“This evacuation is for your own safety,” the Israeli military declared on October 13, when it ordered 1.1 million Palestinians in northern Gaza to leave their homes. Thousands heeded the warning and headed south, only to be bombed along the way and upon arrival.
The massive evacuation order was only the inauguration of an array of announcements and legal technologies developed by the Israeli military and its legal team in order to organise the violence against the Palestinian population and shroud it in an obfuscating narrative of international humanitarian law precautions.
Israel’s deadly ‘humanitarian efforts’
In November, shortly after the Israeli army launched its ground offensive, it designated Gaza’s main north-south route – Salah al-Din Street – as a “safe corridor”. A map with the evacuation passage was shared by the occupation forces, underscoring their “humanitarian effort” to protect civilians. But since then, Gaza’s main road artery has become a corridor of horror where Palestinians have been randomly bombed, executed, forcibly disappeared, tortured and humiliated.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army continued to bombard the territory south of Wadi Gaza which it had repeatedly declared a “safe area” where Palestinians from the north could seek safety.
When at the end of November, the death toll of the war reached 15,000 Palestinians, many of whom were civilians killed in the “safe zones”, the United States administration tried to conceal its support for Israel’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians with a cosmetic request to “expand” the so-called safe areas. So the Israeli army responded by introducing a new “humanitarian tool”: the evacuation grid system. It published on social media a grid map dividing the Gaza Strip into 600 blocks and indicating which areas were supposed to be “evacuated” and which were “safe”.
Instead of increasing the areas of safety for civilians, the system – deployed while Gaza was cut off from all forms of communication by the Israeli military – increased the level of chaos and death.
Areas previously designated as safe like Khan Younis and Rafah were transformed into urban battlegrounds. As a result, Israel ordered Palestinian civilians in these areas to leave again to new safe zones. But the areas where the evacuation grid system told the Palestinians to flee to were immediately targeted by the Israeli military.
In December, a New York Times investigation revealed that during the first month and a half of the war, Israel “routinely used one of its biggest and most destructive bombs in areas it designated safe for civilians”. The 2,000-pound United States-made bombs dropped in the safe zones posed “a pervasive threat to civilians seeking safety across south Gaza”.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration has repeatedly commended Israel for its “efforts” to protect civilians.
Organising genocidal violence
According to international law, both in the Geneva Conventions and in the Additional Protocols, safe zones must be recognised in an agreement between the fighting parties. However, in conflicts, this rarely happens and safe zones – and the legal technologies associated with them – can become tools for the organisation of violence.
The concentration of defenceless civilians in areas designated and delimited on a map as protected, can be used and exploited by the actors on the battlefield to manage and direct their use of lethal force.
This was the case in Bosnia, with the infamous Srebrenica “safe zone”. The area was instituted by the United Nations in 1993 in order to protect Bosnian Muslims under attack, but the disarmament of the safe zone transformed it into easy prey for Serb forces. They first obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to the area and then rounded up and massacred thousands of Muslim civilians.
Safe areas became lethal also in the case of Sri Lanka, where the government imposed the creation of Tamil safety zones in which it killed thousands of civilians, while blaming the Tamil Tigers for allegedly using the refugees concentrated in the safe zones as “human shields”.
Similarly, in Gaza, Israel is imposing unilaterally what and where is “safe” for Palestinian civilians. In doing so, it is deploying the discourse of safety and its associated legal technologies – warnings, safe zones, safe corridors, evacuation grids – as a lethal tool to implement the ethnic cleansing of different areas of the territory designated as safe/unsafe.
Areas or parts of the territories defined as safe serve to concentrate the displaced population and better manage the military operations and the killing of civilians. As one poignant Reuters headline put it: “Israel orders Gazans to flee, bombs where it sends them”.
In other words, by putting under evacuation order and depopulating vast swaths of Gaza’s territory, Israel has been concentrating the ethnically cleansed population into shrinking zones which it targets immediately after they are designated as “safe areas”. This shows a clear intent to liquidate Palestinian civilians after displacing them, and can become a tool for making extermination more efficient.
In overpopulated areas like Rafah with an extremely high population density due to the influx of displaced people from northern and central Gaza, one single attack can kill a large number of people at once.
Apart from serving a clear military purpose, this necropolitical appropriation of the humanitarian duty to warn and create safe spaces for civilians is also part of Israel’s legal strategy to defend itself from the accusation of having committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
With the recent genocide application submitted by the Republic of South Africa to the International Court of Justice, which accuses Israel of acts “intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group”, there is heightened urgency for the Israeli government to try to present itself as abiding by international law.
Israel has always tried to provide its 75 years of ethnic cleansing and dispossession with a semblance of legality. But this time the genocidal force of annihilation it has unleashed has reached such an unprecedented scale – putting 2.3 million people at concrete risk of death – that its legal discourse of safety cannot camouflage its complete disregard for the civilian status of the population in Gaza.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.