Israel said Gazans could flee to this neighbourhood – then it was hit

By Isaac M December 21, 2023

As smoke rose into the overcast skies of Deir al Balah in Central Gaza on 5 December, the whine of an aircraft could still be heard overhead.

The Musabeh family’s home had been destroyed.

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Footage of smoke plume from the blast at the Musabeh home in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, 5 December 2023

“The scene was horrific, fires burning in the house,” eyewitness Mohammed Abu Musabeh told Erem News, a UAE-based news organisation.

Among the survivors was an infant girl, Layan, a relative of Mr Abu Musabeh, who said she was blown onto a neighbour’s roof by the force of the explosion.

“How will this child continue her life after learning what happened to her family?”

Days earlier on 1 December, a temporary ceasefire had collapsed. In preparation for an invasion of southern Gaza, Israel published an interactive map which divided the territory into hundreds of small zones.

The map, Israel said, would be used to give clear and precise evacuation orders to try to keep civilians in the densely populated Gaza Strip away from active combat zones.

Using on-the-ground footage, satellite imagery and mapping software, a Sky News visual investigation found that Israel’s evacuation orders have instead been chaotic and contradictory and that a neighbourhood in Deir al Balah was hit one day after the IDF said evacuees could flee there.

Our investigation comes after a separate strike in Gaza was caught on camera by a Sky News team. It too came in an area that was supposed to be safe.

‘No safe place in Gaza’

Responding to a request for comment on our findings, the Israeli army did not deny striking the Musabeh home.

A spokesperson for the IDF said: “The IDF will act against Hamas wherever it operates, with full commitment to international law, while distinguishing between terrorists and civilians, and taking all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians.”

In response to our investigation, the United Nations told Sky News that it is already investigating 52 similar incidents in areas where the Israeli army told civilians it was safe to evacuate to.

“This is exactly why we as the UN have been saying that there is no safe place in Gaza,” Ajith Sunghay, head of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, told Sky News.

Chaotic orders

After the temporary ceasefire, Israel faced growing international pressure to limit civilian harm.

The IDF’s solution? The interactive map with each zone having a unique numeric ID.

The interactive map was posted on the Israeli army's website. Pic: IDF
An image of the interactive map was then posted on the Israeli army’s website. Pic: IDF

On 4 December, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari told journalists that the map would indicate “where civilians in a specific area should go to avoid being in the crossfire”.

Civilians were told to learn the number assigned to their neighbourhood and listen out for evacuation orders via social media.

Questions were immediately raised about how Gazans, who have suffered persistent internet outages, would access the online map, and how they could safely move between areas as instructed.

The UN has not officially recommended that Gazans relocate to areas suggested by the IDF, as the zones have not been agreed with all parties to the conflict.

“One of the fundamental requirements of a safe zone is that all parties agree to a particular place to be safe,” said Mr Sunghay.

On 1 December, the day hostilities resumed, the Israeli army began releasing evacuation orders.

The static map was the first grid map published by the Israeli army. Pic: IDF
The deleted static map was the first grid map published by the Israeli army. Pic: IDF

Musabeh home hit

The Musabeh family’s neighbourhood is located in section 128 on Israel’s interactive map. It was never included in any of the IDFs evacuation orders issued on social media.

On 4 December, the IDF’s Arabic-language spokesperson said on X the IDF would allow “humanitarian movement of civilians” along the coastal road from Khan Younis to Deir al Balah.

The Musabeh home lay in the heart of Deir al Balah, less than 300 metres from Shuhada street – a road explicitly marked by the Israeli army as a route by which civilians could safely reach the city.

The day after that post, on 5 December, the Musabeh home was hit.

Pic: Planet Labs PBC
Pic: Planet Labs PBC

‘I don’t know what happened to my son’

A neighbour said that their son had gone to the Musabeh home to ask for water.

“Then the airstrike happened,” the neighbour told al-Araby. “The dust came at us and cars were thrown into the air. […] I don’t know what has happened to my son.”

The footage below, captured by Gaza-based journalist Yosef al-Saifi, shows the immediate aftermath: a woman and two children calling for help on top of the ruined home, a street covered in rubble, and a car on fire.

One man runs with a young girl in his arms, her body limp and her arms badly burnt. Another man pulls a motionless boy from beneath the rubble.

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The aftermath of the blast at the Musabeh home in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, 5 December 2023

The video below, also recorded by Mr al-Saifi, shows another casualty being carried, also seemingly unresponsive. A fourth casualty is placed on a blood-soaked stretcher, as firefighters tackle a blaze.

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A casualty is carried on a stretcher following a blast at the Musabeh home in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, 5 December 2023

Footage of the incident verified by Sky News, including some which is too graphic to publish, shows 11 casualties in total – nine of them apparently unresponsive, including three children.

The spokesman for al Aqsa hospital told Al Jazeera Mubasher that 45 people were killed in the blast. Sky News has been unable to independently verify the exact number of those killed.

Preliminary research carried out by Airwars, an organisation specialising in the verification of airstrike casualties, found online tributes to one of those killed in the attack, Mohammad Kamal Abu Musabeh and further posts about the injured infant Layan. Information online surrounding the identity of those killed has been scarce.

A neighbour of the Musabehs told al Araby that the home had been housing between 70 and 80 people, many of them displaced from elsewhere in the Gaza Strip.

Damage seen in satellite imagery

The neighbour attributed the bombing to an Israeli aircraft, as did a report by Palestinian news agency Wafa.

Eyewitnesses reported a single explosion, and footage verified by Sky News shows that the damage was extensive. The upper floor of the building had collapsed, and its walls were blown out onto the street below.

Visible damage to the Musabeh home can also be seen in satellite imagery taken on 3 December and 6 December.

No remnants of munitions were available for Sky News to conclusively determine whether the IDF was responsible for the attack.

Two experts told Sky News that, based on the footage available, the damage was consistent with an airstrike.

“It was a large [explosion] to have caused that much damage,” says Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“It was not an errant rocket or artillery shell. It would be consistent with a large air-delivered munition.”

J Andres Gannon, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, agrees.

“Based on the footage provided, the damage seen is consistent with what we would see from a missile strike with a fairly high payload,” he says.

“There is not much burn damage aside from light metal like the vehicles, and much of the rubble is very large pieces of concrete which is different from the smaller fragments we would see from shrapnel damage caused by mortars or other light projectiles.

“Satellite footage shows damage limited to a particular quadrant of the building which suggests more accurate targeting than we would see from a bomb, so that is also consistent with the damage we would see from an air to surface missile.”

Mr Gannon says that the level of damage seen was “quite a bit higher” than could be achieved by the kind of rockets known to be used by Palestinian militant groups in Gaza.

“There is also very little shrapnel or fire damage from spent fuel that I can see, both of which would be present at the site of a smaller rocket or mortar attack,” he added.

Sky News has not seen reports of rockets being fired by any other groups in the area. The IDF later said it had, on that day, launched airstrikes “in the area of Deir al Balah”.

“During these strikes, terrorists from the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organisations were eliminated, and a number of terrorist infrastructure were destroyed,” the post on Telegram on 6 December said.

Sky News presented the findings of this investigation to the IDF. A spokesperson declined to say whether Israel was responsible for the blast at the Musabeh family home.

‘I can’t find any rationale’

Mr Sunghay, the senior UN official, told Sky News that even if only military targets had been struck, there would still be serious questions over the IDF’s decision to tell civilians they could move to Deir al Balah on the day of, and in the days following, the strikes.

“I can’t find any rationale, to be honest,” he said.

“At a minimum you wouldn’t again reiterate that it’s a safe place. If you call it a safe place and people have gone there and you’ve struck it once, at a minimum you would wait a little while. For me, it doesn’t make sense that they kept calling it a safe zone.”

‘Warnings are not enough’

Brian Finucane, an expert legal adviser with the non-profit International Crisis Group, says that there is a requirement on warring parties to provide effective advanced warnings to civilians, where feasible.

“This calls into question whether Israel is actually taking feasible precautions,” said Mr Finucane.

“If [Israel] issues warnings urging people to relocate to a certain area and then nonetheless conducts further strikes there, that’s not really an effective advanced warning.

“But even if this warning scheme worked as advertised… Warnings are not enough. Israel still has to distinguish between civilians and combatants.”

Palestinians charge their mobile phones from a point powered by solar panels in Khan Younis
Palestinians charge their mobile phones from a point powered by solar panels in Khan Younis

Even receiving those warnings has been difficult. Intermittent internet and telecommunications outages have made it much harder for civilians across Gaza to find and share information about safe areas.

On 17 December, connectivity was gradually restored after a three-day blackout, the longest outage on record since the start of the present conflict, according to cybersecurity watchdog NetBlocks.

But not all Gazans have mobile devices, making access to the IDF instructions impossible for many. Many people are having to communicate and share information by word of mouth.

Sky’s Gaza producer asked civilians how effective the map had been for evacuation orders.

“I talked with different people before about this issue and the thing is none of them have any idea of this map. It’s really difficult and hard to understand it while there is no internet and cut off communication for many days. So not everyone has access to the internet or calls, so it’s really difficult for them during this situation,” she said.

And even for those who do have access to phones, Israel’s official social media posts and evacuation orders have been confusing and contradictory.

Sky News analysis of the IDF’s 22 evacuation orders between 1 December and 19 December shows that only nine have included maps of the area to be evacuated. In all nine cases, these maps have directly contradicted the written orders provided.

In only six of the 22 orders did the IDF cite specific numbered zones. In all six cases, parts of the numbered zones were excluded from the static maps attached to the posts.

‘This chaos and confusion could have killed me’

The IDF’s interactive map was presented as a high-tech, humane solution to conducting urban warfare in one of the most densely populated parts of the planet.

Yet this map has never been updated to show areas being evacuated – Gazans have had to rely on static maps published via social media.

None of the evacuation orders have included any mapping of areas to which people can safely flee. Instead, these areas have simply been named.

In the four evacuation orders issued since 16 December, that too has stopped: Gazans have been told where to flee from, but not where they might flee to.

The only safe area which the IDF has mapped is a strip of coastline that Israel has called the al-Mawasi humanitarian zone. It has provided rough sketches of this zone, but has never marked it out clearly. The two maps it has produced are, when analysed in mapping software, contradictory.

Even when the orders are clear, as in the recent orders for civilians to leave the north and head towards Deir al Balah, it is often unclear how Gazans are supposed to safely make the journey.

Kamal Almashharawi, a lawyer from Gaza City who recently fled the territory, recently spoke to a friend in northern Gaza who told him it was too dangerous to even open the curtains due to fighting outside.

Mr Almashharawi was forced to flee the north himself after Israel first ordered its evacuation on 13 October.

“This chaos and confusion could have killed me,” says Mr Almashharawi, who is now in Saudi Arabia.

“I was in Khan Younis at first, and I thought that the ground invasion would start there so I had to go back to Gaza City. We hadn’t heard of any bombing there, we didn’t realise it’s because the internet was cut.”

Mr Almashharawi says that he subsequently arranged an evacuation from Gaza City for himself and around 30 family members.

“On the ‘safe passage’ I saw dead bodies on the ground. Those people read the instructions and followed the instructions, and now they’re dead.”

Mr Sunghay said the UN was planning to publish a report on incidents in areas where the IDF had told civilians to flee to, including Deir al Balah.

“If we are unable to prevent attacks and killings of civilians, what will come next is accountability and for that purpose this work is extremely important,” he said.

A spokesperson for the IDF said: “Since the beginning of the fighting, the IDF has been imploring the civilian population to temporarily evacuate from areas of intense fighting, to safer areas, in order to minimise the risk posed by remaining in areas of intense hostilities.

“The IDF carries out this effort 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.

“While the IDF makes these efforts to evacuate the population out of the line of fire, Hamas systematically attempts to prevent the evacuation of civilians by calling on the civilians to ignore the IDF’s requests. In doing so, Hamas endangers the civilian population of Gaza.”

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.


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