As Israel warned Gaza civilians to evacuate, IDF bombs struck city described as sanctuary

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As war rages in Gaza, civilians have repeatedly been told by Israel to go to the city of Deir al-Balah, in the center of the enclave, for safety.

The city lies below the Wadi Gaza, the line south of which Israel warned people to move starting in mid-October. And after a cease-fire in late November, Israel's military issued multiple calls for civilians to travel to shelters in the city for their own safety.

Deir al-Balah has since swelled with internally displaced people, according to the United Nations.

But the city has not been spared from the Israeli bombing campaign, according to the United Nations and international human rights organizations like Amnesty International.

ABC News, using satellite imagery from Planet Labs and videos filmed on the ground, has identified at least 91 individual instances of destruction in Deir al-Balah since Oct. 7. Numerous videos and photos reviewed by ABC News appear to support U.N. and human rights organizations' statements and indicate that while Israel's military directed civilians to Deir al-Balah, they continued to strike there.

ABC News cannot independently verify every individual instance of destruction as being from Israel.

However, Airwars, a U.K.-based nonprofit that tracks civilian casualties due to airstrikes, told ABC News they think "it is logical to conclude" a majority of damage to Deir al-Balah since Oct. 7 has been caused by the Israel Defense Forces rather than by Gaza-based militants, given the scale of bombardments. Airwars also said exact estimates are hard to come by because the ongoing bombing makes it difficult to access these areas.

ABC News Map Illustration (ABC News Illustration / Google Earth)
ABC News Map Illustration (ABC News Illustration / Google Earth)

Evacuation to Deir al-Balah

In the first two months following the terror attack by Gaza-based militants on Israel and the start of the ensuing IDF campaign in Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza fled south from the northern part of the enclave, according to the U.N. and the IDF.

After a week-long cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in November, Israel signaled its intention to expand ground operations to areas in the south previously declared safe.

As Israel started this expansion on Dec. 2, it issued new evacuation orders for much of the city of Khan Younis that extended to areas immediately to the south of Deir al-Balah.

Israeli troops positioned themselves south of the city on the main road that spans Gaza from north to south, sandwiching Deir al-Balah between the two areas of ground combat to the north and south.

ABC News Map Illustration (ABC News Illustration / Google Earth)
ABC News Map Illustration (ABC News Illustration / Google Earth)

On Dec. 4, the IDF announced a corridor along a coastal street would allow people to safely go from southern Gaza toward Deir al-Balah. The city is the largest in Central Gaza, with a prewar population of about 75,000 living in roughly 5.7 square miles.

By Dec. 11, the IDF was also urging citizens of northern Gaza to evacuate to "known shelters in Deir Al Balah." These warnings were posted online almost every day in December, accompanied by leaflets and phone calls.

When the IDF expanded its ground combat operation to central Gaza on Dec. 22, it warned citizens of the city of Bureij, "For your safety, you must move immediately to the shelters in Deir Al-Balah."

The same message was conveyed to the residents of the other central camps within Deir al-Balah -- Nuseirat by Jan. 3, and Maghazi the next week.

IDF officials told ABC News they issued these warnings to protect civilians in areas of intense fighting, but "Hamas systematically attempts to prevent the evacuation of civilians by calling on the civilians to ignore the IDF's requests."

The IDF warnings drove hundreds of thousands of people to Deir al-Balah seeking safety, U.N. records and visual evidence, including satellite images and on-the-ground videos, showed.

Many Gaza residents have heeded these warnings quickly, Juliette Touma, communications director for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, told ABC News.

"The minute people hear about these evacuation orders, it creates a sensational amount of panic and anxiety and people just leave," Touma said.

Striking Deir al-Balah

Despite these indications that Deir al-Balah would offer relative safety to civilians, the area was not spared from aerial bombardment.

ABC News' analysis identified dozens of destroyed buildings ranging from entire city blocks to family homes.

Between Dec. 7 and 8, Israel destroyed the Yaffa Mosque in central Deir al-Balah, leveling the building and severely damaging the neighboring Yaffa Hospital.

Images taken by local journalists show the rubble of the mosque and destroyed walls of the hospital.

Israel's military has the weaponry to cause the damage seen at the scene, but Hamas and other militant groups based in Gaza do not, said Marc Garlasco, a military advisor with the Netherlands-based PAX Protection of Civilians. ABC News asked Garlasco to review a collection of visual evidence, including satellite imagery, videos and photos.

Garlasco, who reviewed the material remotely, said it appeared to indicate the mosque was likely destroyed using a bomb on a delayed fuse, causing the structure to "pancake" and reducing the potential for blast and fragmentation damage.

"Regardless," Garlasco said, "dropping such a structure with an aerial bomb may have wide area effects that endangered people in the hospital."

PHOTO: Palestinians are inspecting the debris of the Jaffa Hospital in Deir el-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, on Dec. 8, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas.  (Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via AP, FILE)
PHOTO: Palestinians are inspecting the debris of the Jaffa Hospital in Deir el-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, on Dec. 8, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via AP, FILE)

On Jan. 13, an Israeli missile hit a house in Deir al-Balah but did not explode, according to The Associated Press. Shortly after, according to a neighbor who witnessed the attack speaking with The Associated Press, two more missiles hit the street, destroying his home.

Video of the aftermath shows a crater about 40 feet wide with debris scattered around it. Images show the unexploded missile lying precariously on the ground. Garlasco said he identified the missile as a 2,000-pound American-made Mark 84 bomb.

PHOTO: Palestinians are standing next to an unexploded bomb dropped by an Israeli F-16 warplane in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza Strip, on Jan. 15, 2024. ( Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via AP)
PHOTO: Palestinians are standing next to an unexploded bomb dropped by an Israeli F-16 warplane in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza Strip, on Jan. 15, 2024. ( Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via AP)

Between Dec. 2 and 3, satellite images reviewed by ABC News show another crater and destroyed building about 500 feet from a school-turned-shelter. Garlasco told ABC News the crater's size indicated a 1,000- or 2,000-pound bomb consistent with those used by the IDF, and not with rockets or mortars fired by Gaza-based militant groups like Hamas.

UNRWA said it recorded at least three instances of schools being used as shelters sustaining damage due to strikes on or near the buildings in Deir al-Balah.

Provided by ABC News with specific coordinates and dates from each of three strikes, as well as others in Deir al-Balah, the IDF did not deny carrying them out. ABC News sent requests over a series of days seeking detailed comment from the IDF.

While the IDF did not respond to any specific claims, it did reply on Sunday with several paragraphs, telling ABC News, in part, "[A]s part of Hamas's systematic use of the civilian population as a human shield, Hamas exploits the humanitarian areas, shelters and hospitals, by attacking IDF forces from within these places, and concealing terrorists and military assets in them."

They did not specify whether their intelligence suggested that Hamas operatives or assets were present at the strike locations provided, which included four specific places and a general question about the entire city.

Asked whether steps were taken to protect civilians at Yaffa Hospital, and schools and shelters near strikes in Deir al-Balah, the IDF said they take "all feasible precautions under the relevant operational circumstances to mitigate harm to civilians when operating. Some of these precautions include specific warning before strikes when possible."

The IDF added, "In addition, as part of Hamas's systematic use of the civilian population as a human shield, Hamas exploits the humanitarian areas, shelters and hospitals, by attacking IDF forces from within these places, and concealing terrorists and military assets in them. For example, in recent weeks Hamas has launched dozens of rockets towards Israel from the humanitarian area in Al-Muassi."

The IDF did not specify whether precautions to protect civilians were taken at any of the Deir al-Balah sites.

Nowhere to go

An ABC News analysis of IDF evacuation warnings earlier this month found that over 60% of Gaza was then under evacuation orders. More areas have been warned to evacuate since.

Martin Griffiths, under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs at the U.N. told the Security Council on Jan. 12, "[M]ore and more people are being crammed into an ever-smaller sliver of land, only to find yet more violence and deprivation, inadequate shelter and a near absence of the most basic services," he said, "There is no safe place in Gaza."

IDF evacuation orders, and the ground combat they portend, are now in effect for areas surrounding Deir al-Balah, coming to just across the street from one of the area's last functioning hospitals, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital.

ABC News Map Illustration (ABC News Illustration / Google Earth)
ABC News Map Illustration (ABC News Illustration / Google Earth)

International aid organizations, including Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), announced on Jan. 6 and 7 that they would be forced to leave Deir al-Balah.

IRC said it would leave as "a result of increasing Israeli military activity around the Al Aqsa Hospital."

American doctor Seema Jilani, who fled the hospital along with her colleagues from the International Rescue Committee, told ABC News she saw civilians with extensive injuries who she didn't think would receive timely treatment due to the incursion of IDF troops.

"I saw children, infants with their limbs blown off. I saw children with third-degree burns from explosive injuries, and to leave them without any care is something that I know I will struggle with for the rest of my life," Jilani said.

The IDF told ABC News it seeks to notify the population about evacuations "in a variety of ways, including radio broadcasts, a dedicated website in Arabic, millions of pre-recorded phone calls and tens of thousands of live phone calls, and millions of leaflets."

An IDF leaflet distributed the week of Jan. 8 warned citizens of another central city to evacuate to Deir al-Balah. The image on the leaflet circled only a section of the city as being the "safe" area, cutting out about half of the city's known shelters as well as the hospital.

ABC News Map Illustration (ABC News Illustration / Google Earth)
ABC News Map Illustration (ABC News Illustration / Google Earth)

Most IDF evacuation warnings instruct people to go to known shelters in Deir al-Balah.

Touma, UNRWA's communications director, left Gaza on Jan. 16 after visiting some of the organization's shelters and camps, including several in Deir al-Balah and Rafah. She told ABC News the shelters are overcrowded.

"It was almost claustrophobic walking into the school. The schoolyard and the playground, all covered with these little makeshift structures that people have set up, because everything indoors is just overcrowded and overflowing," she said.

Satellite images appear to show tent camps swelling with new arrivals between Dec. 24 -- after Israel announced their ground operation in Central Gaza -- and Jan. 5.

But, by Jan. 10, gunfire between combatants could be heard from a tent camp outside Al Aqsa Martyrs hospital courtyard, as captured on video by local journalists. The shooting didn't appear to have been in the hospital. People fled again.

The hospital camp and shelters at schools on the same street shrank. Satellite images showed the tent camps and shelters further inside the city growing in a matter of days.

According to UNRWA, Deir al-Balah's population has now swelled to at least 4 times the city's prewar population. As Israel has asked civilians to move to smaller areas, there are fewer places to go, the U.N. said.

The only other major city in Gaza where IDF ground troops are not operating on the ground, Rafah, is also overflowing, according to UNRWA. It is now home to over a million people, more than 10 times its prewar population, the organization said.

Some people have fled Deir al-Balah to go south to Rafah, despite that city's overcrowding, Touma said.

Others arriving in Deir al-Balah at the behest of the Israeli army move to shelters or anywhere else they can, she said.

"There is no space. People are just setting up these little structures wherever they can everywhere," Touma said. There's no pavements, because people just set up these little structures right. It's like seas of people."

But the destruction continues. The IDF retreated from their positions in the south of the city on Jan. 10. Satellite images show several buildings that were in their control for weeks were destroyed in the days leading up to the troops' rebase.

PHOTO: Destroyed buildings in southern Deir Al Balah in central Gaza, days after Israeli troops left the area after being positioned there for over a month. (Samy Zyara/ABC News)
PHOTO: Destroyed buildings in southern Deir Al Balah in central Gaza, days after Israeli troops left the area after being positioned there for over a month. (Samy Zyara/ABC News)

Dr. Jilani, speaking with ABC News after leaving Gaza, said she still could not believe what she had seen in Deir al-Balah.

"This is entirely a preventable man-made catastrophe on nightmarish levels," she said. "This is not a natural disaster. This is something that humans are doing to other humans, and there is no humanity left when we do this."

ABC News' Chris Looft, Samy Zyara, Kris Anderson, and Jordana Miller contributed to this report.

As Israel warned Gaza civilians to evacuate, IDF bombs struck city described as sanctuary originally appeared on abcnews.go.com