Trapped in hell: Palestinian civilians try to survive in northern Gaza, focus of Israel’s offensive


DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — When Israeli warplanes bombed the crowded Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza this week, neonatal nurse Hudaa Ali Eldaor felt the vibration in her ward at the nearby Kamal Adwan Hospital. She heard the thunder and saw the smoke.

Then the wounded flooded in. Patients young and old filled the beds and then covered the floors — burns and shrapnel wounds, life-threatening abdominal bleeds, traumatic amputations. Eldaor snapped into crisis mode: Halt the bleeding. Resuscitate. Clean just enough to prevent sepsis.

During the bedlam Wednesday, Eldaor caught a glimpse of two familiar faces coated with gray dust. She ran toward them, screaming. They were her boys, 7-year-old Kenan and 9-year-old Haidar.

She buried them later that day, along with her sister, two brothers and three uncles.

On Thursday, Eldaor was back at work, weeping between hospital rounds. “What was their fault? What was their guilt?” she asked.

Weeks after ordering northern Gaza’s 1.1 million inhabitants to evacuate south, the Israeli army is intensifying its bombardment of the area that stretches down toward the wetlands of Wadi Gaza, in the central strip. Israeli soldiers are also battling Hamas militants in close quarters just north of Gaza City — the start of what is expected to be a long and bloody ground invasion.

Israel’s ground operation, under cover of heavy tank and artillery fire, has stranded hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who remain in northern Gaza.

Residents say they are trapped in hell.

“We are living in constant terror,” said Anas al-Sharif, a freelance journalist in Jabaliya who covered the heavy bombardment of the camp Tuesday and Wednesday. “It’s not one or two airstrikes. We are talking about eight, nine, 10 — I can’t even count, all in the same place. It’s a catastrophe.”

The strikes killed dozens of people and reduced parts of the camp to ruins, pocked by massive bomb craters.

The Israeli military said Wednesday’s strike took out a Hamas control center and that Tuesday’s hit a high-level Hamas commander who helped plan the Oct. 7 attack that killed more than 1,400 people in southern Israel. It also said the strikes hit a network of Hamas tunnels beneath the neighborhood, causing the buildings above to collapse.

Critics say the vast destruction is evidence that Israel’s attacks are disproportionate and don’t take precautions to avoid civilians. Israel says it does not target civilians and blames Hamas for conducting military operations and launching rockets from crowded residential areas.

“Even if there is a Hamas commander there, there is no justification to kill that many civilians and to create destruction like that,” said Shawan Jabarin, director of the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq.

Images from the strikes — blood-splattered children climbing over giant mounds of rubble, buildings sliced in half or flattened altogether, once-bustling streets erased by yawning craters — have resonated around the world. They have also struck a nerve within Gaza, where the Jabaliya camp is known for its violent resistance to Israeli military rule during the first and second Palestinian uprisings, starting in 1987.

Jabaliya is the largest of the refugee camps in Gaza, where two-thirds of the population are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. At the time, some 700,000 Palestinians were uprooted.

Over the generations, Jabaliya has grown into an overcrowded neighborhood of cement-block buildings that are home to 116,000 people, the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency estimates, squeezed into just half a square mile (1.4 square kilometers).

“Jabaliya is more than a place, it’s a part of me. It’s one massive family,” said Yousef Hammash, an aid worker with the Norwegian Refugee Council who was born in the camp. “It’s somewhere that as a Palestinian, you are proud to live and be from.”

Those refusing Israeli military evacuation orders and staying in northern Gaza say they have their reasons. Eldaor, like most medics struggling to save lives despite fuel and supply shortages, said she can’t bear abandoning her patients.

Some families don’t have cars, or fuel to power them. Some have nowhere to go in the south, with its overflowing shelters and displacement camps. Palestinians are also hesitant to move where they don’t know the lay of the land, for fear of finding themselves next to Hamas-affiliated buildings as Israel’s bombardment escalates across both ends of the strip.

Roughly 30,000 Palestinian evacuees returned to their homes in northern Gaza after concluding the south was no safer, the U.N. humanitarian office says.

“We have nothing to do with this war. So when it intensified and we got voice messages urging us to leave the north, we did,” said Nabil Saqallah, a radio journalist. He sought refuge with his large extended family in the southern city of Khan Younis only to watch Israeli airstrikes kill 18 of his relatives, ranging in age from 10 months to 47 years old.

“And then what happened? Israeli warplanes turned our hope into the worst kind of sorrow.”

Now with Israeli tanks spotted on the northern edges of Gaza City, it’s far too risky for residents to venture south. Israeli shelling from the ground and sea has repeatedly targeted motorists on the strip’s main north-south routes.

Israel says it has made every possible effort to persuade Palestinian civilians to head south. In a meeting with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday, Israel’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, said the military had gone to great lengths to persuade hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians to leave northern Gaza by showering the area with pamphlets urging evacuation and sending thousands of warnings by text.

But Palestinians say the roads south are fraught with peril.

On Friday, Israeli shells hit a convoy of evacuees, killing roughly a dozen Palestinians, doctors said. Footage from the road shows dead bodies of children encrusted with blood laying in the soft sand. All of their remaining personal belongings were scattered beside them — a few backpacks, a big stuffed animal and some canned food. Among the dead was a girl with her hair in a ponytail wearing a purple velvet sweater.

“The medics had to leave more bodies in the middle of the road because they were coming under fire,” said freelance journalist Fuad Abu Khamad, who traveled with emergency workers to the site.

The dangers have isolated northern Gaza. Truckloads of aid gradually crossing into the southern strip from Egypt can’t make it north. Frequent internet and mobile network outages exacerbate the problems.

“Israeli forces have cut Gaza into two parts,” said Hammash, the Jabaliya aid worker. “That means that the north gets less resources, less help, less food.”

Thousands of desperate Palestinians who fled their homes in the north or lost them to Israeli airstrikes have packed into hospitals in the area. Schools run by the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency in the north are also bursting at the seams, with 30,000 displaced Palestinians in the Jabaliya shelters.

“Across the Gaza Strip, these shelters should be a safe haven, under the flag of the United Nations,” said Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s commissioner general.

On Thursday an explosion ripped through one of the shelters in Jabaliya, he said, killing 20 people who had sought refuge.


DeBre reported from Jerusalem. Chehayeb reported from Beirut.

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