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Israeli ground offensive in Gaza triggers shelter crisis for fleeing civilians

Kristen ChickThe Christian Science Monitor

Palestinians streamed out of a heavily bombed neighborhood today by the thousands after an all-night onslaught by the Israeli military.

Women carried babies, old men fled on canes, and entire families emerged from Shejaiya in east Gaza with nothing but the clothes on their backs as artillery shells and gunfire echoed in the streets. They spoke of widespread destruction and bodies lying in the streets after the most intense attacks in a 13-day Israeli offensive.

The panicked exodus from Shejaiya compounds a brewing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. With more than 81,000 people pushed from their homes, including around 20,000 this weekend, the number exceeds the displacement from the 2008-09 Israeli-Hamas conflict and could soon overwhelm the ability of international organizations to provide shelter and sustenance.

Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), says the agency is operating 61 shelters in its schools in Gaza. UNRWA has about 100 school buildings throughout the coastal enclave as well as additional buildings, so it can open more shelters for evacuees. 

But Mr. Gunness says the agency is quickly running out of funding for food, water, blankets, and mattresses. The agency has launched an emergency appeal for $60 million to deal with the crisis.

UNRWA won't turn people away, he adds, but may not be able to provide comfortable or sanitary conditions in its shelters without additional funding. The upsurge in evacuees is “a reflection of the perilous situation that civilians are in,” he says.

At least 60 Palestinians died overnight in heavily populated Shejaiya, which Israel began shelling on Saturday night. That raised the death toll in Gaza from the conflict to at least 425, with thousands wounded.  Israel's army said today that 13 soldiers had died over the weekend, bringing the total number of soldiers killed to 18, along with two civilians.

The Israeli military said that Shejaiya is used by Hamas militants to shoot rockets and that militants have command centers and tunnels there. Earlier this week, Israel dropped leaflets on the neighborhood warning residents to leave. The military said that militants had launched more than 140 rockets at Israel from Shejaiya since the conflict began on July 8. On Friday, Israel launched a ground offensive in Gaza, sending troops backed by warplanes and tanks into the edges of the crowded strip of land.

Evening bombardment

Residents said the strikes that started in the evening rained down indiscriminately throughout the night, destroying block after block of residential buildings, with no chance for ambulances to evacuate the dead or wounded. At least one ambulance was hit in a strike, killing at least one emergency responder. As dawn broke, residents said they fled by foot when they realized there were no ambulances coming to get them. Many brought small children as they covered long distances on foot to escape.

“We saw eight dead people on the ground,” says a man who gave his name as Ayman, stopping briefly on his way to Gaza's main Shifa hospital. “Three children and five men. And no one came to take them away.” His family had not stopped to pack any belongings to take with them, not even clothes, he said.

Nearby, children cried and parents yelled as one family flagged down a car and frantically tried to squeeze in as many people as possible. Other crammed into the back of a truck driven by city workers employed by Hamas. 

Said Abul Qombous, an elderly man in a blue prayer cap, walked slowly away from the worst of the shelling, supported by a wooden cane and his son. He said his neighborhood was completely destroyed, and he had put a white flag on the end of another stick in an attempt to make his way out safely.

Schools as shelters

Many of those fleeing said they would seek shelter with relatives or friends, meaning the real number of displaced is much higher than the estimated 81,000 or more staying in converted UNWRA schools. But those who had no other options poured into these shelters today. 

Officials at one school that opened yesterday said they had received 1,000 people fleeing Shejaiya in a single hour, between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. today, and is now full. UNRWA has opened new schools, including Zeitoun Boys Elementary School in the Tel el Hawa neighborhood of Gaza city. The large blue-and-white building, with three wings surrounding a courtyard, echoed today with shouts as a steady stream of families arrived.

New arrival Nahed el Zaim stood in the shade with a gaggle of children and women. She says she and her family walked all the way from Shejaiya to Shifa hospital, because there were no ambulances or vehicles to transport them. They decided to find a shelter, and ended up here. “Our building became like dust,” she said of her home in Shejaiya. “We didn't bring anything with us. What could we bring when they were shelling us?”

At the hospital, hundreds of people also tried to find refuge, believing that it would be safe from shelling. Across the street, mosque loudspeakers urged people not to “lose faith in Hamas or the resistance” and claimed that Hamas had kidnapped an Israeli soldier. 

In the early afternoon, Israel and Hamas agreed on a temporary cease-fire in Shejaiya to allow the evacuation of wounded and dead. But the cease-fire barely lasted 30 minutes before Israel resumed limited shelling in the area. Some reporters saw armed militants among the bodies strewn in the rubble-filled streets. Residents used the lull to retrieve belongings or rescue trapped relatives. 

But not everyone could be rescued. In the morgue lay the bodies of a boy and a girl  children whom doctors said were seven and nine years old and had been killed in Shejaiya that morning. People who appeared to be relatives argued about the identity of the boy, debating whether he was Hamza or Khalil. They could not identify him by sight because his head was missing.