Limited Flight From Gaza Strip Begins, as Israelis Close In on Main City

After weeks of waiting, hundreds of people were allowed to leave the besieged Gaza Strip on Wednesday, the first of thousands of foreigners, aid workers and critically wounded patients who were expected to exit in the coming days, as two million increasingly desperate people remained behind.

By Wednesday night, buses had ferried 361 foreign nationals over the border to Egypt, and ambulances had carried 45 severely injured Palestinians, along with some of their family members, to Egyptian hospitals, Al Qahera, an Egyptian state-owned television channel, reported. They left behind the destruction and the most immediate suffering wrought by the war between Israel and Hamas, the group that controls Gaza.

While a few U.S. citizens were among the aid workers let out of Gaza, in general, diplomats said that Americans — the State Department has estimated there are 500 to 600 — would not begin to leave until Thursday, for reasons that were not made clear.

Among those who left Wednesday was Lama Eldin, 30, who was born in Bulgaria, making her the only member of her Palestinian family able to leave. Fighting back tears, her mother, Nadia Salah, described saying goodbye at the border. Her husband and two other children also had to stay back.

“It’s very difficult, but she should go,” Nadia Salah said. “To be safe.”

Egypt’s government has made clear that it does not want to allow a large-scale exodus of Palestinians from Gaza, which it fears could be politically destabilizing or foster militant attacks on Israel from Egyptian soil. Egyptian leaders have cited fears that Israel would prevent Palestinians who fled from returning.

Israeli forces continued to close in on Gaza City, the largest and most densely populated part of the coastal territory, with both sides reporting fierce battles on the ground and continued Israeli airstrikes. But it remained unclear whether Israeli leaders, who have vowed to wipe out Hamas, would send troops into what would likely be a difficult, bloody fight amid the city’s tightly packed buildings, many now reduced to rubble, and the labyrinth of Hamas tunnels.

After the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which the government says killed more than 1,400 people and kidnapped 240 hostages, Israel sealed off the coastal territory, cutting off food, water, fuel and medical supplies. It has conducted a devastating bombing campaign that is still underway and told residents of northern Gaza to evacuate southward. Last Friday, Israeli forces began a ground invasion of northern Gaza, attacking from the north, east and northeast.

The Gaza Ministry of Health, which is part of the Hamas-controlled government, says the Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 8,796 people in Gaza, a figure that cannot be independently verified. More than half of the territory’s 2.3 million people have been displaced.

Since Oct. 21, aid convoys have been able to cross the border from Egypt into the city of Rafah, Gaza, to distribute supplies like food, water and medicine, but the United Nations and aid groups say the deliveries are far short of what is needed, leaving life-threatening shortages.

Most phone and internet service in Gaza was cut off late Tuesday and into Wednesday, causing panic among residents and their relatives outside the strip.

With Hamas’s fighters, command posts, supply depots and weapons caches scattered around — and beneath — Gaza’s communities, Israel accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields and contends that it is impossible to strike Hamas without also hurting noncombatants.

But the Israeli bombing and blockade have drawn growing international condemnation — including from quarters that also denounced the Hamas attack — as excessive and a collective punishment of more than 2 million Palestinians, most of them civilians. On Thursday, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel, a day after Colombia did so, and Bolivia cut off diplomatic relations.

The United Nations and humanitarian groups have called for a cease-fire to allow vital supplies to enter and civilians to leave — a call Israel has rejected.

“In Israel, a nation was left in shock after the brutal and graphic killing of some 1,400 people. The families of more than 200 hostages continue to live in anguish,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N. humanitarian affairs chief, said in a statement.

“In Gaza, women, children and men are being starved, traumatized and bombed to death,” he added. “They have lost all faith in humanity and all hope of a future. Their despair is palpable.”

The Biden administration has taken care to support Israel and not criticize it during the war, while also urging restraint. “We also must ensure that there’s not conflation between the Palestinian people and Hamas,” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters in London, where she met with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, plans to travel to Israel on Friday to meet with Israeli leaders about improving the flow of aid to Gaza and other humanitarian concerns, a spokesman said.

President Biden, speaking at a family farm in Minnesota, referred to “devastating images from Gaza, Palestinian children crying out for lost parents, parents writing their children’s names on their hands and legs to be identified if the worst happens.” He added, “we grieve for those deaths, we continue to grieve for the Israeli children whose mothers were brutally slaughtered by Hamas terrorists.”

The agreement to let some people out of Gaza was struck late Tuesday in talks among Israel, Egypt, the United States, Qatar — which often acts as a diplomatic intermediary for Hamas — and Hamas itself. U.S. officials had said Hamas was preventing Americans from leaving. The deal applies primarily to foreign nationals in Gaza and Palestinians working for international aid groups, and up to 1,000 people a day are expected to be allowed out, according to Western diplomats in Cairo.

The United States is “working nonstop to get Americans out of Gaza as soon and safely as possible,” Mr. Biden said.

Haitham Schurrab, 54, an Austrian-Palestinian businessman, and his wife were in Cairo, but their four children had been stuck in Gaza. Their three sons were able to leave on Wednesday because of their dual nationality, he said, but their 23-year-old daughter, Dayana, who was recently married, remained in Gaza with her husband, who cannot leave without his own foreign passport.

Mr. Schurrab said his wife “is devastated.” He added, “She just keeps crying.”

An Israeli airstrike Tuesday on Jabaliya, just north of Gaza City, killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds, according to Palestinian authorities — figures Israel did not dispute — and leveled buildings in a densely populated neighborhood.

The Israeli military said that its target in Jabaliya, a onetime refugee camp that was built up into a city, was a high-level Hamas commander who was one of the planners of the Oct. 7 assault and was actively directing attacks on Israeli targets. He was in an underground complex that collapsed when it was struck, the Israelis have said, killing dozens of Hamas fighters, including the commander.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesman for the military, said Wednesday that Israeli troops had also “identified many terrorists of the terrorist organization Hamas who were barricaded in a multistory building in the Jabaliya area,” and called in an airstrike on Tuesday.

The health ministry in Gaza said another strike on Jabaliya on Wednesday killed or wounded dozens of people. The Israeli military, which said it had carried out 11,000 strikes on Gaza since Oct. 7, did not immediately confirm or deny the claim.

Admiral Hagari wrote on X that in attacks on Wednesday by ground and air forces, “dozens of targets of the terrorist organization Hamas were destroyed, including observation posts, anti-tank squads and launchers, vessels and military outposts,” and a number of Hamas members were killed.

The military said 15 of its own people had died so far in the ground invasion.

Reporting was contributed by Aaron Boxerman, Hiba Yazbek, Victoria Kim, Edward Wong, Gaya Gupta, Erica L. Green, Nick Cumming-Bruce, Samar Abu Elouf and Cassandra Vinograd.

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