Israel’s Evacuation Decrees Leave Gazans Confused

The WhatsApp group members had advantages many fellow Gazans lacked: working cellphones and a way to communicate with one another to avoid deadly Israeli strikes.

But snippets of their conversations about the besieged southern city of Khan Younis show how even they were flummoxed by Israel’s sometimes contradictory evacuation warnings, which they described as confusing.

“How do you know which blocks are under threat? Where do you get the news from,” read one of the snippets seen by The New York Times.

“Is block 49 under threat?”

“People, if anyone understands the map, please clarify it to us.”

For the many Gazans without reliable cellphones or access to social media, the options for obtaining accurate information to navigate Israel’s evacuation orders are even more challenging — especially since the Israeli military this month intensified its offensive aimed at Hamas militants in southern Gaza.

The United States has put pressure on Israel to change the nature of its southern campaign to ensure that it minimizes civilian casualties, does not decimate infrastructure and allows for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Israel says it is addressing the humanitarian concerns, pointing to the directions it has been issuing to Gazans — but on the ground, where a wrong turn can mean the difference between life and death, there remains widespread confusion.

Since the pause in fighting ended and the focus on southern Gaza began, an Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee, has posted a series of Arabic-language maps on social media showing which areas people should leave because of danger, accompanied by text about which blocks to evacuate.

The block numbers correspond to an interactive map of the zones that the military published on Dec. 1. The Israeli military has also dropped fliers in Arabic, among other methods, in various regions advising civilians to evacuate. The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has said the maps represent an improvement on Israel’s part to protect civilians.

But it quickly became clear that Gazans are having a hard time understanding the evacuation orders. Communication networks are unreliable and spotty in Gaza, so many people cannot gain access to the online maps and instructions. Electricity is also scarce, which makes it difficult to keep mobile phones charged. Some Gazans say they have not even seen the maps.

Moreover, the Israeli military’s evacuation announcements have at times seemed to contradict themselves.

In one post on Dec. 2, for example, Israel published a map that highlighted the area east of Khan Younis bordering Israel and directed those staying in the highlighted area to move south to Rafah. However, the text of the post listed block groups to be evacuated that were not shown on any map in the same post — and some were on the opposite side of Gaza, on the coast.

In a post on Dec. 3, the map with an evacuation order told Gazans in dozens of specific blocks to leave. However, the text, contradicting the order, omitted several of them. Blocks 55, 99 and 103-106, for example, were marked for evacuation on the map but not in the text.

The posts from Dec. 2 and Dec. 3 — the Dec. 3 map was posted again on Dec. 4 — were the last maps of southern Gaza available on the X account of Colonel Adraee before he posted a new map on Dec. 9, which showed a small area of central Khan Younis to evacuate. On that map, block 103 was the only discrepancy between the text of the post and the map.

When asked to clarify which parts of Gaza were under evacuation orders, the Israeli military directed The Times to Colonel Adraee’s social media account.

The Israeli military told The Times, when asked about the discrepancies, that the maps in the social media posts were intended to provide “general guidance graphics.”Israel says that in its battle against Hamas terrorists, it takes precautions to limit casualties among civilians, casting them as a regrettable but unavoidable part of war.

Even when Gazans do make it to areas Israel has designated as safe, the danger is often far from over.

“Families are aware that such zones do not offer safety in terms of lifesaving services — such as water and sanitation,” said James Elder, a spokesman for UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund. “They know they are at risk when they are on the move. They know locations change. And they know that in the past, so-called safe zones have been hit. So they are confused, scared and perpetually under attack.”

Last Wednesday, in the Shaboura area of Rafah, the southern Gaza city bordering Egypt, was attacked despite Israeli military advisories that Gazans could shelter safely there. The attack in Al Shaboura, described by three witnesses in voice mail recordings heard by The Times, was previously reported by The Washington Post. In a statement about the attack, the Israeli military said that in its effort to dismantle Hamas’ military and administrative capabilities, it followed international law and took “feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm.”

The Israeli agency that oversees policy for the Palestinian territories, COGAT, said that it was using various methods to communicate to Gazans when and where they needed to evacuate.

“We are also monitoring continuously to see whether our advance warning is efficient,” said Col. Moshe Tetro, head of coordination and liaison at COGAT. “We see if the message was received, and not only if it was received but also whether the people actually act according to the message.”

“It’s not only about giving the warning,” he said.

Since the first week of the war, Israel has ordered the evacuation of more than half of the Gaza Strip.The United Nations says that nearly 1.9 million people, or more than 80 percent of Gaza’s population, have been displaced. More than 15,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gazan health authorities.

As Gazans cram into smaller areas, shelters have become so overcrowded that hundreds of people are forced to share a single toilet. The United Nations has warned that in Rafah, “there is no empty space left for people to shelter, not even in the south and other open areas.”

A tent camp near a mosque in Rafah. More than half of the total area of the Gaza Strip is under Israeli evacuation orders.Credit…Said Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Maisa al-Jarar, a 32-year-old mother of five, said she and her family had been forced to flee to Khan Younis from Gaza City at the start of the war. Now, she says, Israeli forces have warned them to find somewhere else.

“They left fliers — people are terrified,” she said.

“We don’t even know which block we’re in, which area. We don’t know which zone, which number,” Ms. al-Jarar said via Facebook Messenger. “My husband went to Rafah to find a place for us, but it’s all disgusting. People are forced to relieve themselves on the streets. The stench is awful, disease is spreading.”

Choking back tears, Ms. Al-Jarar described a litany of misery: being forced to give her children salty water, her husband desperately searching for food that’s grown increasingly expensive and scarce, an inability to find medicine for her sick children.

“We want to live a life of dignity,” she said. “I wish they’d drop a nuclear bomb on us. I swear, it would be more comfortable than this life we’re living.”

Ameera Harouda contributed reporting from Doha, Qatar, and Abu Bakr Bashir from London.

Back to top button