Residents flee as Israeli air, artillery strikes pummel Gaza

Israel intensified its attacks on the northern part of the Gaza Strip early Friday, spurring hundreds of residents in the densely packed territory to flee their homes amid fears of a ground incursion.

The Israeli military announced a ground and air assault on northern Gaza, massing troops along the Israel-Gaza border and pounding the area with artillery and airstrikes. But it has so far refrained from entering the enclave, from which Palestinian militants have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel.

“There were dozens of artillery shells falling on our house,” said Khouloud Nasser, 40, of the northern Gazan town of Beit Lahiya, who escaped from her home along with dozens of family members at dawn Friday. “We would have died under the rubble if we stayed there.”

The stepped-up campaign came several days into an eruption of violence that has seen Israel square off against the Islamic militant group Hamas — which controls the Gaza Strip — as well as contend with rising civil unrest domestically between its Jewish and Arab citizens.

Hundreds of Israeli strikes on Gaza this week have left 119 people dead, 31 of them children, and 830 wounded, according to figures from Gaza health authorities. Israel has suffered seven fatalities, including a soldier and a child, from rockets launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants. Dozens of civilians have been injured.

The Israeli military says 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, about a quarter of which fell short in Gaza or malfunctioned.

Israel’s pummeling of northern Gaza from both the air and the ground Friday pushed hundreds of residents to escape, many of them carrying what few belongings they could shove into shopping bags and laundry baskets.

“We’re civilians,” said Nasser, who with her family headed to Gaza City, hoping to find shelter in one of the schools run by the United Nations. “There’s nowhere for us to go.”

Ibrahim Badran, 45, was running down the street, clutching a plastic bag he had stuffed with clothes for his children.

“The Israelis shelled the area indiscriminately. Many people are under the rubble now,” he said. “Ambulances can’t get there because of the firing, so it was too risky to stay.”

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said Israeli forces took care with their targets but were not always able to give warning to residents.

“As always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties,” Conricus said, according to the Associated Press. “Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn’t feasible this time.”

Israel’s military said the operation involved 160 aircraft, artillery and infantry units along the border. The assault hit 150 targets, destroying miles of Hamas’ tunnel network, through which the organization smuggles weapons and other goods. The Israeli military refers to the network as “the Metro.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that the offensive would continue “as long as necessary” and that it would exact “a very heavy price from Hamas.”

Yet there was little sign that Hamas would suspend its attacks.

“We have much more to give,” Abu Obaida, a spokesman for the Abu Qassem Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, said in a televised statement Thursday. He added there would be “no red lines” or sacrosanct rules of engagement in responding to Israel’s strikes.

Any ground incursion would be an opportunity to increase the group’s “haul of enemy prisoners and dead,” Abu Obaida warned.

In the U.S., President Biden has expressed his “unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people,” the White House said. Biden told reporters that he did not see Israel’s response to the rocket attacks as “a significant overreaction” but that he hoped “we will see this coming to a conclusion sooner than later.”

Special correspondent Sala reported from Gaza City and staff writer Bulos from Kabul, Afghanistan.