By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Sunday to “demolish Hamas” as his military prepared ground operations in Gaza to root out the militant group, whose deadly rampage through Israeli border towns stunned the nation.
Israel has urged Gazans to evacuate south, which hundreds of thousands have already done in their Hamas-controlled enclave that is home to 2.2 million people, about half in Gaza City.
Inside besieged Gaza, where conditions are deteriorating and deaths from Israeli air strikes rising, civilians said they had nowhere to flee and were not safe anywhere.
Hamas has asked them to stay put.
With fears of the conflict spilling over, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken continued his rapid tour of Middle East states, seeking to prevent escalation and secure the release of 126 hostages Israel says were taken by Hamas back into Gaza.
Arab leaders stressed the need to protect Gaza civilians.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, which has the only viable border crossing into Gaza, said he was in talks to enable aid deliveries and called Israel’s action collective punishment.
Renewed clashes on Israel’s border with Lebanon on Sunday morning with Hezbollah militants, backed by Israel’s regional foe Iran, underscored the dangers of regional spillover.
In a call with his French counterpart, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned about further escalation if Israel attacked the Gaza Strip, Iranian state media reported.
Netanyahu convened Israel’s expanded emergency cabinet, including former opposition lawmakers, for the first time on Sunday. “Hamas thought we would be demolished. It is we who will demolish Hamas,” he said, adding that the show of unity “sends a clear message to the nation, the enemy and the world”.
Israel is carrying out the most intense bombardment Gaza has ever seen in response to the killing of 1,300 people when Hamas fighters rampaged through Israeli towns on Oct. 7. They shot men, women, children and soldiers and seized hostages in the worst attack on civilians in the Israel’s history.
Israel’s military said 279 of its soldiers had died.
Graphic video of the attacks, and reports from medical and emergency services of atrocities in the overrun towns and kibbutzes, deepened Israelis’ sense of shock.
Authorities in Gaza said more than 2,300 people had been killed in Israel’s retaliatory strikes so far, a quarter of them children, and nearly 10,000 wounded. Hospitals are running short of supplies and struggling to cope with the flow of injured.
Among them was four-year-old Fulla Al-Laham, 14 members of whose family, including her parents and siblings, died in an Israeli air strike.
“May God keep me alive to take care of her,” said her grandmother Um Muhammed Al-Laham, who held the little girl’s hand as she lay in a hospital with a bandaged arm and on a drip.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said early on Sunday that 300 people had been killed and 800 more injured in Gaza during the last 24 hours.
The Israeli military on Friday told residents of the northern half of the Gaza Strip – which includes Gaza City’s more than one million residents – to move south immediately.
“Residents of Gaza City, I call upon you again: Hamas is trying to prevent your evacuation. We will enable it southward. Leave Gaza City and all the surrounding areas for the sake of your personal security,” reiterated chief Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari on Sunday.
Some Palestinians who went south said they were heading back north because they were attacked wherever they went.
“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,” said Abu Dawoud, a Gaza accountant.
Hussam Abu Safiya, an intensive care doctor on a children’s ward at the Kamal Edwan hospital in the northern Gaza strip, said the order to evacuate was impossible.
“In this ward as you can see, there are children who are attached to ventilators, and now we have been asked to evacuate the hospital, where should we evacuate these children?”
The World Health Organization said Israel’s orders for the evacuation of 22 Gaza hospitals were a “death sentence for the sick and injured”.
Hamas has said dozens of people were killed in strikes on cars and trucks carrying refugees south on Friday. Reuters could not independently verify this claim.
Some Gazans have vowed to stay, remembering the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” when many Palestinians were forced from their homes during the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s creation.
Blinken said he had a productive meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on Sunday before heading to Egypt. He will travel to Israel again on Monday.
Salman said Saudi Arabia was working hard to try to prevent the conflict escalating and wanted to help lift the siege.
The violence in Gaza has been accompanied by the deadliest clashes at Israel’s northern border with Lebanon since 2006.
On Sunday, Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters launched a missile at an Israeli border village, killing one person and wounding three others. The Israeli military said it was striking in Lebanon in retaliation.
Netanyahu’s national security adviser has warned Hezbollah, not to take action that could lead to Lebanon’s “destruction”.
Iran has lauded the Hamas attack on Israel but denied any involvement.
“If the crimes of the Zionist regime, including the massacre of people and the siege of Gaza, do not stop, the situation will become more complicated and it will escalate,” Iran’s Raisi told France’s Emmanuel Macron in a call, state media said on Sunday.
Hamas said in a statement on Saturday it and Iran had “agreed to continue co-operation”.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams, Henriette Chacar, Dedi Hayun, Maayan Lubell, Emily Rose, James Mackenzie and John Davison in Jerusalem; Idrees Ali and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Humeyra Pamuk, Hatem Maher, Ahmed Tolba and Omar Abdel-Razek in Cairo, Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Jon Boyle and Andrew Cawthorne)