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GAZA/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Thousands of Palestinians fled the north of the Gaza Strip on Saturday from the path of an expected Israeli ground assault, while Israel pounded the area with more air strikes and said it kept two roads open to let people escape.

Israel has vowed to annihilate the Hamas group that controls Gaza in retaliation for a rampage by fighters, who stormed through Israeli towns a week ago, gunning down civilians and making off with scores of hostages. Some 1,300 people were killed in the worst attack on civilians in Israel’s history.

Israeli forces have since put 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 more than 2,200 people have been killed, a quarter of them children, and nearly 10,000 wounded.

Israel had given the population of the northern half of the Gaza Strip, which includes the enclave’s biggest settlement Gaza City, until Saturday morning to move south. It later said it would guarantee the safety of Palestinians fleeing on two main roads until 4:00 pm (1300 GMT).

As the deadline passed, troops were massing around the Gaza Strip. Outside Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Israeli infantrymen and told them to be ready for “the next stage,” without elaborating.

Hamas has told people not to leave and says roads out are unsafe. It says dozens of people had been killed in strikes on cars and trucks carrying refugees on Friday, which Reuters could not independently verify. Israel says Hamas is preventing people from leaving to use them as human shields, which Hamas denies.

In Gaza City’s Tel Al-Hawa neighbourhood, in the area Israel ordered evacuated, warplanes bombed a residential area during the night hitting several houses, according to residents who took refuge at the nearby Al Quds hospital.

“We lived a night of horror. Israel punished us for not wanting to leave our home. Is there brutality worse than this?”, a father of three said by telephone from the hospital, declining to give his name for fear of reprisals.

“I was never going to leave, I prefer to die and not leave, but I can’t see my wife and children die before my eyes.”

The Palestinian Red Crescent said it had received an Israeli order to evacuate the hospital by 4:00 pm, but would not do so because it had a humanitarian duty to keep providing services to the sick and wounded.

One million people, almost half Gaza’s population, have fled their homes in the past week including hundreds of thousands headed south from northern Gaza after the Israeli order, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA said.

In Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, where Israeli planes struck a four-storey building overnight, neighbours rushed to rescue people.

A Gaza journalist filmed an ambulance crew searching for survivors of a nighttime air strike. A paramedic could be seen walking into an alley lit by a headlamp when a huge flash from another strike burst in front of him. Medics raced into ambulances and sped off as planes roared above. One injured medic screamed: “My eyes! My eyes!”

The attacks on Israel have plunged the nation into deep grief and galvanised it for war, with hundreds of thousands of reservists mobilised within days.

Families of the kidnapped Israelis are terrified for their safety. Avichai Brodetz, a farmer from Kibbutz Kfar Aza whose wife and three children were taken captive to Gaza, set up a camp outside the Israeli army headquarters to focus attention on their plight.

“The first thing that needs to happen is the release of the women and children,” he told reporters.

Hamas’s armed wing said nine captives including four foreigners had been killed overnight due to Israeli air strikes. It has previously threatened to kill one hostage for every building Israel strikes without warning.

Israel’s attacks on Gaza failed to halt Hamas missile strikes deep into Israeli cities. Air raid sirens wailed in central Israel on Saturday and rockets smashed into a greenhouse in Ashkelon and wounded four people at a kibbutz.

The only route out of Gaza not under Israeli control is a checkpoint with Egypt at Rafah. Egypt officially says its side is open, but traffic has been halted for days because of Israeli strikes. Egyptian security sources said the Egyptian side is being reinforced and Cairo has no intention of accepting a mass influx of refugees.

A senior US State Department official said the United States was working to open the crossing on Saturday to let some people out, and had been in touch with Palestinian-Americans who want to leave Gaza. Washington later said it had told its citizens to try to reach the crossing.

Countries and aid agencies have sent supplies to Egypt but have so far been unable to bring them into Gaza. Israel says nothing can enter through Rafah without its coordination.

Israel says the evacuation order is a humanitarian gesture to protect residents from harm while it roots out Hamas fighters. The United Nations says so many people cannot be safely moved inside the besieged enclave without causing a humanitarian disaster.

Hamas has vowed to fight until the last drop of blood, and says the order to leave the north of the enclave is a trick to force residents to give up their homes.

The violence in Gaza has been accompanied by the deadliest clashes at Israel’s northern border with Lebanon since 2006, raising fears of war spreading to another front. Lebanon’s armed Hezbollah movement, a close ally of Iran like Hamas, said it had fired at five Israeli outposts in the disputed Shebaa Farms area with guided missiles and mortar bombs.

Reuters saw missiles fired at an Israeli army post and heard shelling from Israel and gunfire.

Israel’s Kan radio reported five border villages had been put under lockdown in response to a suspected incursion from Lebanon.

The United States has firmly backed its ally Israel, but has called on it to protect civilians.

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