The World Health Organisation has warned that Israel’s order to evacuate north Gaza could be a “death sentence” for the more than 2,000 patients, including babies in incubators, in hospitals across the besieged strip.
Israel has ordered the population of the north of the 42km-long territory to move south ahead of an expected ground invasion: a move that could amount to the war crime of forcible transfer, according to some rights groups.
The order has piled panic on the population of more than two million people, who are already struggling under a “total siege” imposed by Israel, in response to a deadly attack by Hamas militants that has killed over 1,000 people.
Doctors in the evacuation zone said because they couldn’t relocate patients safely, they decided to stay as well to care for them.
“Forcing more than 2,000 patients to relocate to southern Gaza, where health facilities are already running at maximum capacity and unable to absorb a dramatic rise in the number of patients, could be tantamount to a death sentence,” the WHO said in a statement.
“Hospital directors and health workers are now facing an agonising choice: abandon critically ill patients amid a bombing campaign, put their own lives at risk while remaining on site to treat patients, or endanger their patients’ lives while attempting to transport them to facilities that have no capacity to receive them.
The United Nations has already warned that water has run out and hospitals will run out of generator fuel within two days.
Medics on the ground, meanwhile, have told The Independent thousands could die as hospitals packed with wounded are running out of supplies.
The Independent was shown images of at least one hospital in Gaza City that had been damaged in an airstrike on Saturday.
The situation is “catastrophic”, said prominent British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu Sitta , who is working with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Al-Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza.
He said the hospitals not only could not evacuate but the buildings were temporarily housing displaced people. “The situation in Shifa hospital is catastrophic,” he added.
“I am now sitting in the operating room of the burns unit – there are families sitting on the floor of the corridor, all of the way out into the stairwell and outside the building.
“We think that there are around tens of thousands [of people] around them around the whole hospital.
“There are over 200 patients who need surgery but cannot get to the operating rooms.”
He said the morgues were overflowing. “The problem is people are too afraid to go to cemeteries. There are around 50 families who have been completely wiped out because people are seeking refugee with their relatives.
“There are 50 families with three generations of grandparents, their parents and their kids’ kids who have been wiped out. And so there is no one to bury anybody.”
The Israeli military has unleashed the heaviest ever airstrikes on Gaza, warning it has launched an “unprecedented response to an unprecedented attack” by Hamas militants.
Hamas killed hundreds of people and took dozens, including British citizens, hostage last weekend, in a brutal attack by air, sea and land.
Israel has said more than 1,300 Israelis have been killed, the vast majority of them civilians killed in Hamas’s October 7 assault but some by a barrage of rocket fire from the strip.
Gaza’s health ministry has said that 2,329 Palestinians have so far been killed in the bombardment. The Israeli military has announced they are preparing for a coordinated offensive in Gaza using air, ground and naval forces and has ordered citizens to move south, accusing Hamas of trying to use them as human shields.
Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a spokesperson for the military, said they were going to “attack Gaza City very broadly soon”.
Israel has also imposed a “total siege” on Gaza in the middle of the bombing, cutting access to water, power, fuel, food and medical supplies.
This, action rights groups have said, could amount to collective punishment and may be a violation of international law.
There have been mounting pleas from the United Nations, aid organisations, and on Sunday Pope Francis, for safe humanitarian corridors and passage to help save lives.
Civilians, meanwhile, told The Independent food was running out, they had no water or electricity and they couldn’t evacuate as they had nowhere to go.
Many are also concerned about reports of airstrikes on convoys heading south – an accusation Israel has repeatedly denied.
One father of five, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said it was “too difficult to leave” and said his family had been sheltering in their home with no water or electricity for two days.
“Many people are homeless, and sleeping on the ground. They have no shelter, food or water. But I am still in my home… because it is difficult for me to leave,” the 50-year-old said, explaining how airstrikes destroyed the building next to his house just a few days ago.
“If this escalates or continues, we will be out of food within days. There is nothing in the supermarket, I tried to go and get some stuff, but it was difficult to even get there, and most things are unavailable.”
Said, 35, another man from Beit Lahia in the north of the Gaza Strip and who also asked not to be identified, said “hundreds” were queuing at each bakery desperate for bread.
He said there was no longer water in the taps or the shops. “People are rushing to the stores looking for bread and water, hundreds in one queue,” he said, sharing videos showing totally flattened neighbourhoods from the brutalised territory.
“I’ve been awake for two days. At least a third of the people living in the north have evacuated but many have had to stay.”
The Independent was also told that families who had fled south were then forced to return north again as the conditions in the south of Gaza were so poor.
Another Gaza resident said many were worried about moving to the south as they fear Israel will force them to continue evacuating to Sinai in Egypt.
“Then all of Gaza will be lost to Gazans forever. So we will stay in our homes,” Ahmed from Jabalia said. Dr Abu Sitta said the bombardment was so hard that “people are too afraid to bury their dead” and the bodies were mounting.
“There are piles of bodies just wrapped in shrouds put against the wall because the morgue is overflowing,” he added.