Thousands of Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip left their homes and fled south Sunday after the Israeli army warned residents via leaflets and phone calls of its decision to intensify air strikes.
An estimated 4,000 people arrived in Gaza City from the Beit Lahiya area in the early morning hours on Sunday. Traveling by car and donkey carts, and on foot, residents told VICE News that they decided to head south with what little they could carry after finding the leaflets on the ground instructing them to leave their homes before midday “for their own safety.”
Although Hamas insisted that people stay in their houses, many took to the street and headed south as soon as they heard word of Israel’s plans.
“The F16s were dropping bomb after bomb, the explosions from the drones were landing everywhere, and all I saw were civilians running for their lives. There are no resistance targets where I live,” 20-year-old Shadi Ghazawi told VICE News. He was pushing through the crowds inside one of five empty schools on the outskirts of Gaza City that are now being used as temporary shelters for refugees escaping Israel’s bombing in the north.
The campaign is focused on hitting “the usual Hamas targets we’ve been hitting throughout the Gaza Strip,” an Israeli military spokeswoman told VICE News. This operation, however, is particularly focused on taking out Hamas’s long-range rockets, indicating a potential retaliatory move for the salvo fired on Tel Aviv on Saturday. She was unable to clarify when residents would be able to return to their homes.
The cluster of five schools is run by the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), an organization that focuses specifically on Palestinian refugees. It estimates that 17,000 people have sought refuge in its facilities since hostilities between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza broke out a week ago.
'We plant, we gather, we sell and then we feed our children. How am I expected to feed my children now?'
In the Remal school in Gaza City, families squeeze together in empty classrooms, with desks piled along the walls. The sleeping bodies of adults and children alike litter the floors, weary from a week of sleepless nights. Although these facilities offer much needed shelter, they lack basic necessities like drinking water and mattresses. And as more and more families arrive, water supplies and available space are quickly used up, and the tension is rising among the buildings’ temporary residents.
“Everyone is pressured and we’re starting to forget each other,” said Ghazawi. “It’s because of the fear and the war and the bombs and the electricity cuts.”
During the Gaza War in 2008, over 40 civilians were killed after the Israeli army hit a similar UNRWA school in the Jabalia area that was providing shelter to refugees from the north.
Naji al-Atta, a 45-year-old farmer and father of seven from Gaza’s northern border, worries how he will feed his children. “We are simple farmers,” he told VICE News. “We don’t give a damn about Hamas or any other political party, we are farmers’ children. We plant, we gather, we sell and then we feed our children. How am I expected to feed my children now?”
This is the third time in the last six years he and his family have been forced to flee their home due to Israeli bombing campaigns in northern Gaza. “These rockets they are using leave holes 15 meters wide in homes,” he said. “After this is all over, will I even have a home to return to?"
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All photos by Dylan Collins