The evacuation order, which includes Gaza City, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, sparked widespread panic among civilians and aid workers already running from Israeli airstrikes and contending with a total siege and a territory-wide blackout.
“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,” said Nebal Farsakh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza City, as she broke into heaving sobs.
U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said it would be impossible to stage such an evacuation without “devastating humanitarian consequences.” He called on Israel to rescind any such orders, saying they could “transform what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation.”
Hamas, which staged a shocking and brutal attack on Israel nearly a week ago and has fired thousands of rockets since, dismissed it as a ploy and called on people to stay in their homes, saying Israel “is trying to create confusion among citizens and harm the cohesion of our internal front.” It called on Palestinians to ignore what it said was ”psychological warfare.”
Israel said it needed to target Hamas’ military infrastructure, much of which is buried deep underground. Another Israeli spokesperson, Jonathan Conricus, said the military would make “extensive efforts to avoid harming civilians” and that residents would be allowed to return when the war is over.
Hamas militants operate in civilian areas, where Israel has long accused them of using Palestinians as human shields. A mass evacuation of civilians, if carried out, would leave their fighters exposed as never before.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said it was not possible to evacuate the many wounded from hospitals, and that hospital staff would not heed the warning.
“We have a duty and a humanitarian mission, and we cannot evacuate hospitals and leave the wounded and sick to die,” spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said. In the event of severe Israeli strikes, he said there was simply no other place in the Gaza Strip to take and treat patients.
The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, also said it was not evacuating its schools, where hundreds of thousands have taken shelter. But it has relocated its headquarters to southern Gaza, according to spokesperson Juliette Touma.
Yasser Hassouna, an activist in Gaza City, said “everyone panicked” when they saw the U.N. staff leaving. “Hamas said it was psychological warfare, and we know there has been a lot of that. No one knows what is real and what is fake news right now.”
Farsakh, of the Palestinian Red Crescent, said there was no way so many people could be safely moved — especially those with ailments.
“What will happen to our patients?” she asked. “We have wounded, we have elderly, we have children who are in hospitals,” Farsakh said many of the medics were refusing to evacuate hospitals and abandon patients. Instead, she said, they called their colleagues to say goodbye.
Pressed by reporters on whether the army would protect hospitals, U.N. shelters and other civilian locations, Hagari, the Israeli military spokesperson, warned that “it’s a war zone.”
He added: “If Hamas prevents residents from evacuating, the responsibility lies with them.”