180K+ Palestinians Are in Shelters, 'Nowhere to Go'

And those civilian shelters aren't even safe
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 10, 2023 2:41 PM CDT
For Gaza's Civilians, 'We Have Nowhere to Go'
Palestinians walk by the rubble of a building after it was struck by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. Palestinian health officials reported scores of deaths from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.   (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Over 180,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are packed into UN shelters as Israeli warplanes pound the tiny territory of 2.3 million people in the wake of Hamas' weekend attack on Israel. Among them is 27-year-old Sabreen al-Attar. She sprang into action when she heard rocket after rocket whoosh over her farmland just south of the Israeli border on Saturday, reports the AP. She knew from experience that Israeli retaliation would be swift and severe. Grabbing her children, al-Attar rushed to one of the dozens of shelters set up in schools run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza City. There, blasts of unprecedented intensity punctuated hours of steadily declining conditions Monday as food and water ran out. "When I escape, I do it for my children," she said, her hands trembling. "Their lives rest on my shoulders."

But residents say there is no real escape in Gaza, which has been under a suffocating 16-year blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. When war breaks out, as it has four times since Hamas seized power in 2007, even UN facilities that are supposed to be safe zones risk becoming engulfed in the fighting. The UN said that an airstrike directly hit one of its shelters Sunday and damaged five schools-turned-shelters on Monday. In the downtown Rimal area, Gaza City's bustling commercial district with high-rises home to international media and aid organizations, al-Attar hoped she would be safe. Rimal had until then not been an immediate Israeli target, unlike border towns or densely populated refugee camps. But the Israeli military's rapid and intensifying airstrikes reached the heart of Gaza City, transforming the affluent neighborhood into an uninhabitable desert of craters.

Israeli bombs that struck Gaza's flagship Islamic University, government ministries, and high-rises in Rimal, starting Monday afternoon, also blew out the windows of al-Attar's shelter, shattering glass everywhere. Crammed with 1,500 other families, Al-Attar said she had no choice but to stay, telling her boys—ages 2 and 7—to keep away from windows. "We have nowhere else to go," she said Tuesday. The bombing in Rimal and the potential risks of sheltering in UN schools highlighted the desperate search by Gaza civilians for refuge, with the territory's safe spaces rapidly shrinking. Ahead of the Israeli military's warning to civilians on Monday that Rimal would be hit, families staggered into the streets with whatever belongings they could carry and without a destination.

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"There is never a Plan B here," said 31-year-old Maha Hussaini, as she watched terrified Rimal residents flood her Gaza City neighborhood further south just as bombs began to fall there, too. "None of us even know what 'safe' means in Gaza," said 28-year-old Hind Khoudary, who was hunkered down in the upscale Roots Hotel as deafening explosions thundered. "These are not people with (militant) affiliations," she said of those around her. "But on days like this, there is zero difference." On Saturday after the massive Hamas attack, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu warned Gaza civilians of the horrors to come. "Get out now," he said. "Because we will operate everywhere." Khoudary was listening to him as the airstrikes intensified, trapped in her home with nowhere to run. "Why didn't he tell us where to flee?" she asked. "Because we'd really like to know."

(More Israel-Hamas war stories.)

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