The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has given residents of northern Gaza 24 hours to evacuate further south in a sign that it is preparing for a large-scale offensive on Gaza City after last weekend’s surprise attacks by Hamas militants.
Stéphane Dujarric, a United Nations spokesperson, confirmed to the Associated Press that it had received a notification from the Israeli government that it was calling on 1.1 million civilians to leave their homes—a move he described as “impossible” in the timescale without “devastating humanitarian consequences.”
Newsweek reached out to the IDF via email for comment on Friday.
Aid organizations have already warned of a worsening crisis in the region after Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza, including the cutting off of water, food and energy supplies.
Several have now said the mass movement was not feasible under the current circumstances, which have seen the Israeli Air Force launch intensive air strikes on targets in the Palestinian exclave after last weekend’s attacks.
Around 1,500 Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants staged armed assaults on Israel on Saturday, including the killing of civilians. Israel subsequently launched its heaviest-ever airstrikes on Gaza. As of Friday, at least 1,300 people had been killed in Israel and 1,530 people killed in Gaza, according to the AP.
Some 423,000 people are thought to have been displaced by the air strikes, the U.N. said on Thursday. The IDF has been warning civilians in areas about to be hit to leave and has said Hamas houses military targets within civilian populations.
On Friday morning, the IDF confirmed it had told residents in Gaza City to leave their homes and head south of the Gaza River, describing it as “for your own safety and the safety of your families.”
“You will be able to return to Gaza City only when another announcement permitting it is made,” the IDF said in a statement. “Hamas terrorists are hiding in Gaza City inside tunnels underneath houses and inside buildings populated with innocent Gazan civilians.”
However, Hamas, which has de facto ruled the exclave since 2006, reportedly told civilians to defy the order, accusing Israel of “trying to spread false propaganda to sow confusion among the residents of Gaza.”
A map of the regions of Gaza, based on U.N. population figures from September, shows that around 749,000 live in or around Gaza City, while a further 444,000 are based in North Gaza—a combined total of 1.2 million. While hundreds of thousands have already been displaced, the evacuation order is calling around half of Gaza’s population to shift southwards in one day.
As one of the most densely-populated places in the world, there are already more than an estimated 1 million people in Gaza’s southern regions, posing questions of how those fleeing the north will be housed until they can return.
U.N. aid workers have been told to leave northern Gaza for Rafah, a city further south. Nebal Farsakh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza City, told the AP that there were patients in hospitals who could not be moved.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization said there had been a “complete blockade” of humanitarian aid entering Gaza and called for a humanitarian corridor to be opened.
“Hospitals in Gaza are at a breaking point,” Tedros Ghebreyesus, the agency’s director general, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Friday. “Without immediate entry of aid, essential health care services will come to a halt.”
But Egypt, with whom Gaza shares its southern border near Rafah, has resisted calls to allow Palestinian refugees passage into the Sinai Peninsula. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said on Thursday that Palestinians must “remain on their land,” according to The New York Times.
Melanie Ward, the chief executive of Medical Aid for Palestinians, told The Guardian that the air strikes on Gaza and the Israeli fuel blockade had made the evacuation of so many people impossible at such short notice.
“Even if they wanted to go, how are they supposed to move?” Ward said. “The roads have been bombed and destroyed. The bombing is continuing. Fuel has been blocked or is under siege so vehicles do not have fuel. Where are they supposed to go and how are they supposed to move? What about elderly people and the disabled?”