Last week, before launching a ground invasion into Gaza, the IDF dropped leaflets over the neighborhood of Shujaiyeh, warning residents of imminent airstrikes.
“For your own safety, you are requested to vacate your residence immediately and head towards Gaza City before 8:00 AM,” the leaflet said, in Arabic. “The IDF does not want to harm you or your families.”
'They are telling people, ‘You can go to Gaza City,' where I live. But where I live it’s not safe.'
But in Gaza City, where families evacuating Shujaiyeh were supposed to find refuge, some residents were pondering a move in the opposite direction. Mohammed Suliman, who lives in the city center and had his windows ripped out by a blast, left for his family’s residence to the north.
“I had to leave my place to go to the north of Gaza, which is where they are asking people to leave from, because I was in danger here, there were blasts hitting so close to my place,” he told VICE News. “They are telling people, ‘You can go to Gaza City,' where I live. But where I live it’s not safe.”
The IDF has prided itself in these warning messages, saying it does all it can to prevent civilian casualties — even though, according to UN figures, civilians account for as much as 70 percent of the more than 566 Palestinians killed since the latest escalation started. When it doesn’t drop leaflets, it fires “warning missiles.”
'There are no militaries like ours. There are no militaries that drop leaflets and telephone civilians before a strike,'
“We have a moral obligation to avoid civilian casualties. We also have a moral obligation to defend our people,” an IDF chief of staff said according to the forces’ Twitter account. “There are no militaries like ours. There are no militaries that drop leaflets and telephone civilians before a strike.”
Yet Suliman said that these warnings are disingenuous, and in Gaza — a cramped home to nearly 2 million people — there’s a cruel irony in this advice to evacuate: there’s hardly anywhere safe to go.
'They are telling a quarter of a million people to leave their houses.'
“This is a tactic to tell the world that the IDF cares about civilian lives so that when they kill civilians they can say, ‘We warned people, they didn’t leave, Hamas is using them as shields.’ This is completely ridiculous,” Suliman said. “They are saying, ‘We want the residents of the northern Gaza districts to leave their houses,’ but 250,000 people live in the northern Gaza districts. They are telling a quarter of a million people to leave their houses.”
“That’s laughable. Where are they going to go?”
A spokesperson for the IDF told VICE News that it specifies which areas of Gaza are considered safe in its leaflets, and said that the force "takes great effort not to harm the civilian population in Gaza, despite all of Hamas' attempts to place its citizens directly in the line of Israeli fire."
"The IDF uses various methods to warn residents of Gaza of impending attacks and to encourage civilians to leave areas where attacks may occur. Phone calls and texts messages are sent in Arabic, explaining to civilians that attacks might occur in their areas; leaflets are also dropped in neighborhoods, asking residents to evacuate," she said, adding that warnings are sent out "with enough time for them to be relevant.
"All of these methods are done with the goal of evacuating civilians from areas in which attacks may occur, despite the fact that such methods may also provide a 'heads-up' to Hamas terrorists in the area," she added. "The IDF uses these methods with the goal of only harming Hamas terrorists and assets — not civilians. Unfortunately, Hamas often warns civilians not to follow the instructions that we provide."
On its Twitter account the force has consistently put the blame for civilian casualties on Hamas.
Israeli officials have also said Hamas has threatened Gazans with retaliation if they leave their homes, the New York Times reported. The Times found no evidence of this, though some of the people it interviewed did say that they did not feel free to criticize Hamas.
Last week, UN officials found about 20 rockets hidden in one the agency’s vacant schools in Gaza. The IDF has also accused Hamas of firing rockets from playgrounds, mosques, and cemeteries — turning civilian areas into military targets.
“This incident, which is the first of its kind in Gaza, endangered civilians including staff and put at risk UNRWA’s vital mission to assist and protect Palestine refugees in Gaza,” the agency said in a statement condemning those responsible for placing the rockets on the school premises.
“At all times, and especially during escalations of violence, the sanctity and integrity of UN installations must be respected.”
But critics have slammed Israel's "human shield" argument as groundless. In a report on Operation Cast Lead, in 2008 and 2009, Amnesty International found no evidence of Hamas or other fighters using civilians as shields. It did, however, find evidence of the IDF using Palestinians as human shields.
“Israel considers any perceived link to Hamas justification for attack, Hamas considers any place in Israel a target,” Israeli human rights watchdog B’tselem said in a statement today. “One party fires at civilians, more often than not missing the target thanks to the Iron Dome defense system. The other party fires at densely populated civilian areas, with deadly results on a shocking scale.”
In one case documented by the group, 25 members of a single family — including 20 children as young as four months and three pregnant women — were killed when their house was bombed on Sunday.
The target of that attack, in the Bani Suheila neighborhood northeast of Khan Yunis, was a member of Hamas’ military wing, who was visiting a member of the family and was also killed in the strike.
'Sending alerts or providing warnings to residents does not transform them, or their homes, into legitimate military targets.'
In this particular case, no warning was issued and no warning missile was fired prior to the attack, B’tselem’s initial investigation found. But even prior notice, the group said, doesn’t clear the IDF of responsibility.
"In the absence of a protected area for residents that provides shelter and an answer to their humanitarian needs, military commanders can not claim that they have taken sufficient precautions to avoid causing injury," B’tselem and nine other rights groups wrote in a joint letter to Israel’s attorney general.
“Sending alerts or providing warnings to residents does not transform them, or their homes, into legitimate military targets, and does not exempt the army from its duty to avoid executing indiscriminate attacks in the area,” the group also said in a statement.
'With 100,000 people already in place, UN shelters are also extremely crammed.'
Gaza residents seeking shelter have been scrambling to find refuge with families or in the UNRWA school shelters. Yet some are scared to go there as well. “UN shelters are safer but that doesn’t mean they are not at risk of being hit or targeted,” Suliman said, recalling UN shelters bombed during previous operations.
And with 100,000 people already in place, UN shelters are also extremely crammed and strapped for resources.
“We are doing what we can in very difficult circumstances, turning nearly seventy of our schools into temporary accommodation,” Chris Gunner, a spokesman for UNRWA said in a statement. “But we are running out of funds having planned and budgeted at the start of the conflict to have to deal with 35,000 displaced.”
With shelling reaching schools, hospitals, and even the beach, Gazans told to evacuate from their homes are not exactly faced with an abundance of options, as both local residents and foreign commentators have noted.
Gaza’s border with Israel to the north and east is heavily secured with walls, fences, and a strong military presence, and its western border with Egypt was only open for 17 days this year, the Times reported. The strip’s international airport was destroyed by the IDF in 2001 and Israel has since imposed a blockade on the use of airspace.
“Evacuate to where? Have you f***g seen Gaza?” US political satirist Jon Stewart asked last week, in a video clip that has since gone viral. “Israel blocks this border, Egypt blocks this border. What are they supposed to, swim for it?”
As it turns out, that wouldn’t be an option either as a sea blockade is also in place.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi