GAZA CITY -- Just after sunrise on Sunday, Zeinab, a young Palestinian mother, ran out of her house in Gaza City's Shijaiyah neighborhood with her husband and barefoot 5-year-old daughter. With the sound of Israeli drones overhead and air strikes and tank shelling all around, Zeinab watched as her neighbors poured into the streets and began to run. So she did the same.
“We were running, and [the Israeli Army] was attacking behind us,” she said, sitting within the safety of al-Shifa Hospital’s compound in central Gaza City, over three miles away from Shijaiyah. “There were dead people around us.” Frantic families, many shellshocked and inconsolable, stood around Zeinab, not knowing where to go or what to do next.
Thousands of Shijaiyah residents, some in bulldozers and the trunks of cars, others on foot and in wheelchairs, fled to central Gaza City Sunday as Israel escalated its ground offensive and targeted the crowded Gaza City neighborhood. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported that 87 Palestinians were killed in the attack, and Israel said 13 of its soldiers were killed. At least 417 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the two weeks of fighting.
The Israeli military says it gave adequate warning to civilians to evacuate the area, but many residents, along with Palestinians in the rest of Gaza, say they have nowhere safe left to go. People in parts of the south, middle and north of Gaza have been told to leave their homes, but cash-strapped UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, says it is running out of space and supplies to support Gaza's mass internally displaced population.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement that 63,173 people have sought safe sanctuary with UNRWA in 55 shelters across the Gaza Strip.
The totals are "more people than in the fighting five years ago," during Israel's last major incursion into Gaza, Gunness said. “The number has tripled in the last three days, reflecting the intensity of the conflict and the inordinate threats the fighting is posing to civilians.” UNRWA said its supplies could run out Sunday, and the agency is desperately asking for funding to support its relief efforts.
At one of the nearly full UN schools where Palestinians in Gaza have sought refuge, now too crowded to accommodate many Shijaiyah residents, Fatima al-Attar and several of her children and female family members sat on the floor of a bare classroom. She said they have been here for a week after their home in the north was destroyed in an airstrike targeting their neighbor.
“We have no facilities to live a human life now. There isn’t enough water. We will die from the smell,” she said.
Al-Attar can't imagine staying at the UN school for much longer, she explained, but she has no home to go back to. Around her, little boys and girls splashed through pools of dirty water. One of the girls, just old enough to walk, wet her pants. There were no diapers or changes of clothes.
Many Palestinians who have fled the violence in Gaza cannot afford to rebuild.
“We will live in tents,” Zeinab, the mother who fled Shijaiyah hours earlier, said. “Or in this hospital for the rest of our life.”
As the death toll rises and destruction in Gaza only worsens, Israel maintains it is acting in self-defense after Hamas has fired incessant volleys of rockets into Israel with little aim or regard for human life. Many of these rockets landed in open areas or were stopped by Israel's Iron Dome interceptor.
Now, Israel says its main goal in the ground offensive is to destroy Hamas tunnels that reach into Israel, along with the militant group's weapons stockpiles.
The Israeli military also says that it warned civilians in Shijaiyah before the attack with pamphlets and pre-recorded messages. But many families ignored the notices, seeing their homes as safer than the war zone outside. Hamas has also asked residents in Shijaiyah, as well as other areas of Gaza, to stay put and ignore the warnings, according to many Palestinians. Israel holds Hamas accountable for most civilian deaths, saying the group purposely fires rockets and stores weaponry in civilian areas. On Sunday, the official Twitter account for the Israel Defense Forces tweeted: “Shuja'iya is a civilian area where Hamas places its rockets, tunnels and command centers.”
But for civilians in Gaza like Rajab Farhat, who pushed his 80-year-old mother in her wheelchair all the way from Shijaiyah, staying home seemed like the safest option, despite Israel's warnings. He scoffed at the idea that Israel is only targeting Hamas -- or that evacuating was ever an option. Everywhere in Gaza, it seems, has been targeted.
“They attacked the houses randomly,” he said while sitting on a street corner in Gaza City, the only place he could find for his family to rest. “What have we done? We are human beings, without any guns. What are we going to do?”
Across the street, more families from Shijaiyah, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, walked past, as if in a daze. Gaza City, shuttered and eerily quiet during most of the past 13 days of conflict, is beginning to look like an open air displacement camp.
“We don’t know what to do,” Farhat cried, his elderly, barefoot mother shielding her face from the sun. “We have nowhere to go.”
Moushira Jammal contributed reporting from Gaza City.
BEFORE YOU GO
08/08/2014 2:47 PM EDT
White House Concerned By Renewed Fighting
The White House on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks and do what they can to protect civilians after Egyptian-mediated negotiations failed to extend a ceasefire and rocket fire resumed.
"The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
"We condemn the renewed rocket fire and we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict," he said.
08/08/2014 1:42 PM EDT
Official: 5 Palestinians Killed In Gaza
Five Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since a ceasefire fell apart on Friday, a Palestinian medical official reported to Agence France Presse.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired 35 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring a soldier and a civilian.
The father of a ten-year old Palestinian boy, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City, mourns at the city's Al-Shifa hospital, on August 8, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
08/08/2014 9:23 AM EDT
Palestinian Delegation Says Gaza Talks Will Continue
Palestinian factions will remain in Cairo and press on with Egyptian-mediated talks despite the end of the ceasefire in Gaza, the head of the delegation, Fatah official Azzam Ahmed, said on Friday.
"We are not for escalation. We are ready to continue through our Egyptian brothers in negotiating to reach a final agreement that would return the rights to their owners," Ahmed said. "I mean here lifting the blockade of Gaza."
Ahmed said Palestinian negotiators were due to meet Egyptian intelligence officials, who have been mediating the talks, later in the day. He said Palestinian factions were united in their decision not to extend the 72-hour truce that ended at 0500 GMT and had been clear about their basic demands to end the conflict.
08/08/2014 9:13 AM EDT
Egypt: Agreement Close In Gaza Talks
Egypt called on Friday for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire in Gaza and a return to the negotiating table, saying that only a few outstanding issues remained in negotiations it was mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The foreign ministry calls on all sides to rise to their responsibilities ... and to return immediately to the ceasefire commitment and exploit the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited sticking points that remain in the fastest possible time," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
08/08/2014 3:58 AM EDT
Israeli Airstrikes On Gaza Resume
BREAKING: Israel says it's resumed strikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire, after end of 3-day truce.— The Associated Press (@AP) August 8, 2014
08/08/2014 3:02 AM EDT
Cease-Fire Ends With New Rocket Attacks
A 72-hour cease-fire expired at 8 a.m. today, and not long after, Gaza militants began firing rockets at Israel, The Associated Press reported.
The Israeli military said at least 10 rockets had been fired at Israel since the truce ended. Prior to the attacks, a senior official for Hamas said the militant groups would not extend the cease-fire.
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08/06/2014 2:46 PM EDT
Official: Israel Agrees To Extend Ceasefire
Israel has conditionally agreed to extend a ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in Gaza beyond a Friday deadline, an Israeli official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official did not say for how much longer Israel had agreed to extend the truce, only that: "Israel has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms," referring to the deal brokered by Egypt that took effect on Tuesday.
Hamas had no immediate comment.
08/06/2014 2:12 PM EDT
IDF: Rocket Sirens Were False Alarm
IDF confirms rocket sirens in southern Israel were false alarm http://t.co/QN677jtlXE— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) August 6, 2014
08/06/2014 1:18 PM EDT
Report: Rocket Sirens Sound At Gaza Border
ABC Foreign Editor Jon Williams reports that the IDF have confirmed the rocket sirens are sounding, but are checking to see if it is a false alarm.
08/05/2014 4:20 PM EDT
Israel Arrests Kidnapping Suspect
Reuters reports that Israel has arrested one of the suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.
Hussam Kawasme, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested on July 11 in connection with the killing of Israelis Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who went missing on June 12 and were discovered dead a couple of weeks later.
Their kidnapping sparked a cycle of violence that led to the month-long conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Kawasme's arrest was made public for the first time on Tuesday in a document from an Israeli court case over whether houses belonging to him and two other suspects - who remain at large - should be destroyed as a punitive measure.
The lawyers listed as representing Kawasme were not reachable for comment.
The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organize the kidnapping - securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.
Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.
Israel has named the other two suspects in the case as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha.