First foreigners, wounded allowed to flee devastated Gaza

Israel has pounded Gaza for more than three weeks in retribution for the worst attack in the country's history, when Hamas gunmen stormed across the border, killing 1,400 people, also mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials.

Israel's southern city of Sderot shows destroyed buildings as a result of the Israeli bombardment of the northern Gaza Strip on October 30, 2023. Picture: JACK GUEZ / AFP

RAFAH - Hundreds of wounded Gaza residents and foreigners streamed into the border crossing with Egypt Wednesday, the first people set to escape the shattered Palestinian territory in more than three weeks of devastating war with Israel.

AFP images showed whole families carrying their belongings and several injured people in wheelchairs as well as ambulances entering the heavily fortified gates at the Rafah border crossing - the only one not controlled by Israel.

"We are overwhelmed... Have mercy on us. We are Egyptians and can't cross into our country," Umm Yussef, a dual Palestinian-Egyptian national, told AFP on the Gaza side.

"Let us in. We are exhausted. We can't sleep or eat."

Egypt announced that the most badly wounded, foreigners, and dual nationals could flee Gaza, which has suffered weeks of relentless bombardment by Israel.

The bombing campaign has cost the lives of more than 8,500 people, mostly civilians and including more than 3,500 children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Israel has pounded Gaza for more than three weeks in retribution for the worst attack in the country's history, when Hamas gunmen stormed across the border, killing 1,400 people, also mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials.

AFP reporters saw more tanks pour over the border into northern Gaza, as Israel stepped up its ground incursion.

Images provided by the military showed troops picking through bombed-out houses searching for militants or some of the 240 hostages seized by Hamas.

Israel said 11 of its soldiers had been killed Tuesday in "fierce battles" with Hamas militants "deep inside the Gaza Strip".

Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, has vowed to turn Gaza into a "graveyard" for invading forces.

'AN EARTHQUAKE'

The border opening with Egypt provided the first glimmer of hope in the flaring humanitarian crisis in Gaza which the UN and other aid agencies have described as "unprecedented".

A strike on Gaza's largest refugee camp killed at least 47 people Tuesday - including a Hamas commander involved in the October 7 attacks, according to Israel.

A large explosion ripped through the densely packed Jabalia camp before nightfall, tearing facades off nearby buildings and leaving a deep, debris-littered crater.

AFP witnessed at least 47 corpses being recovered.

Horrified resident Ragheb Aqal, 41, likened the explosion to "an earthquake" and spoke of seeing "homes buried under the rubble and body parts and martyrs and wounded in huge numbers".

Israel said its warplanes had struck a "vast" tunnel complex at the site, killing "many Hamas terrorists", including local battalion commander Ibrahim Biari.

But the strike sparked a chorus of condemnation from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and also further afield in Bolivia, which cut off diplomatic ties in protest - a decision Israel labelled "surrender to terrorism".

'NO HOPE'

The humanitarian situation in Gaza remains desperate, with food, fuel, and medicine for the 2.4 million residents all running short, according to aid groups.

Surgeons are conducting amputations on hospital floors without anaesthetic, and children are forced to drink salty water, said Jean-Francois Corty, vice-president of Medecins du Monde, which has 20 staff on the ground.

The Palestinian telecommunications agency said Wednesday that phone and internet services had "been completely cut off in Gaza", the second such blackout in a week.

Palestinian residents told AFP they had evacuated from northern Gaza, as demanded by Israel, but they were still under threat.

"We've been told people are evacuating from Gaza City towards the central area of the Strip beyond the valley, so we headed there. After 20 days, we were bombarded. Three of our kids lost their lives and we all got injured," Amen Al Aqlouk told AFP.

"There is no hope in the Gaza Strip. It is not safe anymore here. When the border opens, everybody will leave and emigrate. We encounter death everyday, 24 hours a day."

Israeli officials said 70 trucks with aid were allowed to enter Gaza from Egypt Tuesday, one of the biggest flows since a US-brokered deal was reached, but much less than humanitarian groups say is needed.

Fearing supplies entering Gaza could be diverted to Hamas, or that aid shipments could conceal arms or other supplies, Israel's security personnel carry out stringent inspections that have slowed the flow of aid to a trickle.

'WE HAVE NO TEARS'

With fears mounting the violence could spiral into a regional war, US President Joe Biden called for "urgent mechanisms" to dial down tensions and said they would send his top diplomat Antony Blinken on another Middle East tour from Friday.

Israelis are facing a daily barrage of aerial attacks from Hamas and other Iran-backed groups around the Middle East.

Yemen's Huthi rebels said they had "launched a large batch of ballistic missiles... and a large number of armed aircraft" towards Israel on Tuesday.

Israel's military said a "hostile aircraft intrusion" had set off warning sirens in Eilat, its Red Sea resort, and a surface-to-surface missile was "successfully intercepted."

In the north, Israel has traded near-daily fire with Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

And the families of hostages have an unbearable wait for news of relatives thought to be held in the labyrinth of tunnels deep below Gaza.

Ayelet Sella, whose seven cousins were kidnapped from one of the kibbutz communities raided by Hamas gunmen, said she could find "no rest" until her loved ones are returned.

"We have no tears, our eyes are dry, we are empty three weeks on," said Sella, speaking to AFP at the Great Synagogue in Paris. "I only ask for one thing, that they come back."