Palestinians in the Gaza Strip received on 10 January air-dropped leaflets warning them that the Israeli military was about to step up operations against militant targets there and that they should take necessary precautions.
However, it remained unclear what Palestinians could do, given that UN officials have said Gazans have no safe place to hide.
"There is nowhere safe in Gaza," Allegra Pacheco, deputy head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the occupied Palestinian territories, said. Her views were echoed by Max Gaylord, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Jerusalem.
The leaflet told Gazans that they should follow the recent example of Rafah's residents, who fled their homes in the south of the Gaza Strip after receiving similar announcements instructing them to do so just before the Israeli airforce began to pound the city, which is along the Egyptian border. Israeli officials said Palestinian militants were using tunnels to smuggle weapons under this border.
Witnesses said up to 50,000 people fled the town, and the UN reported that Israel's ongoing Operation Cast Lead, which began on 27 December, has created the largest number of forcibly displaced Palestinians since the 1967 war.
Nowhere to run
While most Gazans are already refugees from previous wars, they cannot cross a border now, as the perimeter of the territory is sealed off from all sides. They can only find a relatively safer place within the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.
The latest leaflet said the Israeli military "will continue to target tunnels, weapons storage facilities and terror operatives with growing intensity throughout the Gaza Strip. For your safety and that of your families, stay away from these."
An Israeli military spokesman could not explain how a civilian in Gaza was supposed to know where a weapons storage facility was and how the person could then avoid it, particularly as the army itself has said militants were hiding in civilian areas.
Furthermore, places where Palestinians have sought refuge, including UN facilities, have been attacked, and civilians have been killed while fleeing, according to testimonies gathered by Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups.
What is a legitimate target?
Israel's definition of a legitimate target has been challenged by the Israeli rights group B'tselem, which, for example, rejects the military's claims that it can attack the civilian infrastructure of Hamas, including government and police facilities. International law, the group said, did not consider these military targets.
Photo: Shabtai Gold/IRIN
|This leaflet dropped on Gaza by the Israeli military asks Gaza Strip residents to be "responsible for their destiny" by calling Israeli authorities to inform them about rocket launching pads and the "locations of terrorists"|
While B'tselem said Hamas was committing "war crimes" by firing rockets at Israeli civilians, it acknowledged that the Islamist group was also in charge of the enclave and provided basic services, and that these should not be targeted.
Overnight on 10 January, as has become the norm recently, Israel carried out more than 60 airstrikes over the Gaza Strip.
Medical staff on 11 January estimated that over 850 Palestinians had been killed in Israel’s two-week military offensive, including some 235 children, and more than 3,500 injured. During the same period, 13 Israelis have died in the fighting.
White phosphorous allegation
Meanwhile, a military analyst with New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch said Israel was using white phosphorous illegally in its offensive.
While international law allows the use of the substance as a smokescreen, it cannot be used near civilians as it has an incidental "incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire”.
The expert saw it being used over crowded residential areas and doctors in the enclave have reported untypical burns that they are having trouble treating.
The Israeli army said it followed international law and did not use illegal weapons or employ illegal tactics.
It remains difficult to independently verify information about what is going on inside Gaza as journalists and researchers are still banned from the entering the territory.