IDF: Gaza resident says Hamas preventing evacuations; thousands return north

Army intelligence officer speaks with Gazan, urging him to head to south of Palestinian enclave, but man says terror group is blocking roads

A Palestinian man watches as others inspect the damage to destroyed houses after Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City,  in the northern Gaza Strip, October 24, 2023. (Abed Khaled/AP)
A Palestinian man watches as others inspect the damage to destroyed houses after Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, October 24, 2023. (Abed Khaled/AP)

Israel released audio of what it said was a Gazan man telling an IDF officer that Hamas is blocking people from fleeing the northern Gaza Strip, as strikes on the Palestinian enclave continued to intensify, with a UN official saying that nowhere in the Strip was safe.

Some 350,000 Palestinians are still in northern Gaza, according to Israeli estimates, and tens of thousands who evacuated have since returned, the UN says. Military officials have repeatedly exhorted Palestinians to move south as it prepares for a ground incursion to topple Hamas following the terror group’s slaughter of some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, in southern Israel earlier this month.

In audio published by the Israel Defense Forces Thursday, an IDF officer can be heard calling on a man to head toward Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

The man replies that Hamas is placing roadblocks with cars, and “just sending people back home.”

The Gazan also says that Hamas members are shooting at Palestinians attempting to leave the area.

The recording was made by a soldier in the Military Intelligence Directorate’s Unit 504, which has been calling up Palestinians in northern Gaza in recent days, instructing them to leave the area for their safety.

Palestinians walk by buildings destroyed in the Israeli bombardment on al-Zahra, on the outskirts of Gaza City, October 20, 2023. Ali Mahmoud/AP)

“The Hamas terror group continues to use the residents of Gaza as human shields and prevent them from evacuating to the south, as we saw in the past, by placing barriers that the terror group set up,” the IDF said in a statement.

The IDF has accused Hamas of preventing Palestinians from evacuating south several times since the war began on October 7, but the recording was its first attempt to present proof.

Gazans say the south is also being bombarded by Israeli airstrikes and point to overcrowded shelters and other dire conditions, including shortages of clean water and food.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that I should leave my home to go and get killed in a tent in the south of Gaza,” said Mahmoud Shalabi, who works for Medical Aid for Palestinians, a UK-based charity providing health services.

Israel has been bombarding the Strip since October 7, when some 2,500 terrorists led by Hamas burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air, and sea, killing some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and seizing at least 228 hostages of all ages, under the cover of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

Israeli military officials have said they are determined to crush Hamas and the focus will be on the north, including Gaza City, where Israel says key Hamas assets, tunnels and bunkers are located. The IDF says it is making efforts to prevent civilian casualties, including evacuation instructions.

People watch as smoke and dust ascend following an Israeli bombardment, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 26, 2023. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

International rights groups have sharply criticized the Israeli evacuation orders, saying they cannot be considered effective warning to civilians, under the rules of international law, because of a lack of realistic options for those fleeing.

“When the evacuation routes are bombed, when people north as well as south are caught up in hostilities, when the essentials for survival are lacking, and when there are no assurances for return, people are left with nothing but impossible choices,” said Lynn Hastings, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories. “Nowhere is safe in Gaza.”

But writing on the Articles of War website on October 15, Michael Schmitt, a professor of Public International Law at the University of Reading and a scholar at the US Military Academy at West Point, took issue with this.

It was “bewildering,” he said, “that humanitarian organizations are not encouraging the civilian population to move away from what will be a destructive and deadly urban battle.”

More than 1.4 million Gaza residents are now displaced across the narrow Strip, out of a population of 2.3 million, and UN shelters are packed at triple their capacity, UN agencies say.

Services in the north have deteriorated since Israel’s evacuation order prompted at least 700,000 Palestinians to flee south. Most homes have no electricity, water or fuel.

Still, some Palestinians are choosing to return north, tired of moving from place to place under Israeli fire as shelters become overcrowded and unlivable. UN monitors estimate 30,000 have returned.

Ekhlas Ahmed, 24 and eight months pregnant, was among them.

A week ago, she fled Gaza City after repeated Israeli warnings to move south. She returned after the home she was sheltering in along with 14 other family members in the south was hit by an Israeli airstrike.

“It was a residential building and they bombed it,” she said.

Ahmed, who has a 4-year-old son, is hoping for a ceasefire.

“I am very frightened. All of us are frightened,” she said.

Rockets are fired toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, October 23, 2023. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has said that more than 6,500 people in Gaza have been killed since the start of the war. The numbers cannot be verified and include those killed in a blast at a hospital, which Hamas blamed on Israel, but which Israel proved evidence to show was caused by an Islamic Jihad rocket, aimed at Israel, falling on the hospital parking lot. The US and several Western governments have endorsed Israel’s version of the incident.

Israel says more than 550 rockets fired by terror groups at Israel have landed inside the Strip since the war began. Meanwhile, continued barrages of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza and allied Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah have displaced over 200,000 Israelis, the military says.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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