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Israel tells the U.N. that northern Gaza needs to be evacuated

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged the support of the U.S. to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while also urging Israel to avoid harming civilians as it retaliates for the deadly attacks by Hamas.
Jacquelyn Martin
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged the support of the U.S. to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while also urging Israel to avoid harming civilians as it retaliates for the deadly attacks by Hamas.

Updated October 12, 2023 at 11:55 PM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel's military has told the United Nations that all of northern Gaza's population needs to be evacuated, a U.N. spokesman said.

The Israeli order came late Thursday night and gave 24 hours for the evacuation to take place. The announcement affects a region that is home to about 1.1 million people.

The evacuation order affects half of Gaza's population. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were already displaced before this order, many sheltering in U.N.-run schools. The entire territory is under full Israeli siege, with no one allowed out and no fuel, food or even water allowed in. The main Gaza power plant has completely shut.

In a statement released to the news media, U.N. officials pushed back on the Israeli directive. "The United Nations considers it impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences," the U.N. said. The Israeli order applied to all U.N. staff and those sheltered in U.N. facilities – including schools, health centers and clinics.

It remains unclear how hospitals and clinics in northern Gaza, treating the wounded and stream of victims from near-constant bombings, could be evacuated. Hospitals are already at full capacity across Gaza.

A simultaneous crisis unfolding is the dwindling food and water supplies that will run out in the next few days in U.N.-run shelters, Lynn Hastings, United Nations Resident Coordinator for the Palestinian territories, told NPR. She said the majority of Palestinians in Gaza do not have access to safe drinking water now, not even bottled water.

The evacuation order comes as Israel presses its military campaign against Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip and anticipation grows of a coming Israeli ground assault in Gaza. Israel has been bombarding Gaza all week in retaliation to last weekend's deadly incursion into Israel by Hamas militants. Israel's military has not yet announced a decision on a ground assault.

The order also comes on the heels of the U.S. ramping up its diplomatic and military support for Israel in the wake of the unprecedented attacks by Hamas that killed at least 1,300 people over the weekend.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv, to be followed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday, as Israel's retaliatory bombardment of the Gaza Strip continued, exacerbating the rapidly growing humanitarian crisis there.

Palestinian officials say more than 1,500 people have died in the strikes, and the United Nations reports that 340,000 Palestinians have been displaced. An Israeli siege continued to block the transport of food, water and humanitarian supplies into the territory.

UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said early Friday on the social media site X that it had moved its operations center and international staff to the southern part of Gaza.

Israel said Thursday it would not lift its siege of Gaza — even for the transport of humanitarian aid — until Hamas releases all remaining hostages. Between 100 and 150 people, including some number of Americans, are believed to be held by the Islamist militant group that rules the Palestinian territory.

The U.S. diplomatic efforts come as concerns are growing the chaos — the worst outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza in recent memory — could spread to the occupied West Bank and different countries across the Middle East.

The U.S. has already sent munitions to Israel, including small-diameter bombs designed to be used by Israeli aircraft, and interceptor missiles for Israel's missile defense system known as the Iron Dome. U.S. military and civilian personnel are also on the ground in Israel to assist with the hostage situation.

"You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself, but as long as America exists, you will never, ever have to. We will always be there by your side," Blinken said, speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

The U.S. top diplomat also urged Israel to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians in Gaza as it retaliates.

"We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard, even when it's difficult," Blinken said.

Israeli officials say the bombardment campaign is necessary to stamp out Hamas and defend Israel.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said Thursday his country has the right to defend itself after the deadly attacks.

"I agree there are many, many Palestinians who don't agree to this. But unfortunately, in their homes there are missiles shooting at us, [at] my children, on the entire nation of Israel. We have to defend ourselves," he said while speaking to reporters.

Smoke billows during Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City on Thursday.
Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Smoke billows above Gaza City during Israeli airstrikes on Thursday.

Increasingly dire conditions in Gaza

In addition to the growing number of Palestinians killed, more than 6,200 people have been wounded by Israeli bombs since Saturday, officials in Gaza said.

Israel has dropped 6,000 munitions in six days of retaliation, the Israel Defense Forces reported Thursday. The bombardment has flattened buildings and demolished "entire sections of neighborhoods," according to the United Nations.

The Israeli blockade of Gaza has strained humanitarian capabilities. Potable water in Gaza was already hard to come by, and the territory's main power plant shut down Wednesday after fuel ran out, Palestinian officials reported.

Every bed is filled at all of the territory's functioning hospitals, officials say, and facilities are running low on fuel for portable generators that are providing power.

"We fear that hospitals may turn into graveyards if they are not fed with electricity," said Hisham Mhanna, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza, speaking to NPR Wednesday.

At Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza's largest, hallways and waiting rooms overflowed Thursday with women and children awaiting updates on family members being treated inside.

For the doctors and nurses working there, the grim day had one bright spot: A baby boy rescued alive from the rubble of a destroyed home in Jabalia, a city on the north side of Gaza.

"We still don't know his identity, but he's in good health. We're trying to use social media to help identify him," said Dr. Muneer al-Bursh, a Palestinian health official who spoke to reporters at the hospital.

A woman comforts another mourning outside the morgue of al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2023.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A woman comforts another mourning outside the morgue of al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Thursday.

The Gaza Strip's border crossings are closed in both Israel and Egypt, leaving Palestinian civilians with nowhere to escape or seek safety. More than one-tenth of Gaza's population of about 2.3 million people is internally displaced. Many have sought shelter in U.N.-run schools.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees said 11 of its employees were killed in the Gaza Strip, a toll that included five teachers, a gynecologist, an engineer and other support staff.

Israeli military officials say airstrikes are aimed at Hamas targets.

"We are not just doing carpet-bombing," Israeli military Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said at a Thursday press briefing. "There is no target that we're going for that is not based on intelligence."

As the bombardment continued on the war's sixth day, residents of Gaza grappled with the possibility of an Israeli ground invasion. "I cannot imagine what would happen in the following few hours. Am I going to be dead or alive? I really don't know," Ghada Alhaddad, an Oxfam communications officer in Gaza, told NPR.

Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after the Hamas militant group took control of the territory in 2007. Egypt was sending in some aid through its border with Gaza but has stopped these deliveries since Tuesday due to Israel's airstrikes of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing.

Family and friends of May Naim, 24, who was killed by Palestinian militants at the "Supernova" festival, near the Israeli border with Gaza strip, react during her funeral on Oct. 11, 2023 in Gan Haim, Israel.
Amir Levy / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Family and friends of May Naim, 24, who was killed by Palestinian militants at the "Supernova" festival, near the Israeli border with Gaza strip, react during her funeral on Wednesday in Gan Haim, Israel.

U.S. law enforcement boosts presence over security concerns

Some law enforcement agencies in major cities in the U.S. are increasing their security presence due to a reported call by a former leader of Hamas for a global "day of anger" on Friday.

"There are no specific, credible threats to New York City," the NYPD said in a statement. But the department said it's increasing the presence of uniformed deployments at large gatherings and cultural sites "out of an abundance of caution."

Mayor Eric Adams said increased security will be deployed to both Jewish and Muslim religious sites as well as schools on Friday.

In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Capitol Police similarly said its received no specific threats, but that it will increase security throughout the Capitol complex on Friday.

Current fighting began over the weekend

The current war began last weekend when Hamas fighters launched a surprise attack from Gaza into Israel during the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah.

Militants infiltrated Israel's border Saturday using paragliders, motorbikes and boats and fired thousands of rockets toward the country from Gaza. They overran a police station and military positions, and a group gunned down revelers at a dance music festival near Israel's border with Gaza, killing more than 200 people. Others raided gated communities and shot families dead, and Israeli officials estimate they took at least 100 hostages to the Gaza Strip.

Israel is mobilizing troops along the country's border with the Gaza Strip and has continued its bombardments. Israeli forces "are preparing for a ground maneuver if decided," the IDF's Hecht said Thursday, but the country's political leadership has not yet ordered one.

At least 27 U.S. citizens were killed in the Hamas attacks and 15 Americans are currently unaccounted for, a White House spokesperson said Thursday. Charter flights to evacuate U.S. citizens who remain in Israel will begin Friday. Other countries, such as China, France and the United Kingdom, have also reported citizens killed or missing in the conflict.

Questions have mounted over how Hamas — whose communications and operations are heavily surveilled by Israeli intelligence services — caught Israel by surprise.

Three days before the Hamas attacks, Egypt had warned Israel of a possible threat, said House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul, R-Texas, after a classified briefing Wednesday.

"We know that this had been planned for perhaps as long as a year ago," McCaul said. "We're not quite sure how we missed it. We're not quite sure how Israel missed it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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