In the early hours of Friday, 13 October 2023, the Israeli military demanded over one million civilians—around half of Gaza’s population—in northern Gaza to evacuate their homes towards areas south of Wadi Gaza. The news started to spread during the night, when Israel first communicated its intention to international organizations to evacuate Palestinians in Gaza. A few hours later, the Israeli military disseminated the order through its official social media channels and by throwing leaflets from warplanes to the population. Some 1.1 million people were given 24 hours to evacuate, after which the Israeli military will “continue to operate significantly in Gaza City”. As of the time of reporting, and according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, 70 Palestinians have been killed, and 150 others injured by Israeli airstrikes as they were evacuating from the northern Gaza Strip through Salah Al-Din street - the same ‘safe street’ indicated for evacuation by the Israeli military.
Since 7 October 2023, Israel has launched a full-fledged retaliatory military offensive on Gaza, aimed at erasing it and reducing the territory to rubble. Under international humanitarian law (IHL), “the only legitimate object which States should endeavor to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy”. In pursuing this aim, “the right of the Parties to the conflict to choose methods or means of warfare is not unlimited”. Our organizations are concerned that Israel’s evacuation of civilians is being used as a prohibited method of warfare to indiscriminately destroy northern Gaza, and to forcibly transfer civilians permanently from northern Gaza to acquire the territory through the use of force.
According to treaty and customary international humanitarian law (IHL), parties to armed conflict may not order the displacement of the civilian population, in whole or in part, for reasons related to the conflict, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. The first exception to this rule, for the ‘security of the civilians’, does not apply to Israel’s evacuation order given that the circumstances of the evacuation itself puts the Palestinian population in grave danger. The second exception, of ‘imperative military reasons’, also does not apply to Israel’s order because military necessity as a ground for derogation from a rule requires a meticulous assessment of the circumstances. The adjective ‘imperative’ also reduces to a minimum cases in which displacement may be ordered; obtaining a simple military advantage would not qualify as an “imperative military reason”. Moreover, displacement cannot be justified if it further exposes the civilian population to the effects of hostilities, or if decent living conditions for the displaced population cannot be guaranteed. In this case, the Palestinian population is evacuating to areas where there is no adequate “shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition”. Even if such exceptional conditions were to be met, IHL makes clear that such measures of displacement can only be temporary, displaced persons must be able to return voluntarily and in safety to their place of habitual residence as soon as the causes of their displacement have ceased to exist.
In view of the absence of any guarantees of safety or return, this evacuation order may amount to the war crime of forcible transfer, and stands in flagrant violation of IHL norms. Treating the entire northern area of Gaza, including Gaza City, as one military objective violates the principle of distinction, and amounts to a prohibited indiscriminate attack. This includes “an attack by bombardment by any methods or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects”. Israel’s scorched earth policy is not a legitimate military objective giving rise to imperative military reasons.
The order to evacuate does not absolve Israel from its obligations and responsibilities under IHL, and Israel continues to bear obligations to protect civilians and civilian objects from indiscriminate attacks. In doing so, Israel must take all feasible precautions in attacks and against the effects of attacks, to avoid, or at least minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. Israel must also give effective advance warning of attacks which may affect the civilian population.
The time limit on the evacuation, the geographic scope of the order, and the circumstances surrounding the application of such an order do not render the order either feasible or effective. Ordering 1.1 million civilians to evacuate the entire northern parts of the Gaza Strip in 24 hours, and to move under continuous Israeli strikes, through the rubble and destroyed road networks and infrastructure, and sometimes without any means of transportation, is unfeasible, unrealistic, and warns of an unprecedented catastrophe.
Asking more than one million civilians—including people with disability, pregnant women, children, the elderly, wounded and sick—to evacuate their homes, hospitals, and public shelters without announcing a ceasefire or identifying safe zones for civilians to safely evacuate to, is not only unfeasible, it breaches Article 17 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. As evidenced by our monitoring on the ground, no area of Gaza has been spared from Israeli military attacks. Just in the last two days alone, Al-Mezan, Al-Haq, and PCHR have reported Israeli military attacks on Rafah, Khan Younis, and Deir al-Balah—Gaza’s southern districts—from air, sea, and land. In light of this, and having documented Israel's conduct of hostilities, our organizations hold firm that there is nowhere safe for civilians to take shelter in Gaza. Israel must call off its wide scale attack on cities and towns and civilian infrastructure, including residential areas, hospitals, schools, cultural centers, mosques and ancient heritage sites.
As the transfer of 1.1 million people within Gaza cannot be feasibly carried out, many may be unable or unwilling to leave. An ICRC analysis on the legality of safe passage explains that “the transfer and evacuation of people at risk must be voluntary and carried out with their consent”, and “any civilians who cannot or do not wish to leave the area are still protected under IHL and can benefit from humanitarian assistance”. Reports from the ground indicate that a large number of civilians will not be able to evacuate northern Gaza, particularly the wounded and sick, the elderly, and those without means of transport to reach south of Wadi Gaza – which takes hours to reach on foot from Erez/Beit Hanoun. Ordering the evacuation to be followed by intensive shelling of civilian homes and commercial properties, is sentencing those who are vulnerable and unable to leave, to death.
More than three-quarters of Gaza's population are refugees to whom Israel has denied the right of return since 1948. A Gaza City resident relayed: “I fell asleep in 2023 and woke up in 1948. We are re-experiencing a new Nakba. The same scene, crowds walking without knowing where to go. We are already refugees. We still remember [the Nakba]. We prefer to die than to live it again”.
Prior to the evacuation order, more than 423,000 people had already been forced to flee their homes in Gaza due to the continuous and heavy indiscriminate Israeli strikes. Numbers are expected to rise even more. The UN has deemed the Israeli military’s order to evacuate as “horrendous”, which “will only lead to unprecedented levels of misery and further push people in Gaza into the abyss.”
We urge the international community—particularly the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the African Union, Arab States and Third States—to demand that the Israeli political and military leadership immediately stop attacks on Gaza’s civilian population and allow the entrance of basic supplies necessary for the survival of the population—including food, water, fuel, electricity, and medicines.