Analysis. Israel’s mass evacuation order was a legalistic sham designed to organize violence against the Palestinian population and wrap it in an obfuscating narrative of adhering to humanitarian law.

From Srebrenica to Gaza, ‘safe zones’ give legal cover to ethnic cleansing

“This evacuation is for your own safety,” the Israeli army claimed on October 13, when it ordered 1.1 million Palestinians in northern Gaza to leave their homes. Many thousands heeded the warning and headed south, only to be bombed along the way and when they got there.

The mass evacuation order was only the start of a series of legal announcements and contrivances developed by the Israeli military and its legal team to organize violence against the Palestinian population and wrap it in an obfuscating narrative which claims they are taking precautions according to international humanitarian law.

In November, shortly after launching the ground offensive, the Israeli army designated Gaza’s main north-south route, Salah al-Din Street, as a “safe corridor.” The occupation forces published a map with the evacuation route, stressing their “humanitarian effort” to protect civilians.

However, since then, Gaza’s main thoroughfare has become a corridor of horror on which Palestinians have been randomly bombed, executed, forcibly disappeared, tortured and humiliated. Meanwhile, the Israeli army continued bombing the territory south of Wadi Gaza, which it had repeatedly declared a “safe zone” where Palestinians in the north could seek safety.

When the death toll of the war reached 15,000 Palestinians in late November, many of whom were civilians killed in the “safe zones,” the U.S. administration tried to conceal its support for Israel’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians with a perfunctory call to “expand” the so-called safe zones. The Israeli military responded by introducing a new “humanitarian tool”: the evacuation grid system. It posted on social media a grid map that divided the Gaza Strip into 600 blocks and indicated which areas are to be “evacuated” and which are supposedly “safe.”

Instead of making more safe areas available for civilians, the system – deployed while Gaza was cut off from all communication by the Israeli army – only increased the level of chaos and death.

Areas previously designated as safe, such as Khan Yunis and Rafah, have been turned into urban battlefields. As a result, Israel has ordered Palestinian civilians in these areas to leave for new safe areas. But the areas where the evacuation grid system told Palestinians to flee were immediately targeted by the Israeli army.

In December, a New York Times investigation revealed that in 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 U.S.-made bombs being dropped in safe zones “posed a pervasive threat to civilians seeking safety across south Gaza.”

Nevertheless, the Biden administration has repeatedly praised Israel for its supposed “efforts” to protect civilians. Under international law, both the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols, safe zones must be recognized through an agreement between the warring parties. However, this rarely happens in conflicts, and safe zones – and the legal tools associated with them – can become tools for organizing violence. The concentration of unarmed civilians in areas designated and drawn on a map as “safe” can be used and exploited by actors on the battlefield to manage and direct their use of lethal force.

This happened in Bosnia with the infamous Srebrenica “safe zone.” The area had been established by the United Nations in 1993 to protect Bosnian Muslims under attack, but the disarmament of the safe zone turned it into easy prey for Serb forces. The latter first obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to the area, then rounded up and massacred thousands of Muslim civilians.

Safe zones also became deadly in Sri Lanka, where the government forcibly set up Tamil “safe zones” in which it killed thousands of civilians, blaming the Tamil Tigers for allegedly using the refugees concentrated in the safe zones as “human shields.”

Similarly, in Gaza Israel is unilaterally dictating what and where is supposedly “safe” for Palestinian civilians. In this way, it is exploiting the discourse of safety and the legal tools associated with it – 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” or “unsafe.”

Areas or parts of territories designated as “safe” serve to concentrate the displaced population and better manage both military operations and the killing of civilians. As a poignant Reuters headline puts it, “Israel orders Gazans to flee, bombs where it sends them.”

In other words, by enacting evacuation orders and depopulating large areas of the Gaza territory, Israel concentrated the ethnically cleansed population into ever smaller areas, which it then targeted soon after designating them as “safe areas.” This shows a clear intent to eliminate Palestinian civilians after displacing them, and may become a tool to make extermination more efficient. In overpopulated areas like Rafah, with extremely high population density due to the influx of displaced people from northern and central Gaza, a single attack can kill a large number of people at once.

Beside serving a clear military purpose, this necro-political hijacking of the humanitarian obligation to issue warnings and create safe spaces for civilians is also part of Israel’s legal strategy to defend itself against the charges of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

With the recent legal complaint alleging genocide filed by the Republic of South Africa with the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of acts “intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group,” the Israeli government is under increasing urgency to try to present itself as complying with international law.

Israel has always tried to give a veneer of legality to its 75 years of ethnic cleansing and expropriation. But this time, the genocidal force of annihilation it has unleashed has reached such an unprecedented scale – putting 2.3 million people at real risk of death – that its legal discourse around the notion of ensuring safety is unable to disguise its complete disregard for the fact that the people of Gaza are civilians.

Nicola Perugini is lecturer in international relations at the University of Edinburgh.

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