The looming human catastrophe of Israel's war in southern Gaza
Following a week-long ceasefire in Gaza, Israel resumed its military campaign on 1 December, killing 700 Palestinians in just 24 hours.
The long-anticipated second phase of Israel’s war saw a ground invasion of south Gaza begin over the weekend, with dozens of Israeli tanks, together with armoured personnel carriers and bulldozers, entering the southern besieged enclave on Monday as the operation expanded.
As fighting persists in the areas previously occupied by Israel, their strategy for civilian relocation has involved dropping leaflets, issuing phone calls, and radio and TV broadcasts instructing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents further south, with nearly the entire population of two million people now concentrated there.
During this phase of Israel’s war, it will be virtually impossible to minimise civilian deaths, with the ground invasion of the south, backed by aerial and naval forces, raising huge humanitarian concerns.
"The genocide will persist, and it will become more severe, inhumane, and bloodier"
The restricted movement of Palestinians in south Gaza is bound to exacerbate the plight of civilians already grappling with a lack of basic needs and persistent insecurity about where to seek refuge.
The common refrains heard from Palestinians in Gaza since the war began that 'nowhere is safe' and 'where should I go?' will only be amplified as Israel invades the south.
Azzam Shaat, a Palestinian political analyst, told The New Arab that relocating Israel’s military operation to southern Gaza will incur significant costs, resulting in a humanitarian catastrophe.
"All of these people lack the most basic necessities of life, just as they lack the appropriate protection that could protect them from the scourge of the Israeli attack by air and land with the deterioration of the economic and social conditions witnessed by the Gaza Strip over nearly 16 years of the Israeli siege," he said.
Ammar Dwaik, the general director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, a Palestinian rights institution, told The New Arab that Palestinians in the southern part of Gaza are grappling with a severe humanitarian crisis.
This includes overcrowded conditions in schools serving as shelters, along with shortages in food supplies, electricity, fuel, and water.
"The current situation is catastrophic, and another wave of displacement could result in further catastrophes, potentially leading to mass Palestinian casualties due to diseases, starvation, or other causes," he said.
The need for aid to reach Gaza is critical, with the 130 trucks that entered Gaza during the ceasefire now having decreased considerably. Before the war began, nearly 400-500 aid trucks entered Gaza daily delivering a variety of goods.
Israel imposed a total blockade on Gaza following Hamas’ attack, preventing food, fuel, and medicines from entering the besieged enclave.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the average current water consumption in Gaza is just three litres per person. The global body sets a minimum requirement of daily water needs at 100 litres per person for drinking, washing, cooking and bathing.
At the end of November, the United Nations said Gazans faced the “immediate possibility” of starvation amid Israel’s looming military operations in the south.
Dwaik highlighted that the dire health situation in Gaza could see the spread of diseases like hepatitis and dehydration. The challenge lies in providing adequate health services given the widespread destruction of schools and hospitals, he added.
Last week, WHO said more people could die from disease than from Israeli bombing “if we are not able to put back [together] this health system and provide the basics of life: food, water, medicines and of course fuel to operate the hospitals”.
"Israel is done with north Gaza. Why not let people return? Because they haven't finished in the north. Their ultimate goal involves exerting heavy pressure, bombardment, and causing casualties to push people further south toward Egypt"
The 'safe zone' of al-Mawasi
Israel has suggested relocating most of Gaza’s two million people to a ‘safe zone’ in the desolated southern area of al-Mawasi, which is 1km wide and 14km long.
Some Gazans have started moving there already, but experts interviewed by The New Arab unanimously said the plan is unfeasible and unacceptable. Journalists who visited the area on Monday said there was “no aid, no food kitchens, and no help” there.
"This is unacceptable from a human rights and Palestinian national perspective, as UN chief agencies have noted it poses threats to Palestinian lives. It involves forced displacement, and Palestinians in Gaza will not accept it," Dwaik said.
Raji Sourani, a Palestinian lawyer based in Gaza and Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), told The New Arab that renewed fighting in Gaza will intensify the conflict, with a significant humanitarian impact.
"The genocide will persist, and it will become more severe, inhumane, and bloodier," he said.
From a military standpoint, Shaat explained that the Hamas-Israel truce served as a brief respite, allowing both sides to revise their plans for the upcoming phase of the conflict in southern Gaza.
"In my opinion, the Hamas movement, whose political and military power is concentrated in the south of the Gaza Strip, especially in Khan Younis, has prepared itself to confront the Israeli forces that may penetrate land into the cities of the south of the Gaza Strip,” he told TNA.
“One of the indicators of this readiness was that Hamas twice confronted Israeli military vehicles that attempted to invade the border area east of Khan Younis."
Israel's invasion of southern Gaza is likely to also have an impact on Egypt, and there is concern that it could force an exodus of refugees, a scenario that Cairo aims to avoid at all costs.
Sourani explained that Egypt holds a "first-class position" as it is unwilling to facilitate Israel's mission of creating a new Nakba. He expressed hope that Egypt would continue to stand firmly to prevent it from happening.
"Israel is done with the north Gaza. Why not let people return? Because they haven't finished in the north. Their ultimate goal involves exerting heavy pressure, bombardment, and causing casualties to push people further south toward Egypt,” he said.
“The plan is to create a new Nakba in Gaza and then extend the mission to the West Bank and Jerusalem, completing it within a few days. This is Nakba stage two, their overarching goal."
In the event of an Israeli ground incursion in southern Gaza, Dwaik explained that Palestinians face two difficult choices: staying in Gaza or being ethnically cleansed by being forcibly displaced to Egypt.
"This is Nakba stage two, their overarching goal"
"The situation would be apocalyptic, akin to a genocide for those staying or attempting to go to Egypt," he said.
Shaat believes the Israeli plan for southern Gaza aims not only to end Hamas's control but also to eliminate the Palestinian issue, the two-state solution principle, and the potential geographical connection between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"Israel believes that this plan can only be achieved by displacing the population of the Gaza Strip towards the Egyptian state. Egypt has been aware of this plan and has been diplomatically active since 7th October, ensuring the preservation of its national security and the establishment of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on their land,” Shaat said.
“However, if Israel employs its military power against the Palestinians in the south of the Strip, the border area with Egypt may witness the flight and asylum of large numbers of Palestinians.”
Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.
Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi