Ahead of a feared ground offensive, Israel’s army has issued an order to over a million people in Gaza City to move south in just 24 hours. The Israel Defense Forces have said that this is for the safety of Palestinian civilians, but this directive has been condemned by the United Nations as “impossible” without “devastating humanitarian consequences”. Nebal Farsakh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza City, told the Associated Press that there was no way a million people could be moved safely before the Israeli deadline. “Forget about food, forget about electricity, forget about fuel. The only concern now is just if […] you’re going to live,” Farsakh said.
The hospitals of Gaza City – already running low on fuel and medical supplies, and overrun by more critically injured people than they can treat – are in an impossible position. “What will happen to our patients?” Farsakh asked. “We have wounded, we have elderly, we have children who are in hospitals.” She reported that many of the medics were refusing to evacuate hospitals and abandon their patients to an uncertain fate. Instead, they called their colleagues to say goodbye.
Hamas has told Palestinians in the north of the Gaza strip to remain where they are, calling the evacuation order “fake propaganda”. The Hamas Authority for Refugee Affairs said that Gazans ought to “remain steadfast in your homes and to stand firm in the face of this disgusting psychological war waged by the occupation”. The IDF have alleged that the militant group is using tunnels underneath Gaza City to conduct their operations against Israel, and that Hamas have used Palestinian civilians as “human shields”.
But while Israel insists that the evacuation order is for the protection of ordinary Gazans, the IDF’s bombardment of Gaza City continues. Palestinian civilians have been told to head south towards Rafah, the border crossing with Egypt which has also been repeatedly hit by Israeli airstrikes. At the time of writing, there has been no indication that Israel will assent to a ceasefire to allow the evacuation to take place. The reality is that people are being told to flee their homes without any promise of safety to do so.
The IDF have said that civilians who leave Gaza City will be allowed to return “only when another announcement permitting it is made.” Many Gazans are descended from the 700,000 Palestinians displaced during the Nakba, the forced expulsions that accompanied the establishment of the state of Israel. Those individuals and families were never allowed to return to their homes. The prospect of indefinite displacement, with no guaranteed right of return to their homes, carries ugly echoes of 1948.
Over the past week – to say nothing of the decades of illegal military occupation, and de facto apartheid – the Israeli state has made it clear that it has little regard for the constraints of international law. They have imposed collective punishment on over 2 million Gazans, cutting off water, aid, food and power. They have bombed densely populated civilian areas. And, according to Human Rights Watch, the IDF have used artillery-fired white phosphorus in both Gaza and Lebanon. The use of white phosphorus near civilians is prohibited under the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons, to which Israel is not a signatory.
During this week’s media appearances, both the Conservative government and the Labour leadership effectively signed a blank cheque for Israel’s military to do whatever it deems necessary, whatever the human cost, in the wake of the Hamas attacks on civilian targets and the taking of hostages. Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, said of this morning’s evacuation order that “the UK government supports Israel’s right both to defend itself and provide advanced warning”. Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry have both said that cutting off water, power, food and supplies to millions of Palestinian civilians falls within Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself (though refused to comment on whether this particular act of collective punishment breaches Article 33 of the Geneva Convention on, er, collective punishment).
What should we call the forced movement of civilian populations, urged on by the threat of unspeakable violence, if not ethnic cleansing? Israeli officials have been explicit in their dehumanisation of Palestinians. When announcing the “complete siege” on Gaza on Monday, Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant stated baldly that “we are fighting human animals and we act accordingly”. Ariel Kallner, a member of the Knesset and part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, called on Twitter for “a Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48”. But though many in British politics, and political media, have turned a blind eye to anti-Palestinian racism in light of the recent atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, Gallant’s genocidal language is merely the latest in an escalation of dangerous rhetoric.
As others have noted, extremist ideology has been mainstreamed into Israeli politics in recent years. Finance minister Bezalel Smotrich called for Hawara, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, to be “wiped out”. Itmar Ben-Gvir, now Israel’s minister for national security, brandished a gun at residents of Sheikh Jarrah, called on police to use live ammunition on Arabs throwing stones, and threatened to “mow down” a group of Palestinians in the same neighbourhood. Benjamin Netanyahu’s unapologetic tweets, showing video of IDF airstrikes destroying residential tower blocks in Gaza, are the end product of an Israeli state project that views Palestinian life as not only worthless, but something to be held in disdain.
Over 6,000 bombs have been dropped on the tiny Gaza Strip. Over 1,500 people in Gaza have been killed, including hundreds of children. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, including two men shot dead by Israeli settlers while attending the funeral of four Palestinians killed on Wednesday by settlers and Israeli soldiers. And with over a million of Gazans being ordered to flee south, but with nowhere safe to go, it is likely that worse is yet to come. The West has given its full complicity to Israeli war crimes.
Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.