In cars, trucks, donkey carts and on foot, thousands of Palestinians began an exodus from the north of the besieged Gaza Strip to the south of the enclave after an Israeli evacuation order.

Among them was Amal al-Shanty, walking with her family, including several children.

“We don’t know where we will go. I couldn’t have imagined we would be displaced again,” al-Shanty said on Friday as the family lugged their baggage along the street.

Gazans began flooding south after the Israeli military on Friday told half the population of the territory, some 1.1mn people, to move from the north of the strip for “the safety and security of your families”.

The order followed almost a week of intense bombardment after Hamas’s deadly incursion into Israel a week ago. It prompted alarm from the UN, which said it “considers it impossible for such a movement [of people] to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences”.

Israel’s latest move has also led to deep concern in neighbouring Egypt, which has the only border point with Gaza apart from those in Israel, the tightly controlled Rafah crossing. Cairo has resisted pressure to allow Palestinians to flee to its territory in large numbers. On Friday Egypt’s foreign ministry warned that the order to leave was a “grave violation” of international humanitarian law.

Al-Shanty said she believed that Gaza City, her home, would be flattened and that residents would be forced into Egypt. Israel “told us to go south in the direction of Rafah because they will destroy the city and expel us to Sinai”, she said.

For Palestinians, the mass movement echoed the displacement that accompanied Israel’s foundation. “Today is the worst day I have experienced as a Palestinian. It’s a second Nakba,” said Basel al-Sourani, international advocacy officer for the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, using the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that Palestinians use for the events of 1948.

The closed gates of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and  Egypt
The closed gates of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt © Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s very heartbreaking,” he said. “Shame on the international community for only protecting one side in this conflict. War crimes are happening in front of everyone’s eyes.”

Israel is planning a ground offensive in response to the worst attack in the Jewish state’s history, in which Hamas militants based in Gaza entered Israel and killed more than 1,300 civilians and soldiers, kidnapping dozens more. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has already killed almost 1,800 people and wounded more than 6,300.

As people fled on Friday, the UN said that more than 423,000 people had already been internally displaced in Gaza, up from 187,000 three days ago. “Whether we will come back again or not, no one knows,” Sourani said.

For many in northern Gaza, leaving was not straightforward. The order to go came after parts of the city were reduced to rubble by Israeli air and artillery strikes, making many streets impassable for cars. Petrol stations opened briefly on Friday then closed, citing government orders to save fuel.

There is no public transport, and in the impoverished territory where children make up almost half the population, many families do not possess cars or anywhere to go in the south.

The Hamas interior ministry called on the population to stay where they were. Izzat al-Reshiq, a member of the political bureau of the militant movement, said on social media site X, formerly Twitter: “We remain in our land, homes and cities . . . there will be no displacement or evacuation.”

Israel’s neighbours Egypt and Jordan are wary that the Jewish state intends to evict Palestinians entirely from their lands. That fear was heightened this week when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Gazans to leave the blockaded strip without specifying where they should go.

Ayman Safadi, the foreign minister of Jordan — which borders the Israeli-occupied West Bank — warned on Thursday of attempts to “shift the problem to neighbouring countries”. He said all Arab countries confirmed at Wednesday’s Arab League meeting in Cairo that they would “collectively fight back” against any attempt to evict or “transfer” the Palestinians from their homeland.

As the humanitarian crisis deepens in Gaza, Egypt has resisted mounting pressure from the US and others to open a humanitarian corridor into the Sinai peninsula for Palestinians fleeing Israel’s aerial bombardment and the expected ground offensive.

The population of Gaza includes many displaced Palestinians from Israel’s previous wars. Gazans feared that if they left their homes, they would not be allowed back.

“The call to evacuate half the population triggers, locally and regionally, many assumptions about forcible transfer and displacement,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“The history of the conflict has resonance. Whatever the intention of Palestinians fleeing an offensive in the past, their displacement afterwards became permanent.”

Cairo prefers to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza through the Rafah crossing, but Israel has warned it will bomb any trucks carrying supplies.

Senior EU diplomats have led western diplomatic efforts to convince Egypt to allow the use of the Rafah crossing to evacuate Palestinians from Gaza, two people involved in the talks told the Financial Times, but Cairo has rejected the demands.

“They are not prepared to contemplate what 2mn people trying to cross into Egypt in 72 hours would look like,” said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Even if that, to be frank, is a physical impossibility.”

Gaza residents moving south

Egyptian officials said they lacked the infrastructure to handle such an inflow across the sparsely developed Sinai peninsula, and that they were already struggling to accommodate hundreds of thousands from other countries, including Syria and Sudan.

“It is likely that pressure on Egypt will build as the suffering of the Palestinians increases and as more displaced people go on the move towards Rafah and Egypt,” said Hanna. “Scenes of Gazans’ utter deprivation, in addition to whatever international reaction there is, will exert pressure on the Egyptian authorities to let Gazans through the border.”

The movement of the population comes amid a mounting humanitarian crisis for Gaza’s 2.3mn inhabitants after Israel cut off electricity, water, fuel and food supplies to the strip. The Gaza health ministry has warned that the overwhelmed health system has started to collapse.

Some in northern Gaza decided their best option was to remain in their homes. Mai Youssef, a mother of three who lives in the west of Gaza City, said: “I was confused as to whether we should go or stay. But my husband and I decided to stay here with our families because they refuse to go and we will not leave them.”

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Friday that the US was working on establishing “safe areas” inside Gaza for civilians. But Gazans were doubtful that genuine safety would be on offer.

“We are facing injustice and humiliation,” said Hisham Saleh as he drove his wife, children and two sisters to Deir el Balah, a town in the middle section of the Gaza Strip. “I wish I had died before seeing this day.”

Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr

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