Just after dawn Sunday morning, thousands of residents streamed out of the Shujaiyeh neighborhood in Gaza City, fleeing Israel’s most intensive bombing campaign since Operation Protective Edge began 13 days ago.
More than 66 Palestinians were killed throughout the morning in the eastern Gaza City neighborhood, according to Palestinian medical sources, although the death toll is expected to rise as more bodies are uncovered from the rubble. News of what residents deem to be a “massacre” in Shujaiyeh came as the Israeli military lifted a gag order placed on the deaths of 13 soldiers, killed overnight in clashes with Palestinian militants throughout the Gaza Strip.
Bomb blasts and gunfire cackled throughout Shujaiyeh’s densely packed streets all morning, as residents fled from their homes towards the center of city, bringing with them what little they could carry.
Medical crews were unable to enter the neighborhood due to the intensity of the bombing until the Red Cross arranged for a brief, although quickly sullied “humanitarian ceasefire” to allow for the collection of the dead and injured. Israel blamed Hamas rocket fire for the collapse of the ceasefire.
Before the ceasefire began, residents told VICE News that bodies littered the streets. When members of the press were finally able to reach the area, the scene was horrific. The insides of buildings poured into streets cluttered with downed power lines, blown out ambulances, blood and broken glass. Residents rushed back into the neighborhood among the bullet-riddled buildings with gaping shell holes and masked gunmen to retrieve personal belongings.
“We know the Shujaiyeh neighborhood is Hamas’s primary stronghold in Gaza,” an IDF Spokesperson told VICE News, saying that approximately 10 percent of the rockets fired into Israel since hostilities began were launched from the area.
Many of Shujaiyeh’s refugees headed straight for al-Shifa hospital, Gaza’s central medical complex, to reconnect with family members and to check on the injured and the dead. The hospital grounds quickly descended into chaos. Sirens blared as ambulances whizzed through the front roundabout to deliver bodies uncovered in the carnage and rubble that now makes up Gaza City’s eastern neighborhood.
With the morgue’s refrigerators at capacity, hospital staff was forced to line corpses along the bloodied floor among the swarms of mourning families who pressed into the cramped room to identify and collect their dead.
“Al-Shifa is over maximum capacity,” said Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert to a cluster of press next to an impromptu media tent set up alongside the hospital. “You can't destroy a residential neighborhood row by row. This is what they [the Israeli army] are doing in Shujaiyeh. People from the neighborhood are coming back and telling us that there are tens of dead bodies laying in the streets. The ambulances simply can’t get there now,” he said, shortly before the ceasefire began.
"I've seen four bodies arrive to the hospital without a head. About 20 minutes ago, we received the first killed paramedic. Several minutes later, we received a dead journalist — wearing a flak jacket, press sign, helmet and all."
Mohammad Suker arrived at al-Shifa hospital by foot around 7 AM with his wife, four children, and 20 members of his extended family. “We had to leave,” he told VICE News. “We’ve never seen bombing like that in Shujayieh — the entire neighborhood is destroyed. The bombing was constant, there wasn’t a silent moment all night. We thought things would calm down by morning. That’s the way it usually works, but that wasn’t the case this time. Things intensified.”
Standing amid a chaotic scene of displaced families, mourning relatives, Hamas security members and frantic doctors, Suker is at a loss for what to do. “Here we are with suitcases like it was in 1948, we’re repeating our misfortunes,” he said. “We have nothing and no place to go. I guess we’ll try to see if there is room in the schools, but we’ll see where they will send us.”
Suker plans on taking his family to local schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an organization that focuses specifically on Palestinian refugees; however, he is unsure if there will be space. According to the latest number put out by spokesman Chris Gunness, more than 83,500 displaced Palestinians have taken refuge in 61 UNRWA shelters throughout the besieged strip. Families squeeze together in cramped classrooms. Fresh drinking water is hard to come by and sanitary bathrooms even more so.
“This is 100 percent man-made massacre, supported by the United States and Mr. Obama,” Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert argued, amid a wave of newly displaced residents who will soon be forced to squeeze in, along with tens of thousands of others, into the already overcrowded UNRWA facilities. "The Israeli army is fighting against people who have nothing to defend themselves and women and children bearing the brunt of it.”
All images by Dylan Collins