horse cart and sending them through a war zone made him shudder. He said he was resigned to whatever God had in store for him.
“This way we will be together and can read the Quran and pray,” he said.
For many, word of evacuations moved slowly, due to the the collapse of mobile phone networks and internet in much of Gaza.
In the heart of Gaza City — a once-vibrant district hollowed out by heavy bombardment — 27-year-old engineer Saeb al-Jarz was waiting for word of his father, who was wounded in an airstrike on their residential tower late Thursday. Three of his neighbors were killed and his family home destroyed.
Still in shock from the scenes he witnessed, al-Jarz first heard about the Israeli army’s evacuation ultimatum from an Associated Press reporter. He was thrown into a panic, scrambling to figure out next steps with his 25 relatives.
“Maybe we stay, because if we die, we die together,” he said.
His voice trembled. He changed his mind.
“I just really, really want to live,” he said.
DeBre reported from Jerusalem.