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Thousands of Palestinians fled northern Gaza on foot as Israeli troops battling Hamas militants moved into Gaza City, the main population centre of the beleaguered enclave.
The UN said 15,000 people left the area on Tuesday, compared with 5,000 a day earlier, with many moving along Gaza’s main north-south highway. Israel has announced a daily four-hour window to facilitate the evacuation.
The exodus came as foreign ministers of the G7 group of advanced economies gathered in Japan to discuss the conflict. While condemning Hamas and supporting Israel’s right to self-defence, they also called on Israel to allow “unimpeded humanitarian support” for civilians in Gaza, including food, water and medical care.
In addition, they said Israel should allow humanitarian pauses in the fighting and create corridors “to facilitate urgently needed assistance, civilian movement and the release of hostages”.
The fighting in Gaza began after Hamas militants rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, killing more than 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials, and taking more than 240 hostage.
Israel vowed to destroy Hamas and topple its regime in Gaza, and unleashed a fierce bombardment of the enclave that Palestinian officials say has killed more than 10,560 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and children. About 2,550 others have been reported missing.
Israel has said the battle to crush Hamas will be long and hard, and that it will maintain some form of control over Gaza for the foreseeable future.
That has raised tensions among some of Israel’s allies. After the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Tokyo, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said it was “imperative” that “the Palestinian people be central to the governance in Gaza and in the West Bank as well”.
“What I’ve heard from Israeli leaders is that they have no intent to reoccupy Gaza and retake control of Gaza,” he added.
UK foreign secretary James Cleverly said that in the short term it was “inevitable” that Israel would have security responsibility for Gaza, since it had troops there. “But our view is that as soon as practicable, a move towards a peace-loving Palestinian leadership is the most desired outcome,” he went on.
Israel said on Wednesday that its air strikes on Gaza had killed a senior Hamas weapons maker, whom it named as Mahsein Abu Zina. Earlier, it said its troops had entered Gaza City, which it sees as Hamas’s “centre of gravity”. It has said its troops are engaged in destroying what it called Hamas’s “terror infrastructure”, including its dense network of underground tunnels.
Gaza City was home to 650,000 people before the war but since the fighting broke out, tens of thousands have followed Israeli demands for them to evacuate to the south.
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However, many remain inside the area of the north now encircled by Israeli troops, including at Gaza’s main al-Shifa hospital. The UN has described the situation for those remaining in Gaza City and other parts of the north as “increasingly dire”.
In a televised address to soldiers on Tuesday, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed the month-long campaign had been an “extraordinary success”, though he referred to “problems” including drones, improvised explosive devices and anti-tank fire that had inflicted “very painful losses”.
“The success is phenomenal because we went in there and hit the enemy,” he said. “We do not intend to stop. We intend to continue to the end.”
Additional reporting by Lucy Fisher in London and Kana Inagaki in Okinawa