Israel said Monday it was not seeking to force Palestinian civilians to permanently leave their homes in Gaza, after the UN expressed alarm at hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being forced to evacuate areas across the territory.
Any suggestion of Palestinian dispersal is highly contentious in the Arab world as the war that led to Israel’s creation 75 years ago gave rise to the exodus or forced displacement of 760,000 Palestinians, an event known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”.
Israel declared war on Hamas, which rules Gaza, after its October 7 attacks.
With the health ministry in the Palestinian territory reporting a death toll of more than 15,500 people, the impact of Israel’s relentless bombardment and ground offensive has sparked growing international concern.
Since the collapse last week of a truce that allowed for the release of dozens of Israeli and other hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, Israel has expanded its offensive in Gaza.
In its latest estimate, OCHA said around 1.8 million people in Gaza, roughly 75 percent of the population, had been displaced, many to overcrowded and unsanitary shelters.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said: “We are not trying to displace anyone, we are not trying to move anybody from anywhere permanently.
“We have asked civilians to evacuate the battlefield and we have provided a designated humanitarian zone inside the Gaza Strip,” he said, referring to a tiny coastal area of the territory named Al-Mawasi, as he acknowledged the situation in Gaza was “tough”.
“We are perfectly aware that there is limited space and limited access and that is why it is so important to have the buy-in and support of international humanitarian organizations to help with the infrastructure in the Al-Mawasi area,” he added.
‘No safe place’
As Israel expanded its operations, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk at the weekend voiced alarm that hundreds of thousands of Gazans were “being confined into ever smaller areas” in the south of the territory.
“There is no safe place in Gaza,” he said.
Earlier in the war, Israel’s neighbor and treaty partner Jordan expressed concern that the violence might trigger a wave of displacement spilling into its borders.
Likewise Egypt – which shares a border with Gaza and also signed a peace deal with Israel – has rejected the idea of a mass movement of Palestinians into its territory.
“We have not tried to have any people evacuate there,” Conricus said, referring to Egypt.
“Egypt has been very clear about where they stand: they do not want that.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that “people should be able to stay in Gaza, their home”.
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