U.N. warns Israel’s Gaza evacuation could breach international law

JERUSALEM — Israel’s siege of Gaza and call for an evacuation of more than 1.1 million civilians ahead of an expected ground invasion could amount to the forcible transfer of civilians — a breach of international law — the United Nations human rights office said Tuesday.

The pronouncement came as President Biden was due to visit Israel on Wednesday in a show of support for President Benjamin Netanyahu’s government during the country’s worst crisis for decades. Israel is a nation reeling from an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants on dozens of border communities, killing at least 1,400 people and taking more than 200 back to Gaza as hostages — there are few citizens now who do not know at least one person whose life was shattered that day.

In response, the Israeli government has throttled Gaza, a 25-mile long enclave home to 2 million people under the Hamas control, sealing it off from aid deliveries amid blistering airstrikes and a looming ground offensive aimed at ending Hamas rule in the territory for good. On Tuesday, Palestinian officials put the death toll at 2,778. Almost 10,000 people have been wounded and the health system is close to collapse as dwindling fuel supplies threaten a total blackout.

The conflict also still risks reactivating regional fronts where Iran, Israel’s archenemy has other allied forces. Four fighters from the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah were killed Tuesday as clashes flared along the border, in some of the worst exchanges of fire since the conflict began 10 days ago.

Ahead of its planned offensive, Israel warned the residents of northern Gaza to leave their homes and travel south, saying that fighting against Hamas militants, who have built an extensive tunnel network under civilian homes, will intensify there in the coming days.

Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman in Geneva, said that Israel had a duty “as the occupying power” to ensure that evacuees had access to food, clean water and other basic necessities — a reality made impossible by the closure of the territory’s border crossings, and the scale of the ongoing fighting.

Aid convoys are waiting at the entrance into Gaza from Rafah on the Egyptian border, but days of negotiations with Israel to allow them in have been unsuccessful.

“There appears to have been no attempt by Israel to ensure this for the 1.1 million civilians ordered to move,” Shamdasani said. “We are concerned that this order combined with the imposition of a ‘complete siege’ on Gaza may not be considered as lawful temporary evacuation and would therefore amount to a forcible transfer of civilians — in breach of international law.”

The term “forcible transfer” describes the forced relocation of civilian populations, a crime against humanity punishable by the International Criminal Court. During Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip this week around the region, several Arab leaders expressed concern about the possible permanent transfer of Palestinians out of Gaza. Many Palestinian families in Gaza are already displaced from land which the United Nations voted to partition as the state of Israel in 1948.

Islam Dhair, a father of four who lives in Rafah, said that he knew people who were waiting for a chance to cross into Egypt, but that he worried that they would not be able to return.

“We fear that Gaza will cease to exist if we leave,” he said. He was staying in Gaza. Other families who had chosen to stay in the enclave’s north expressed similar fears that if they abandon their houses, they would lose everything.

At a briefing early Tuesday, a reporter asked Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesman, what the army would do if Hamas militants posed as civilians to evacuate south ahead of Israel’s anticipated ground assault.

“We are not going to target civilians. That’s the only clear thing I can say,” he said. “I think that the more time goes by, people understand that this is the best option if they want to preserve their safety,” added, accusing Hamas of hindering civilians from evacuating and using them as “human shields.”

Hamas has dismissed the Israeli order as “psychological war” and told citizens instead to stay.

Conricus also said that Israel had evacuated its own citizens from 20 communities in northern Israel “to have civilians out of the battlefield.” There have been a steadily increasing number of exchanges of fire on the Lebanon border, raising fears that the fighting could spread. On the same day the four Hezbollah members were killed, the IDF reported that three soldiers and a civilian were injured by antitank rockets fired across the border.

Blinken has shuttled between Israel and major Middle Eastern capitals this week, trying to negotiate a pause in the fighting that would allow foreign nationals to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing and let in the badly needed humanitarian aid.

Hundreds of people gathered Monday on the Palestinian side of the crossing, but found hopes of a brief opening there dashed for the second time in three days.

Shamdasani said that the United Nations had also received “appalling reports” that civilians attempting to relocate to southern Gaza were struck and killed by an explosive weapon, and called for a thorough, independent investigation of the incident.

U.S. officials waited to announce Biden’s travel to Israel until they received commitments from Netanyahu on a humanitarian package Monday night, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about private deliberations. No further details were announced.

During a 7½-hour meeting, Israeli and U.S. officials set up separate rooms and passed papers between the two sides, negotiating over humanitarian issues that included getting aid into Gaza and creating safe zones for Palestinian civilians, a State Department official said.

The Israel Defense Forces said Tuesday that its fighter jets had struck operational command centers, military infrastructure with operatives within and hideouts belonging to the Hamas terrorist organization in Zeitoun and Jabalya in the north of the Gaza Strip, and northern Rafah and Khan Younis in the south, and that it was continuing to strike “terror targets” — many of these outside northern Gaza.

Hamas announced on Tuesday that one of its top military commanders, Ayman Nofal, was killed in an Israeli strike, one of many commanders of the group that have been targeted.

Gaza’s Interior Ministry said that around 80 people were been killed in the strikes, while dozens of others were injured. The siege has impacted the ability of rescue workers to conduct even basic search and rescue operations. Excavating equipment is in short supply and there is little fuel left to power them anyway.

On Tuesday, local authorities urged citizens to donate what fuel they had left to the Health Ministry, in order to keep the hospital generators on and save lives.

Dhair, the Rafah resident, said his life in Gaza had been punctuated by cycles of conflict, he said, “but nothing like this.” Food and stocks were running low in his neighborhood as thousands of residents arrived from the north.

With the war now in its second week, the scale of Israel’s bombing campaign against Hamas was overwhelming attempts to safe lives.

Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza City, was forced to start burying unclaimed bodies in a mass grave this week. One of the reasons they were not being identified, doctors their said, was that airstrikes were killing entire families, leaving no one behind to explain who they were.

Members of the civil defense say they are so overstretched they often can only work at a strike site long enough to recover the injured. “In the early days we used to spend more time [at each site] but currently it’s impossible,” said Mahmood Bassal, the civil defense spokesman in Gaza.

Teams spend all day sifting the rubble, leaving one site only when the call comes to direct them to another, with a better chance of finding survivors.

Hudson reported from Amman, Jordan. Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo and Kelly Kasulis Cho in Seoul contributed to this report.

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