To Protect Gaza’s Civilian Population, Who Have Nowhere Left To Shelter
Date: 29 October 2023
On 28 October, Israeli authorities issued a new evacuation order for Palestinians in northern Gaza. In the early afternoon, the Israeli army spokesperson instructed “all residents of northern Gaza and Gaza City to temporarily relocate south immediately. Moving back to northern Gaza will be possible once the intense hostilities end”. A new leaflet was also distributed among the population, stating: “Urgent warning! To the residents of the Gaza Strip, the Gaza District is officially a battlefield. The shelters in the North Gaza and Gaza Districts are not safe. You must evacuate immediately and head south of Wadi Gaza.” Later in the day, the Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister announced that the Israeli army will expand ground operations in Gaza in the upcoming hours and days.
From late afternoon of 27 October until the early morning hours of 29 October, telecommunication services in Gaza have been cut off, leaving the civilian population of over two million in a near-total communications blackout. At the same time, Israel reportedly intensified attacks throughout the entirety of the Gaza Strip, including artillery shelling the northern and northeastern perimeter. Communications blackouts enable Israel to obscure the mass atrocities committed by its forces against Palestinians in Gaza, further maintaining its impunity for gross violations of international law. Israel’s cutting of telecommunications also prevents Gaza’s civilian population from accessing life-saving medical and other essential services, as ambulances and civil defense teams are unable to locate the wounded or people trapped under the rubble, amid relentless, intensive Israeli overnight attacks.
Al Mezan, Al-Haq, and PCHR have categorically condemned previous evacuation orders issued by the Israeli military on 13 and 21 October respectively, describing them as ineffective and illegal. As we write, tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza are either unwilling or unable to evacuate—including the wounded and sick, humanitarian workers, medical personnel, people with disabilities, the elderly, children, and women, including women in an advanced stage of pregnancy. Medical facilities have announced that they are unable to evacuate. Under the current circumstances, Erez crossing is the closest evacuation route for thousands of Palestinian civilians currently in northern Gaza, particularly for the injured and medical patients. Prior to 7 October, hundreds of Palestinian medical patients with Israeli-issued exit permits regularly crossed Erez to access treatment at hospitals in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Israel. Israeli authorities halted this procedure on 7 October.
After the evacuation order was issued on 21 October, our organizations raised the alarm. The indications expressed by Israel that it could consider the remaining civilians in northern Gaza as military targets should have prompted the international community to intervene immediately. Yet, our calls went largely unheeded, especially among Western states.
Following the telecommunications blackout, our organizations lost contact with all our colleagues in Gaza. Our colleagues have survived 22 days and nights under relentless Israeli attacks, lost family members, friends and homes in attacks that have killed almost 8,000 Palestinians in just three weeks and razed entire neighborhoods in Gaza. On 27 October, ahead of Israel’s ground incursion, Al-Haq’s field researcher in Gaza, Mohammad Abu Rahmeh, said: “Death has become a routine, with every morning and every evening. The nights are no longer for laughter and chats, not even for sleep and dreams. Rather, the night is now a silent persistent murderer – a preferred time for our enemy to kill”.
We are extremely concerned for their safety and that of all civilians in Gaza, particularly those currently in the north of the Strip. Our organizations reiterate that Israel has international law responsibilities to protect all Palestinian civilians who either stayed or returned to northern Gaza, who continue to be protected from direct targeting and indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.
Our organizations are equally concerned about threats of a possible Israeli attack targeting Al Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical complex. Al Shifa Hospital, located in Gaza City, is currently treating thousands of injured patients and sheltering thousands of civilians who have nowhere else to go. Under international humanitarian law, medical units, such as hospitals must be respected and protected at all times and must not be the object of attack. Intentionally directing attacks against hospitals absent legitimate military considerations of harmful acts, constitutes a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Facts on the ground are irrefutable: nowhere is safe in Gaza, and currently there is no way out. An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza are internally displaced, many of whom have been displaced more than once. The new Israeli evacuation order repeats all the problematic features of the previous ones and remains effectively infeasible.
About 45 percent of housing units in Gaza have been destroyed, rendered uninhabitable, or sustained moderate/light damage since the start of hostilities. Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed, particularly in Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahia, and Gaza City. Palestinians in Gaza have run out of shelters. Moving to southern Gaza is not only almost impossible for many vulnerable people, but there are also no guarantees of safety and security in the south, where Israel continues its relentless bombing campaign. This suggests that Israel’s evacuation orders are not issued for the safety of the civilian population, but rather, are intended to forcibly displace hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to move them closer to the border with Egypt.
The looming mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Gaza requires immediate intervention. It must also be recalled that more than three-quarters of Gaza’s population are refugees to whom Israel, the Occupying Power, has denied the right of return to their homes and lands since 1948. Seven decades on, the international community continues to fail to realize the right to return to millions of Palestinians refugees explicitly recognized under the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.
The atrocities we are currently witnessing in Gaza, including genocidal acts, will haunt humanity for decades to come. Our organizations renew their call to the international community for an immediate ceasefire. This must be accompanied by the unimpeded entry of fuel and humanitarian aid, including water, food and medical supplies, to be distributed throughout the entire Gaza Strip to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israeli policies of collective punishment against Gaza’s civilian population. Third states should also pressure Israel to allow the immediate and unconditional transfer of patients from Gaza to receive medical treatment, including life-saving treatment.
These atrocities must not only end, they must never happen again. The international community must ensure that Israel’s settler-colonial apartheid regime is dismantled, that all discriminatory and dehumanizing laws, policies and practices against the Palestinian people are rescinded in full, that Israel immediately and unconditionally withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territory, and that the Palestinian people can fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination.