Since the Israeli military issued an order last week for the 1.1 million Palestinians living in northern Gaza to flee south, in an apparent prelude to its anticipated ground invasion, a mass exodus has ensued. While those with enough fuel have made the journey by car or truck, others have hitched rides on trailers and donkey carts. Some have even resorted to making the perilous journey on foot.
“We have seen a huge shift of people going south, which we’re very happy with,” Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Peter Lerner tells TIME, noting that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in the north have heeded their warnings despite calls by Hamas for residents to “remain steadfast in your homes.” Lerner also says that the IDF has seen evidence of Hamas “establishing checkpoints to physically prevent people from leaving.”
This kind of mass relocation of civilians amid regular airstrikes was never going to be easy. Both the United Nations and the medical charity Doctors Without Borders dubbed the task “impossible,” citing the logistical nightmare of relocating half of Gaza’s population—among them women, children, and the elderly—without any guarantees for their safety. Indeed, there have been reports by the Financial Times and others of at least one designated safe route out of northern Gaza being subject to an airstrike resulting in as many as 70 deaths. Hamas blames Israel for the attack—a charge that the IDF denies. (The FT report says that “analysis of the video footage rules out most explanations aside from an Israeli strike.”)
“What’s being done doesn’t meet the legal standards for what an evacuation should entail,” Shaina Low, a communications adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council, tells TIME from the NEC’s office in East Jerusalem. “It should be orderly; there should be safety.” Indeed, while Israel may order an evacuation for imperative military reasons or to protect civilians, international law requires that it provides those being displaced with adequate shelter, hygiene, health, safety, and nutrition.
In Gaza, all of these things have been in short supply since Israel began its bombardment of the densely-populated Strip in retaliation for Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, which resulted in the deaths of at least 1,400 Israelis. Since then, Gaza has been under complete siege, cut off from food, water, and electricity. Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 2,670 people, roughly a quarter of them children. While the fiercest bombing is currently taking place in northern Gaza, where Israel is said to be targeting Hamas leaders and operatives in Gaza City especially, the enclave’s southern half has also proven dangerous.
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In the southern city of Khan Younis, to which many Palestinians from the north have headed, rescue workers continue to search for survivors amid the rubble of homes destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Local doctors are warning of imminent catastrophe if their hospitals run out of fuel and water. Although Israel has since bowed to U.S. pressure to resume water supplies to southern Gaza, the lack of electricity has made it all but impossible for it to be pumped into people’s homes. “Everyone here in Khan Younis is in survivor mode,” says Yousef Hammash, an NRC advocacy officer based in Gaza. “It’s a horrible situation here—it’s really horrible. I saw people who sleep in the streets. We never had homeless people before in Gaza. Now half of the population is homeless.”
But not everyone in northern Gaza has fled. Of the 1.1 million living in northern Gaza, just 400,000 are estimated to have left, leaving roughly 700,000 there. While some are physically unable to flee on account of being too injured or weak to make the journey, others are reluctant because they don’t have anywhere in the south to go. “The Israeli military has called for all of these people to leave the north, but aren’t doing anything to guarantee their safety once they arrive where they’re being told to flee to,” Low says. To this, Lerner concedes that Palestinians aren’t being directed to any one particular location, noting that “the whole Gaza Strip beyond Wadi Gaza is the location we’ve sent them towards.” On the humanitarian situation awaiting them, Lerner says that there are basic needs, including food supplies, “for several weeks,” though this contradicts most all accounts coming out of the besieged enclave, including those by the World Health Organization and the U.N., which on Monday reported “severely limited access to clean drinking water” and “worsening food insecurity.”
“There’s a tough humanitarian condition,” Lerner says, “but we faced a barbaric attack and we are very determined to change that situation.”
Another reason that is keeping Palestinians from fleeing south are concerns that their displacement could be made permanent. The majority of the Palestinians who live in Gaza today are descended from refugees who were violently expelled from their homes and native villages in what is modern-day Israel amid the war that resulted in the state’s creation in 1948, which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” That collective memory “is cognizant in people’s minds,” Low says. And not just theirs. Both Egypt (which has kept its border with Gaza closed and has long opposed any effort to resettle Palestinians in its bordering Sinai Peninsula, which has also been ruled out by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) and Jordan have warned against any actions that risk Palestinians being forced off their land.
But regardless of whether Palestinians choose to leave or stay, Low adds, that doesn’t make them legitimate targets. “They are not combatants,” she says. “They are still civilians and must be protected under international humanitarian law. They cannot lawfully be targeted just because they chose to stay or they were forced to stay.”