The Gaza Battlefield Is Crowded With the Displaced and Homeless

Many of the displaced, especially children, have developed intestinal, skin or eye diseases due to poor sanitary conditions and spoiled food.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Displaced Palestinians in the courtyard of a UN school.
Displaced Palestinians in the courtyard of a UN school.Credit: AP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The Gazans who have been uprooted from their homes are staying throughout the Gaza Strip: In 86 UNRWA schools, roughly 20 government schools, public parks, several churches, hospitals, NGO premises, warehouses belonging to shops, the garages of family homes, with relatives and friends and also in empty apartments whose owners let people live there free of charge. They are joined by a continuous stream of more displaced people as the Israeli army expands its operations westward and southward, bombarding and flattening more neighborhoods and communities.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Occupied Palestinian Territory (OCHA) reports that since the Israeli army began its ground operation in Gaza, it has been creating a buffer zone three kilometers wide (approximately 1.8 miles) along the entire Gaza Strip — roughly 44 percent of its territory. Initially, the IDF ordered residents of this band to evacuate, via fliers dropped from airplanes, announcements in the media and recorded phone calls. It then began shelling directly the houses, whether their residents are still in, or not.

Between Monday night and Tuesday evening, IDF fire killed 118 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Based on the scale of the destruction in the evacuated areas, it looks like the army’s goal is not a temporary evacuation, but the creation of a permanent buffer zone devoid of any structure.

Cautious estimates put the number of displaced persons as of Tuesday night at about 440,000 — roughly one-quarter of Gaza’s population. Since then, the number has grown by at least 140,000, including those who fled from Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood and parts of the Shujaiyeh neighborhood, as well as from the Tel al-Za’atar refugee camp and parts of the Jabalya refugee camp. A quarter of the Strip's population is now displaced and homeless.

The number of displaced Palestinians taking refuge in the 86 UNRWA schools grew Thursday morning to 225,178. UNRWA head of operations in Gaza, Robert Turner, told Haaretz Wednesday night that the UN had informed Israeli officials that it was unable to absorb more internal displaced persons in its facilities. "We have told them several times during the past two days that we expect them to assume their responsibility as the occupying power and give humanitarian aid to the displaced".

“Believe me,” said Abu Adham, who joined the teams distributing food and water in the shelters for the displaced people, “because there are so many displaced people on Nasser Street, it takes an hour to go half a kilometer” — some buy food and perhaps clothing, others go to the two large medical clinics run by UNRWA, others run away a little from the overcrowding and the noise.

Schools are overcrowded and overwhelmed. More than half the displaced people — about 220,000 — are staying in those schools, and another 20,000 in governmental schools: A total number four times higher than the number that stayed in UNRWA’s schools during the 2008-2009 attack ("Cast Lead"). About 2,000 people on average are staying in each of the schools, which are intended for 500 pupils. Some schools are sheltering 45 people per classroom on average, but some classrooms have as many as 80 people stuffed into them. Women and children from the same extended family sleep in the classrooms, while the men sleep in the corridors.

Hundreds of people congregate in the yard during the day. On Tuesday night, the Israeli army bombed Gaza’s power station, which until now had supplied a small portion of Gaza’s electricity. The bombardment hit a generator and containers of diesel fuel, and the power station went out of service. Its director believes that it will take a year to repair the damage. The bombings of the past three weeks have also struck at least five out of the ten high-tension lines that Israel sells to the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian power technicians have not yet managed to repair the damage because of the Israeli bombardments and shelling. Before the power station was bombed, there were power outages of 20 hours and more, and the power would be on for four hours. Now, the power outages last days at a time.

Floods of new refugees arrived on Monday night and Tuesday from the A-Zeitoun neighborhood, parts of Shujaiyeh that had not been evacuated completely last week, the refugee neighborhood of Tel a-Za’atar and the eastern portion of the Jabalya refugee camp. On Monday night, the Israeli army bombed and shelled the eastern margins of Gaza so heavily that even those who had been daunted by the overcrowding in the area outside the buffer zone were convinced that they had to leave. “After six hours of noise, they left their homes with nothing, just their babies and small children in their arms,” a man who had seen the wave of new refugees told Haaretz. As the shelling and bombardments inside the buffer zone advanced on Tuesday night, the number of displaced people concentrated in the inner circles of Gaza City and Khan Yunis further increased, placing an additional burden upon the crumbling water and sewage systems.

Abu Mohammed’s sister, who has not stopped mourning her neighbors who were killed, fled from Jabalya with her family on Tuesday to his home in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood. But Abu Mohammed and his family are displaced, too. They fled several days ago to an empty apartment that friends opened for them. That apartment was actually their second place of refuge after they were forced to leave their home in northern Gaza two weeks ago because of the bombardments. First they stayed with friends, but when their friends’ family had to flee their home in the eastern neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa, Abu Mohammed searched for another refuge.

On Monday night, Gaza City experienced the heaviest bombing and shelling it had known since the war. “God protect us. God have mercy on us,” people wrote to their friends on Facebook in every possible variation. In recent years, many of them bought uninterrupted power supply packs that allowed them to run their computers even during long power outages so they could keep in touch with the world.

Illuminating bombs were fired all night long. Their light blended with the thick, acrid smoke that came in through the windows. Bisan, a 20-year-old woman, uploaded a photograph to Facebook of the yellowish-white smoke, which lit up the deserted sidewalks in Tel al-Hawa in southern Gaza. “This is not the sun,” she wrote, describing another photograph showing the bright light emitted when an illuminating bomb exploded in the middle of the night. “The holiday's slaughter," [alluding to Id al-Fitr, the holiday concluding the month of Ramadan] she wrote, reassuring her friends in another post, “I’m not a shahida [martyr] yet,” adding a smiley.

But her mother told Haaretz, in a voice full of exhaustion from fear and lack of sleep: “If we survive the bombardments, we’ll certainly get all kinds of illnesses from the smoke. We heard the bombing and shelling all night long from the battleships at sea, from canons in the east and from the warplanes in the sky. The building shakes more than ever, the windows rattle as they never did, and the explosions are coming closer and getting louder.” She wants to leave, but her husband says that there is no safe place in any case.

The radio constantly reports about families killed in their homes, including in the inner circles of Gaza City. The Iyads, a middle-aged Christian couple, were killed in their home in the Rimal section by a rocket strike. Those who do not hear the news on the radio hear it from other people. For example: Several displaced people from the Al Bureij refugee camp stayed in the home of Bureij’s mayor. The home was bombed on Monday night. The mayor was killed together with his wife and two daughters. No one knows why, and the displaced people, traumatized, are searching for another place to stay.

Abu Issam and his family fled their home in Beit Lahiya last Thursday, and went to stay with relatives in Jabalya. “We received several recorded messages from the defense forces saying that we had to leave,” he recalled. “But we ignored them. After all, nowhere is safe. Do you know when I decided we had to go? When my neighbors were killed. They were 50, 55 years old. Farmers, like we are. He went outside to water his orchard, and his wife went with him. A rocket struck them and they were killed instantly.

During a brief lull in the fighting last Saturday, Abu Issam hurried home to feed and water the rabbits and chickens. “You should have seen the look they gave me, as if someone had betrayed them,” he said. He almost took the cat with him, but decided not to in the end: Roughly 40 people are cramped into his friends’ apartment, he said, “and there’s no water because there’s no power, and the water has to be pumped from the well with a pump that runs on electricity.” Abu Issam says, “We’re still lucky. We didn't have to seek shelter in a school.”

Umm Amir is a physician working with the medical teams in the schools that have become places of refuge. Nobody had been prepared for such a disastrous situation, she says. “There aren't enough mattresses. There’s not enough water for washing. As much as they bring, it’s not enough. There’s not enough soap, not enough cleaning supplies. There aren't enough plastic trash bags. Because of the hygiene problems, I've started seeing skin diseases spreading among children and among adults, too. There aren't enough toilets for the students to begin with, and what is to be done when the number of people is four or five times higher, when they’re inside the building the whole day, not just half the day? Since there aren't enough toilets, people are relieving themselves out the windows, into the sand dunes outside.

“People ate and drank less during the Ramadan fast. People brought break-fast meals to them as donations. Now UNRWA is the main one responsible for providing food. When people eat two or three times a day, in the terrible heat, without refrigerators, the food spoils. They open cans of tuna or meat, and the food spoils. There is fear of food poisoning. Children developed intestinal infections because there isn’t good nutrition and they’re not drinking enough, and because of the heat and the lack of hygiene. I transferred ten children to the hospital today — I found that they were fire-hot from infections. I give Acamol to the adults who catch cold. But the children? In this war, the children are paying the price, in death and in wounds. Everything is beyond UNRWA’s strength. It needs the budget of a country, not of a UN agency.” Umm Amir stopped her monologue for a moment and said, “Did you hear that? A bombardment has started.”

Umm Amir adds that the overcrowding has also led to eye diseases among the children. “We don’t know what’s in the smoke that comes from the bombs, and what’s in the bombs, that causes these infections. It’s terribly hot in the classrooms, outside there’s the sun, and together with the overcrowding, that leads to inflammations.” On top of all that, there are the people who were wounded in the bombardments and cannot remain in the hospitals, which are overcrowded with people wounded even worse than they. Those who were relatively lightly wounded go to the hospital for an examination, then return to their overcrowded refuges.

“I go from one room to another and speak with the people. A woman who has been here for almost two weeks already gave birth in the school eight days ago. Eleven women gave birth here at the school. This woman doesn't have enough milk, there’s not enough formula to give the babies and not enough milk for the small children. There’s not enough milk for thousands of children up to four years old. There’s also no good nutrition for pregnant women and women who have given birth, which is going to affect the future development of the babies. There are also not enough diapers or feminine hygiene supplies for women who have given birth, or for women in general. There’s also hardly any way for them to wash, particularly when they are menstruating.

“All the families fled without a change of clothing. During the cease-fire they ran to their homes, only to find that everything inside had been burned or buried under the rubble. We’re asking people to donate clothing. Every day I come with a few big bags full of clothing. People have also anonymously donated money for the holiday. Most of the displaced people here are from Shujaiyeh. They came back maddened from the devastation they found.

“Both of us [Abu Amir and I] took out loans to build our homes. I think of all the people in the school who lost their homes. All of them took out loans, and now they’re left with their debts and no home. What will all these thousands of people do who have lost their homes? Will they keep on paying the banks?

“There are impoverished people here — a woman who had to go to the nearby hospital for medical treatment told me that she did not have one shekel or two for a taxi. There are also wealthy families who lost everything they had. I went to treat one woman with diabetes who was sitting in one of the classrooms — a very lovely woman, about 50 years old. She sat in a corner and cried. She told me that she had gone to get things from her home, and found her building — six floors and 12 apartments for her whole family — lying on the ground, a pile of concrete. She also found that all their cars had been crushed or bombed out.

“I told her: Don’t cry. Thank God, you are alive and your husband is alive, and your children are all right. You will rebuild. After all, we build our whole lives, and the Jews come and destroy them, and then we go back and build anew. I gave her the proper medication and left, my heart burnt".

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