Just before midnight on Thursday, Israel’s military ordered more than 1 million Palestinians living in northern Gaza to evacuate to the southern part of the enclave within the next 24 hours. The U.N. has called on Israel to withdraw the evacuation order and warned that this could lead to “devastating humanitarian consequences.”
The announcement comes as the Israel-Hamas war enters its seventh day following a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7. At least 1,300 people have died in Israel and an estimated 150 people are being held hostage in Gaza. Israel has bombarded Gaza with retaliatory airstrikes that have killed at least 1,400 civilians and has imposed a total blockade on the Strip.
The evacuation order comes ahead of an expected ground invasion in Gaza. On Monday, Israel called upon its reserves to mobilize 300,000 Israeli soldiers.
An Israeli spokesperson told the Associated Press that the military would make “extensive efforts to avoid harming civilians.” But those on the ground have warned that an evacuation would not only lead to panic and fear but could result in higher casualties on both sides. Human rights groups and medical experts have also issued statements cautioning against the evacuation plan and calling on world leaders to intervene.
Clive Baldwin, a senior legal adviser from Human Rights Watch, told TIME in a statement that “ordering… people in Gaza to evacuate when there’s no safe place to go, is not an effective warning. The roads are rubble, fuel is scarce, and the main hospital is in the evacuation zone.” He added that Israel has “obligations in military operations” to not target civilians and such an evacuation would contradict this responsibility. “World leaders should speak up now before it is too late,” he added.
Read More: What an Israeli Ground Invasion Would Mean for Gaza
Omar Hammad, an English language teacher in Gaza, told TIME in a call that he and his family have been searching for a secure place to take shelter from the bombings but have been unable to find one. “We are being targeted from every single place. We don’t have any safe place,” Hammad says.
In a public statement shared with TIME, Medical Aid for Palestinians, a U.K.-based nonprofit, said that those expected to flee Gaza City include children, the elderly, and the disabled. Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest medical compound in the Gaza Strip, is located in North Rimal, Gaza City, meaning that many wounded civilians could have to choose between medical aid or evacuating.
At least 423,000 people—nearly one in five Gazans—have been displaced by Israeli airstrikes that began on Sunday, according to the U.N. Another 175,000 Gazans have fled their homes since Saturday, taking refuge in U.N. shelters or schools.
The evacuation order comes after 16 years of an Israeli land, air, and sea blockade in Gaza since Hamas took power in 2007. Israel said it will continue to block all fuel and electricity to Gaza until Hamas releases all hostages.
Wafa Aludaini, a Gaza-based journalist, says that the most heartbreaking thing is explaining the situation to her children. “I am a mother of three young children. The eldest one is just 8-years-old and the youngest is 4-years-old. When they hear the explosions they feel scared and ask me what is happening and I can’t lie, you know?” she says. “In particular, the eldest one, told me, ‘Mom, are we gonna die?’ It [hurts] me so much.”