“Make sure and tell everyone. Because in five minutes we will strike the target,” says the voice on the line.
Israel’s military has been calling and texting residents of the Gaza Strip for weeks, warning civilians of impending military strikes against Hamas targets. There have been leaflets, too, dropped by the thousands, urging residents of certain neighborhoods to flee.
“It is the intention of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] to carry out aerial strikes against terror sites and operatives in Shuja’iya and Zeitoun ... For your own safety, you are requested to vacate your residence immediately and head towards Gaza City,” read one recent example, provided by the IDF. “The evacuation is for your own safety. You should not return to the premises until further notice.”
"Gazans have no freedom of movement ... They are effectively trapped"
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling Israelis on Monday to be ready for a "prolonged" war, many more warnings to flee appear likely. Amid the beeps of SMS messages and voicemails, a mounting chorus of despair and criticism is crying out, raising a key and troubling question: flee to where?
The Gaza Strip - which at 139 square miles is slightly more than twice the size of Washington, D.C., according to the CIA World Factbook - is a densely populated enclave home to around 1.8 million Palestinians. While Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it continues to control and block the enclave’s maritime borders.
International charity MSF pointed to Monday's strike on Gaza City’s Shifa hospital - regardless of whether Israel or Hamas was behind it - as proof that civilians in Gaza have nowhere truly safe to go.
“When the Israeli army orders civilians to evacuate their houses and their neighborhoods, where is there for them to go?" Marie-Noëlle Rodrigue, MSF’s director of operations, said in a statement. "Gazans have no freedom of movement and cannot take refuge outside Gaza. They are effectively trapped."
Rodrique said the Israeli-Egypt blockade of Gaza’s sea and land borders makes bringing in staff and much-needed medical supplies “extremely difficult,” adding that Gaza's "population is being held hostage, with almost nothing and nobody going in or out."
More than 1,100 Palestinians have died in the past three weeks of fighting, with the vast majority civilians, according to health officials in Gaza. One of several stumbling blocks to a lasting cease-fire appears to be Hamas’ insistence on the lifting of the border blockade.
The main U.N. agency in Gaza – UNRWA - said nearly 10 percent of the coastal enclave’s entire population already is displaced, with around 170,500 Palestinians seeking refuge in the agency’s schools and shelters. Structures built to accommodate 500 people are hosting on average 2,000 displaced Palestinians, overcrowding facilities which lack the infrastructure to safely and cleanly house them, UNRWA said.
Those numbers don’t include what could be thousands more taken in by friends or family, heeding Israel’s calls to evacuate their neighborhoods.
Gaza City – already home to some 800,000 people – simply cannot handle what could be hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from neighborhoods at risk of IDF targeting, according to aid organizations.
The U.N. has poured water on the efficacy of the IDF warnings, pointing out that 44 percent of the land in Gaza has been declared a “no-go” zone by Israel’s army.
It also criticized the recent leaflets dropped which urged residents to evacuate to Gaza City, saying such an exodus would have a “further devastating humanitarian impact” on civilians already bearing the brunt of the offensive.
"The United Nations agencies present in Gaza do not have the resources on the ground to cope with, or provide assistance to, an enormous extra influx of desperate people," a spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement late Monday.
Israel’s military – which accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields- says the leaflets, texts and voicemails demonstrate the great care being taken to minimize civilian casualties.
The IDF has provided examples of the recordings, stressing the tactic’s emphasis on protecting civilians.
“How are you? Is everything OK?” starts one audio recording of an Israeli soldier phoning a resident of Gaza. “The IDF needs to target the building that is located close to you. We are doing everything in our power not to hit buildings nearby. We are just trying to make sure before we hit the target that there are no civilians in the vicinity. Make sure and tell everyone. Because in five minutes we will strike the target.”
Israel insists that the shelling is taking place in specific areas and neighborhoods, and that residents know where to go.
Yiftah Curiel, spokesman for Israel’s Embassy in London, pointed to the dozens of UNRWA shelters.
“People know about them and that information is out there,” Curiel said.
Several Israeli officials say that instead of asking Jerusalem where Gazans are expected to flee, the question should be posed right back to Hamas, for putting Gazans in the situation where densely populated civilian areas could become targets.
Netanyahu on Sunday reiterated that Hamas instructs Gazans to stay in their neighborhoods and ignore IDF instructions to evacuate.
"They’re sacrificing their own people," Netanyahu said.
Still, many Palestinians have heeded the warnings and fled to the center of Gaza City. Of those who have followed the advice, not all have been so lucky.
Hassan Al Hallaq moved his heavily pregnant wife and two young sons into the middle of Gaza City to stay at his sister’s home, hopeful it would be be safer than his apartment in a neighborhood of East Gaza.
Last week, two missiles slammed into the building where he and his family sought shelter. His wife, mother, sister and three children staying there were killed, an injured Al Hallaq told NBC News from his hospital bed.
"We thought that it was the safest place in Gaza City because it is the center of the city," he said. "The Israelis through to their warnings to all dangerous areas, they say, 'we advise that you move to the center of the city'."