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Thousands flee northern Gaza as Israel issues evacuation warning

Mass evacuation as fears of an impending Israeli ground offensive mount
Women and children flee south after Israel threatens to bomb northern Gaza (AA)

Thousands of Palestinians have fled northern Gaza after the Israeli military issued warnings that it planned to hit the Strip, Middle East Eye sources in Gaza have said.

Early on Sunday morning, northern Gaza was showered by Israeli army leaflets informing residents to flee south before noon local time (10.00 GMT) or risk putting "his and his family's lives at risk. Beware." 

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has started opening its schools to provide shelter for the families arriving in Gaza City.

IDPs from northern Gaza take shelter at UNRWA school (MEE / Mohammed Asad)
IDPs from northern Gaza take shelter at UNRWA school (MEE / Mohammed Asad)

But not everyone has been able to flee and Palestinian medical sources have said that hospitals in the north will not be evacuated. Scores of families have also decided to stay and brave the attacks. 

It is unclear how long the expected heavy bombing will last, although Israel has said that it expected this part of the operation to be “be brief”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, early Sunday reiterated calls that Israel would “continue operating in Gaza forcefully in order to restore quiet."

"We don't know when operation will end; it might take a long time," he said.

There have been signs of a possible escalation overnight. Further tanks have been amassing on the border, while Israel marines were reported to have mounted a ground attack on the Gaza strip overnight.

Overnight, Israeli naval commandos raided the northern Gaza Strip on a mission to destroy longer-range rockets which have reached as far north as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Hadera.

Israeli defence sources have told Haaretz newspaper that some 36 percent of rockets launched toward Israel in the recent fighting have been fired from the Gaza Strip's north. Ten percent of the rockets have been launched from the city of Beit Lahya, the source said.

Operation Protective Edge, which was launched early on Monday, has enacted a heavy toll on Gaza. According to the latest estimates, at least 165 people have been killed and more than 1,000 injured.