Evacuating more than a million people from northern Gaza in less than 24 hours is “impossible” for a number of reasons, aid workers have told Sky News.
The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has ordered 1.1 million people currently north of the Wadi Gaza bridge to move south before it launches its response to Saturday’s incursion by Hamas.
Both the United Nations and the World Health Organisation have urgently called on Israel to revoke the order, warning it will result in a humanitarian disaster – whether people are able to move or not.
The journey from the northernmost point of the Gaza Strip, the Erez Crossing, to Wadi Gaza is 10.5 miles and would take around four hours on foot in good conditions.
The area being told to evacuate includes Gaza City, 11 hospitals, three UN compounds, and two refugee camps.
Although there are hospitals and refugee camps in the south, most of the surviving infrastructure is concentrated around Gaza City.
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With Gaza’s extremely high population density and decimated infrastructure, anyone making the journey would have to navigate airstrikes and areas turned to rubble with little to no food and water.
Ahmad Bostan, director of communications and marketing at Penny Appeal, which has worked in the Palestinian territories since 2014, says there are several reasons mass evacuation is virtually impossible.
The first is population density, he says, with up to 500 people per square kilometre in Gaza City.
“Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on the face of the Earth,” he tells Sky News.
“It’s very difficult to move around. We saw that with COVID – social distancing and the precautions we had here were virtually impossible there.”
Mathew Truscott, head of humanitarian policy at Oxfam International, was in Gaza during the 2014 war.
He says: “Gaza’s streets are absolutely flat. You’re climbing over rubble, buildings which have been bombed and threaten to fall on you at any moment. You’re walking through a war zone.”
People who have already lost their homes in airstrikes are also sleeping on the streets, creating even less space for people to move, he adds.
Image: Damage to the Islamic University in Gaza City after airstrikes Getting in a vehicle poses huge risks
With up to 80% of the population relying on humanitarian aid, the vast majority have no access to a vehicle.
And anyone who does risks being killed in an airstrike if they were to use one to evacuate.
“The infrastructure is at its worst for a long time,” Mr Bostan says. “And when someone gets in a vehicle they expose themselves to a huge amount of risk.”
Sky chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay adds: “I’ve been to Gaza more times than I can count, and when Israeli jets and warships bomb the city, it is absolutely terrifying.”
Mr Truscott also says that fuel supplies have been blocked for the last week, so hardly anyone is able to drive.
Image: Aftermath of airstrikes in southern Gaza Pregnant women, children and chronically ill unable to travel
Of the 1,537 Palestinians who have been killed since Saturday so far, at least 500 were children and more than 270 were women, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Some 6,000 are also wounded in hospitals that are at capacity or fast approaching it. They are also expected to run out of power and medical supplies in the coming days.
Israel says it has lost around 1,300 people in the attacks by Hamas.
Image: Child walks along among rubble in Gaza. Pic: AP In Gaza, the long-standing conflict means there are several groups who are incredibly vulnerable, living in abject poverty and unable to travel.
James Denselow, head of conflict and humanitarian advocacy at Save the Children UK, told Sky News that these include more than 50,000 pregnant women, 5,000 of whom are due to give birth in the next month.
“If you’re a child in a neonatal unit in a hospital in a part of Gaza being evacuated, what chance do you have?” he asked.
Image: A search for casualties in Khan Younis, southern Gaza According to the Physicians for Human Rights Israel, there are currently 1,100 patients on dialysis and 100 premature babies across hospitals in the evacuation area.
The disabled, elderly, orphans and women with children are also among those unable to leave.
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Although in ‘normal’ times, people would evacuate to UN schools or compounds, as they are designated safe zones, these have also come under fire in recent days, Mr Bostan says.
When a similar order was issued by Israeli forces during the 2014 war, the southern Rafah crossing into Egypt played a key part in allowing people to escape and for supplies to be moved in.
This time it remains closed.
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Evacuation ‘pretext for offensive’ Mr Truscott says that a genuine evacuation operation of this scale would take weeks – and require a ceasefire, reopening the borders and cooperation with NGOs like Oxfam.
But he says: “We can’t operate. There’s no way for humanitarian agencies to meet the needs of the challenges we’re facing every day.
“It’s an extraordinary feat even if it were possible – getting them to a place of safety where there’s food and water waiting for them, but there’s nothing.
“You’re taking a million people and moving them – not to open space where you can put down tents and emergency shelters – but to an area where there’s another million people.”
And for those able to move, many are apprehensive and are unlikely to try anyway.
“This is a place with a 50-year history of displacement and never being allowed to return home – so there’s a lot of fear,” he says.
“There’s people concerned that being moved to the south means being bombed there.”
Ramsay, who is currently in Israel, adds: “When people are asked to move, it’s hard to imagine how they can even do it – many don’t have the ability or resources, and even if they do, when will they return?
“And many will be asking, what will I return to?”