Israel has defended its conduct of war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip by touting a high-tech evacuation plan for civilians, amid pressure from allies to reduce casualties and Palestinian complaints that they are forced to flee multiple times in a vain search for safety.
The Israeli military’s ground offensive against the Palestinian militant group is turning to the southern part of coastal enclave that is now home to four-fifths of Gaza’s 2.3mn population, many of them refugees from intense bombing of the north.
Israeli officials say they are adopting a different approach during this phase of the war to the one used in the north, where air strikes and then a ground invasion by the Israel Defense Forces killed thousands of civilians.
The military says it using mobile phone and other data to identify densely populated areas and calculate evacuation routes. The IDF’s Arabic spokesperson has posted maps on X with arrows indicating a general direction in which people should flee.
But some of the destinations to which he has directed civilians — such as southerly Rafah — have subsequently been bombed. Many civilians say that they have fled multiple times on Israeli instruction and that there is no clear place to go when they evacuate.
Richard Ponzio, a former adviser at the US state department and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Centre think-tank, called the new measures “woefully insufficient given the severe effects on civilians . . . since the resumption of air strikes and overall fighting”.
The Israeli military says Hamas embeds itself in heavily populated areas, but insists it is trying to avoid civilian casualties.
It does this from a military base in Be’er-Sheva, 40km from Gaza, where Israeli soldiers and reservists process information on population movements inside the enclave using data from mobile phone, radio and television signals, as well as open-source information from local Telegram groups.
This helps generate a coloured map showing the projected population density of Gaza’s residential areas. Thes fast-changing map is then used by the IDF to issue evacuation orders to civilians, according to Israeli officials.
Richard Hecht, IDF spokesperson, told journalists on Monday that the way “we’re going to operate [in southern Gaza] is going to be probably a bit different . . . We need the time to defeat Hamas, and if we don’t make sure we make these efforts in the humanitarian sphere, in minimising the deaths of civilians, we may lose our legitimacy.”
Localised evacuations have been introduced in southern Gaza since the collapse of a week-long Israel-Hamas truce on Friday, whereas in northern Gaza civilians were given a sweeping order to leave.
“Currently our operations are much more precise,” said a senior IDF official. “The efforts of evacuation are much more precise [and] we’re taking much more time to make sure the efforts are effective.”
A block map sent to civilians by the Israeli military is supposed to help them move to areas deemed safer by the IDF, in addition to evacuation warnings delivered by leaflets, phone calls and messages.
But with many civilians unable to access the internet, aid workers have questioned whether people can view the IDF’s online map.
The approach to evacuations is unusual, some experts say. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen an attempt to issue an evacuation order of this granularity and complexity in a highly dynamic military and kinetic environment,” said Hardin Lang, vice-president at Refugees International, a non-governmental organisation, and a former UN official.
UN officials have disputed the notion that anywhere in the strip is protected, given that Israeli strikes have hit hospitals, schools and shelters. “There is no safe place in Gaza,” UN human rights chief Volker Türk said on Sunday.
A senior IDF official said: “I won’t tell you we’re not doing mistakes. This is part of the challenge of war.”
Gaza residents say Israeli evacuation warnings are often issued at very short notice.
Hossam Fatehi, a father of five displaced to near the city of Khan Younis in the south of the enclave, said he and his family scarcely had time to flee a tower block after a warning — which came from screaming residents contacted by the IDF — before bombing started.
“We heard the sound of breaking glass and shrapnel,” he said. “I was looking around and behind me to check if one of us was killed or injured. I didn’t think we would survive.”
Gaza civil defence said about 20 Israeli strikes destroyed six towers in the development where Fatehi and his family, including his elderly mother, had been staying with relatives.
After escaping the strikes, Fatehi and his group could not find a car to take them someplace safer. “We went back to one of the towers and spent the night below the stairs”.
“We heard nothing except the sound of bombing and the children and women crying, even we men,” said Fatehi.
After a long journey on foot, donkey cart and car, relatives could not accommodate the Fatehi family. Displaced for a second time, they squeezed into one of the UN schools where aid officials say they are unable to provide adequate care for all the arrivals.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the war that was triggered by Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, when militants killed 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.
Israeli officials’ estimates of how many people have been killed in the enclave since the war began appear to be in line with figures issued by the Hamas-run Gaza health authority, which says more than 15,800 have died.
But the Israeli officials say that a third of those deaths — more than 5,000 — were militant combatants, resulting in a ratio of two civilians killed for every fighter.
Gaza health officials do not distinguish between combatants and civilians but say about 70 per cent of the dead and wounded are women and children.
Israel’s western allies have denounced the toll on ordinary Gazans as excessive, with US vice-president Kamala Harris insisting over the weekend that “Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians”.
Ponzio said continuing civilian casualties in Gaza would heighten the pressure on Washington to rein in Israel. The death toll “steps up the pressure on the Biden administration to take more serious action to pressure Israel back to the negotiating table”, he said.
In Rafah’s main square, which is crowded with displaced people, Mohammad Tamraz asked passers-by if they knew of a school with space for his family, including his father in a wheelchair.
The 32-year-old said they had first evacuated from the north to the middle of Gaza, fled bombardment there, then headed to Khan Younis only to be told by the IDF that they had to leave for Rafah. “Where will we end up?” Tamraz said. “Sinai?”
“They say the army has published a map divided into blocks,” said Tamraz. “Have they lost their minds? How will we see the map? There is no electricity and no communications.”
“This is the farthest we can reach,” he said. “Rafah’s turn will come”.
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo and Neri Zilber in Tel Aviv