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'Only the beginning' says Netanyahu as Israel makes first raids into Gaza

'Only the beginning' says Netanyahu as Israel makes first raids into Gaza

JERUSALEM - Israeli infantry made their first raids into the Gaza Strip on Friday since Hamas fighters rampaged through southern Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a campaign of retaliation had only just begun.

Israel has vowed to annihilate Hamas after its fighters burst out of Gaza a week ago and stormed through towns and villages, killing 1,300 Israelis, mainly civilians, and making off with scores of hostages.

Since then Israel has placed the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million Palestinians, under a total siege and bombarded it with unprecedented air strikes. Gaza authorities say 1,900 people have died.

On Friday Israel gave more than a million residents of the northern half of Gaza 24 hours to flee to the south to avoid an onslaught. Hamas vowed to fight to the last drop of blood and told residents not to go.

Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said troops backed by tanks had mounted raids to attack Palestinian rocket crews and seek information on the location of hostages, the first official account of ground troops in Gaza since the crisis began.

"We are striking our enemies with unprecedented might," Netanyahu said in a brief statement which, unusually, was televised after the Jewish Sabbath had begun. "I emphasize that this is only the beginning."

Several thousand Gaza residents took to roads heading out of the northern part of the Gaza Strip, but it was impossible to assess their numbers. Many others said they would not leave.

"Death is better than leaving," said Mohammad, 20, standing in the street outside a building reduced to rubble in an earlier Israeli air strike near the center of Gaza.

Mosques broadcast the message: "Hold on to your homes. Hold on to your land".

“We tell the people of northern Gaza and from Gaza City, stay put in your homes, and your places," Eyad Al-Bozom, spokesman for the Hamas Interior Ministry, told a news conference.

Gaza authorities said 70 people were killed and 200 were wounded when Israel struck cars and trucks carrying people fleeing the north of the strip for the south. Reuters could not independently verify the reported incident.

The United Nations and other organizations warned of a disaster if so many people were forced to flee, and said the siege of the enclave should be lifted to let in aid.

The situation in Gaza has reached a "a dangerous new low", U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Friday. "We need immediate humanitarian access throughout Gaza, so that we can get fuel, food and water to everyone in need. Even wars have rules."

Earlier, a U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said it would be impossible for Gazans to obey Israel's order to leave the north without "devastating humanitarian consequences", prompting a rebuke from Israel that the U.N. should condemn Hamas and support Israel's right to self-defense.

"The noose around the civilian population in Gaza is tightening. How are 1.1 million people supposed to move across a densely populated war zone in less than 24 hours?" U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths wrote on social media. 

'Distance yourselves from Hamas'

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said such a huge evacuation was a "tall order", but that Washington would not second guess Israel's decision to tell civilians to get out.

"We understand what they're trying to do and why they're trying to do this - to try to isolate the civilian population from Hamas, which is their real target," he said on MSNBC.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority that is a rival of Hamas, told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jordan that the forced displacement of Palestinians in Gaza would constitute a repeat of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from what is now Israel. Most Gazans are the descendants of such refugees.

Gaza is already one of the most crowded places on earth, and for now there is no way out. Israel has imposed a total blockade, and Egypt, which also has a border with the enclave, has so far resisted calls to open it to fleeing residents.  — Reuters