Palestinians fleeing fighting to the south find no escape from danger

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) -As Israel intensified air strikes on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and told residents to move south towards the border with Egypt, some like father of six Fadi Daloul thought that would be a safe option and gathered up his belongings.

Palestinians are desperate to find a safe hiding place as the Israeli military prepares for what is expected to be a ground offensive in Gaza accompanied by relentless air strikes.

The journey to the south is also fraught with risks as Israel hits back at Hamas after the Palestinian militant group launched a surprise attack on Israel, the bloodiest since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel has already unleashed the fiercest bombing ever on the impoverished narrow Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. And far worse is expected, prompting residents to seek safe shelter.

Many Gazans have refused to leave their homes for the south, fearing a repeat of the "Nakba" or "catastrophe", when many Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes during the 1948 war that accompanied Israel's creation.

Some 700,000 Palestinians, half the Arab population of what was British-ruled Palestine, were dispossessed and displaced, many spilling into neighbouring Arab states where they or many of their descendants remain. Many still live in refugee camps.

Israel contests the assertion that it drove Palestinians out, saying it was attacked by five Arab states after its creation.

For Daloul, the priority is the survival of his family as Israeli air strikes flatten buildings in Gaza - blockaded by both Israel and Egypt as a humanitarian crisis unfolds and hospitals run low on stocks of medicines.

He is one of thousands of Palestinians who fled from the north of the Gaza Strip on Saturday, fearing what promises to be a ferocious ground invasion with relentless air strikes.

"We live under stress, we didn't monitor this thing before. It's huge. It's a huge threat. Children, as you see ... where should we take them?," he said. "Especially when we left (our house), we saw on the way people burnt and hit by air strikes. Thank God we are safe and reached the south."

The Israeli military was not immediately available for comment.

Hamas has told people not to leave and says roads out are unsafe. It says dozens of people were killed in strikes on cars and trucks carrying refugees on Friday, which Reuters could not independently verify.

Israel says Hamas is preventing people from leaving in order to use them as human shields, which Hamas denies.

Gaza, a tiny coastal strip of land wedged between Israel in the north and east and Egypt to the southwest, is home to some 2.3 million people who have been living under a blockade since Hamas took control there in 2007.

Israel said it kept two roads open to let people escape, but displaced Palestinians fleeing on that road said Israeli bombings of the eastern areas around that road never stopped.

Two days ago 70 Palestinians were killed and 200 were wounded when Israeli planes bombed several vehicles carrying displaced Gazans, according to Hamas-run health ministry and Hamas official media. Reuters could not independently verify this claim.

Daloul said it wasn't easy to leave his home when Israel

started dropping pamphlets over Gaza telling people to leave. His family felt extreme anxiety, especially at night.

There was a traffic jam. Some cars got bombed by air strikes. During the night, the children hugged me and started to cry and screamed: 'Save us, Save us'.

"How can we save them? When we left the house, we kissed the walls on our way out. This is migration and we don't know how long it will last. We hope that the world can see us, and see how we live. Look, we had a home, walls, and water, but now we live in a tent," he said.

Israel says its evacuation order is a humanitarian gesture to protect residents while it roots out Hamas fighters. The United Nations says so many people cannot be safely moved within Gaza without causing a humanitarian disaster.

Daloul's daughter Sahar said there is no place to hide from air strikes.

"All of our life is lived in misery. We don't know how to live. There is no one to save us or come after us. How will we live? How?," he said.

An Israeli bombardment of Gaza faces both the Palestinians that stayed home and others who made the treacherous trip to the south knowing that Egypt is highly unlikely to open its borders.

Speaking to Reuters by phone from Gaza, 20-year-old Gina, described the horror of moving on the main Salahudeen eastern road, one of two routes that lead to the southern areas.

"I was terrified, I thought I was about to die," said Gina, crying over the phone as she described the trip to the south.

"They told us to escape and then they bomb people on the road. My father drove back to Gaza City. He said if we are dying anyway, let's be at home in Gaza," she said.

Even if its residents wanted to flee the enclave altogether, they have nowhere to go as the most obvious exit would be through Egypt, something Cairo rejects.

Cairo, a frequent mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, always insists the two sides resolve conflicts within their borders, saying this is the only way Palestinians can secure their right to statehood.

A witness said he saw mangled cars and a completely torched truck on the road to the south. Some people who had hoped the south would provide some relief have changed their minds and are heading north.

"I am taking my family back into Gaza. I can't continue to live in a school or outside my home, when no place is safe anyway, my home is better," said Abu Dawoud, a Gaza accountant.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; editing by David Evans)