Israel’s order for 1.1 million civilians in the Gaza Strip to relocate from the north to the south has created an atmosphere of confusion and fear in the besieged enclave on the seventh day of Israel’s bombardment.
The directive came on Friday as Israel is expected to launch a ground invasion of the densely populated territory following last week’s unprecedented attack carried out on southern Israel by Hamas, the armed group that rules Gaza.
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United Nations officials in Gaza “were informed by their liaison officers in the Israeli military that the entire population of Gaza north of Wadi Gaza should relocate to southern Gaza within the next 24 hours,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
In response, the Hamas Authority for Refugee Affairs told residents in the north to “remain steadfast in your homes and to stand firm in the face of this disgusting psychological war waged by the occupation”.
An Al Jazeera reporter in Gaza City saw residents packing up whatever belongings they could as they began evacuating towards the south in cars, vans and any other vehicle that was available. Some without access to vehicles were seen moving on foot, while others were standing by the roadside waiting for a potential ride.
People were calling each other to ask about which route to take and which to avoid, as well as to find out about the damage caused to roads by Israel’s air raids.
In northern Gaza, residents early on Friday morning said the streets were empty as people stayed inside their homes trying to decide what to do next following Israel’s evacuation orders, the AP news agency reported.
There were no cars on the road except for ambulances. Because of the internet outages and collapse of phone networks, Palestinians said information was scant and most still had not heard direct orders from the army to evacuate.
“Until now, people believe this is a kind of psychological war, they don’t want to believe it,” Al Jazeera’s Safwat al-Kahlout, reporting from northern Gaza, said in the early hours of Friday.
“Many are asking, is this true, is it a nightmare, or what?”
Al-Kahlout said there were no preparations in place for such a mass movement in a territory already devastated by 16 years of a crippling blockade.
“In practical terms, 1.1 million people – they don’t have enough facilities to move, how can they move? Donkeys? They don’t have enough donkeys. Cars? There are not enough cars. There is no fuel for vehicles to move for seven days now,” al-Kahlout said, adding that the situation reminded people of the 1948 catastrophe – the mass exodus of at least 750,000 Arabs from Palestine.
“Until last night people were looking for water to drink, now they are looking for how to leave and where to go,” al-Kahlout said.
“More than one million Palestinians are panicking, are confused, and they don’t have a plan, and they don’t understand what to do. Now my children are asking me, ‘Where should we go?’ I said, I don’t know.”
Inas Hamdan, an officer at the UN Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza City, described the situation to the AP as “chaos”.
“No one understands what to do,” said Hamdan, who grabbed whatever she could to throw into her bags amid the panic and shouting.
“Forget about food, forget about electricity, forget about fuel, the only concern now is just if you’ll make it, if you’re going to live,” Nebal Farsakh, spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza City said, breaking into heaving sobs.
She also said there was no way that 1.1 million people could be safely evacuated.
Farsakh said there were hospital patients who cannot be moved under current conditions and many of the medics were refusing to leave and abandon their patients.
Instead, she said, they called their colleagues to say goodbye.
Imad Abu Alaa, the UN Palestinian refugee agency officer in charge of shelters in northern Gaza, said there were simply too many people to evacuate at such short notice.
“What about UN shelters? We’re talking about civilians. Suddenly that doesn’t even matter?” he told AP.
Ian Parmeter, former Australian ambassador to Lebanon, told Al Jazeera that Israel “is under no illusions” that one million people can simply move within 24 hours.
“It’s simply warning that they’re coming in.”
In its statement to civilians in Gaza, the Israeli military said the evacuation was for their own “safety” as it planned to “operate significantly in Gaza City” in the coming days.
“You will be able to return to Gaza City only when another announcement permitting it is made. Do not approach the area of the security fence with the State of Israel,” it added in a statement.
But the head of Hamas’s political and international relations bureau, Basem Naim, told Al Jazeera that Palestinians had “two options: to defeat this occupation or to die in our homes”.
He added: “We are not going to leave. We are not ready to repeat the Nakba again.”
Additional reporting by Al Jazeera’s Maram Humaid in Gaza