Thousands of Gazans head north, in potential challenge to IDF’s campaign after truce

2 reported killed as Hamas encourages civilians to go back to war zone; IDF drops flyers, tries to prevent flow; 13 hostages to be freed at 4 p.m.; humanitarian aid enters Gaza

Palestinians who had taken refuge in temporary shelters return to their homes in eastern Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip during the first hours of a four-day truce between Israel and Hamas on November 24, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/ AFP)
Palestinians who had taken refuge in temporary shelters return to their homes in eastern Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip during the first hours of a four-day truce between Israel and Hamas on November 24, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/ AFP)

As Israel’s four-day truce with Hamas came into effect in Gaza on Friday morning, thousands of people who had fled to areas near Gaza’s border with Egypt were seeking to return to their villages with children and pets in their arms and their belongings loaded onto donkey carts or car roofs.

Overnight Thursday-Friday, Hamas urged Gazans to return to the north of the Strip, where the IDF has focused its ground offensive for the past three weeks. The truce deal, under which the Gaza-governing Hamas terror group is set to free 50 Israeli hostages over four days from Friday, bars Gazans from returning to the north of the Strip.

Having dropped flyers warning Gazans against doing so, Israeli troops were reported to be using riot dispersal measures inside the Strip on Friday in order to prevent people from moving north and complicating Israel’s declared determination to resume its war to destroy Hamas at the end of the truce.

AP reported on Friday afternoon that Israeli troops fatally shot two Palestinians and wounded 11 others as they headed toward the main combat zone in northern Gaza despite the IDF warnings to stay put. There was no immediate comment from the IDF.

Thousands, if not tens of thousands, were moving north by early afternoon, Israeli military experts said, even though they generally have no homes to go back to in the war zone.

The IDF had vowed to prevent Palestinians from returning to northern Gaza from its south during the truce.

Hamas is trying to encourage many of the hundreds of thousands of Gazans who evacuated south to return, said retired general Israel Ziv, a former head of IDF operations, in order to “completely disrupt” Israel’s military campaign to destroy the Gaza-ruling terror group.

“Hamas has no problem sacrificing all the residents of Gaza, as it has proved,” said Ziv.

Ziv said he expected Hamas to intensify this effort over the four planned days of the truce, presenting “a very complex challenge” as the IDF seeks to resume the campaign when the halt in fighting is over.

So far, he said, the IDF was using “limited force” to try to prevent Gazans from returning to the north of the Strip.

A senior officer in the IDF Southern Command said Friday afternoon that troops would respond to any attempt at harming them amid the ceasefire, while the army spends its time preparing for the resumption of the fighting.

“Anyone who poses a threat to our forces will be hit. The security of our forces is a top priority; that’s how we behaved and that’s how we will continue to behave,” the officer said. “We are preparing to continue attacking with all our strength immediately after the end of the truce.”

On Thursday, the commander of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, was in the northern Gaza Strip with troops to assess the deployment of forces on the temporary ceasefire lines and approve operational plans.

In southern Gaza on Friday, the din of war was replaced by the horns of traffic jams and sirens of ambulances making their way through crowds emerging from hospitals in southern Gaza where they had taken refuge.

In Khan Younis, Palestinians loaded their belongings onto carts, strapped them to car roofs, or slung bags over their shoulders, crowding streets to return to their homes in the city’s east after leaving temporary shelters.

Hayat al-Muammar was among those hurrying to take advantage of the truce deal.

“I’m going home,” said the 50-year-old, who had been sheltering in a school. We fled the death, destruction and everything.”

“I still don’t understand what happened to us — why did they do this to us?” she asked.

Elsewhere, a multitude of men, women and children traveled on foot, carts or tuk-tuks with the few belongings they had taken with them when the war started.

One woman carried her cat in her arms through the streets.

Prior to the start of the truce, the IDF warned displaced Gazans in the south not to return to their homes in the north, and dropped flyers that read: “The war is not over yet. Returning to the north is forbidden and very dangerous!”

In addition to the flyers, the IDF’s Arabic language spokesman Avichay Adraee issued a statement telling residents that the war is not over.

In defiance of Israel’s instructions, Hamas officials have been calling for people to return home during the truce, which Israel agreed to in exchange for 50 of the 240 hostages who have been held in Gaza since October 7.

A woman carries her cat as Palestinians who had taken refuge in temporary shelters return to their homes in eastern Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip during the first hours of a four-day truce in the Hamas-Israel war, on November 24, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Since Israel first issued evacuation orders in the northern Gaza Strip on October 13, an estimated 1.7 million people out of the enclave’s 2.2 million residents have been displaced as Israel seeks to topple Hamas rule.

Despite Israel keeping its commitment to the truce, sirens warning of rockets blared in the evacuated Gaza border villages of Kissufum and Ein Hashlosha just 15 minutes after it began.

While the IDF hasn’t confirmed if projectiles were indeed launched, it appeared to be the first violation of the truce by the Gaza terror groups. The hours leading up to the truce also saw rocket sirens triggered along the border and intense shelling throughout Gaza.

As the army looked to advance its mission against Hamas as much as possible before the pause, they said in a statement that troops from the 36th Division and the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit demolished a Hamas tunnel discovered under Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital.

The statement added that several other entrances to the tunnel in the vicinity had also been destroyed.

In the last hour, the IDF said it had completed its “operational deployment on the truce lines.”

A video published by the IDF shows the tunnel at Shifa being destroyed, as well as several other recent strikes in Gaza.

The temporary truce is the first time that there has been a pause in the fighting since October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists stormed into southern Israel, killing at least 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages.

In response to the deadly onslaught, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip and launched an aerial campaign and a subsequent ground offensive.

The bulk of the fighting has taken place in the northern part of the Strip but is expected to reach the south at a later stage. Throughout the course of the last seven weeks, Israel has destroyed thousands of Hamas targets and has gained control over several Hamas strongholds, including Shifa Hospital, which Israel has been working its way through to accrue evidence of it being used as a Hamas operational hub.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has said that more than 14,500 people have been killed since October 7, most of them civilians. However, these numbers cannot be verified, and are believed to include Hamas terrorists as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets.

The hostage deal, mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the US, will see Hamas return 50 women and children to Israel over a four-day period, in exchange for the truce and 150 Palestinian security prisoners, some of them convicted of attempted murder.

The deal incentivizes additional hostage releases, with Israel agreeing to an additional day of the truce for every ten additional hostages released by Hamas.

Israel has also insisted that the deal includes a commitment on all sides to enable Red Cross staff to visit the roughly 190 hostages held by terrorists in Gaza who are not slated for immediate release.

According to a senior diplomatic source quoted by Hebrew media, the agreement’s guarantors, Qatar, the United States and Egypt, are all committed to the deal’s implementation in full.

On Thursday, Qatar and the Red Cross refused to say whether the visits are included in the deal brokered between Israel and Hamas.

Little is publicly known about which hostages remain alive, or in what conditions the hostages have been held.

View of Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, November 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“Given the barbaric nature of the attacks and captivity we can only prepare for worst-case scenarios,” said Moty Cristal, a retired Israeli military official with experience in hostage negotiations.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it had received “a first list of names” of those due to be released and been in contact with the families. It did not specify who was on the list.

Teams of Israeli trauma experts and medics will meet the freed hostages at the border — along with specially trained soldiers who, according to guidelines, will promise to keep them safe.

They will also carry a child’s favorite food item, be it pizza or chicken schnitzel.

The first group of 13 hostages will be freed at 4 p.m. on Friday, and once they are back inside Israel and properly identified, the Israel Prison Service will release 39 prisoners.

According to an official Israeli source, the Prison Service has started processing the inmates slated for release. They will be moved to Ofer Prison in the West Bank shortly before noon, ahead of their release to the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

On Friday morning, the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) confirmed that four tankers of fuel and four tankers of cooking gas entered the Gaza Strip for United Nations humanitarian aid organizations.

The trucks entered the southern part of the Strip via Egypt’s Rafah border crossing.

COGAT said the delivery was “with the approval of the political echelon, within the framework of the truce and the schedule for the release of the hostages agreed upon with the US, mediated by Qatar and Egypt.”

“The fuel and cooking gas are intended for operating essential humanitarian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip,” it added.

In total, Egypt has said that some 200 trucks of humanitarian aid, 130,000 liters of diesel and four trucks of gas will enter the Gaza Strip daily throughout the course of the pause in fighting.

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