The streets are empty. In some areas, the pounding is relentless. Whole neighborhoods have been plunged into darkness.
On the fourth day of an Israeli air-and-sea offensive on Gaza, with the specter of an invasion looming, Palestinian civilians are finding themselves once again trapped in a near-perpetual war zone—a 140-square-mile swath of territory with no escape routes and few places to hide.
Though the death toll so far has been relatively low—around 40 as of Saturday— that number doesn’t quite reflect the nightmare that is Gaza, where Israeli warplanes struck at least 85 times overnight and where bombardments even some distance away have the force to shake walls and blow out windows.
Along the length of the narrow enclave, most shops are closed. Gas stations have run out of petrol and are not being refilled. Some areas have been evacuated, as residents try to game out what parts of Gaza Israel will target next, and which neighborhoods might be spared.
“Orchards and open fields are the most dangerous,” says Mohammed Sulaiman, a 23-year-old resident of Al Karameh in northern Gaza, explaining that Israel targets these areas to prevent Islamic militants from using them for rocket launchings on Tel Aviv and other cities.
“Anyone who lives near an orchard has left their home.”
Sulaiman, who returned to Gaza three months ago after completing a master’s degree in London, said an air strike on the second day of the offensive had knocked out power in his neighborhood. He’s since been sleeping at the homes of friends.
“There no one place that you might be able to describe as safe at the moment. I really feel that my life is in jeopardy in the street. Everyone is just staying at home, no one is taking the risk of going to a supermarket or anything.”
On both sides of the border, images of civilians fleeing the attacks have defined the campaign. Palestinians fired rockets yesterday at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel’s two biggest metropolises. Sirens wailed in the cities, prompting Israelis to rush to their safe rooms—where reinforced concrete walls have been part of the building code since the first Gulf War in 1991.
The sirens, triggered by electronic detection of launches in Gaza, give Israelis at least a minute-long warning ahead of impact. They’ve helped minimize casualties from the rockets, which carry payloads of between 30 and 200 pounds. The only Israelis killed by rocket fire since the start of the operation—two men and a woman—were standing on their balcony in the town of Kiryat Malachi on Thursday when the projectiles hit.
Yesterday, denizens of Tel Aviv scrambled for cover when a siren went off around midday. But in the trendy cafes around the city, they quickly went back to their Friday routine of sipping coffee and reading newspapers.
In southern Israel, where residents have been pounded by Palestinian rockets for years, Israeli antimissile batteries are now intercepting about one third of the incoming projectiles, according to official figures. The Israeli Army said today it had moved one of the batteries—known as Iron Dome—to the Tel Aviv area.
In Gaza, residents have neither sirens nor safe rooms. When an Israeli missile struck the two-bedroom home of the Basyouni family in Beit Hanoun in eastern Gaza Thursday night, it crashed through a concrete wall and leveled most of the structure, killing 9-year-old Fares Basyouni and his 16-year-old neighbor, Uday Naser.
Fares’s mother, Awatef Basyouni, told The Daily Beast she thought that Beit Hanoun would be spared. Because it’s close to the border with Israel, militants don’t usually fire from the area, she said.
“I jumped to the boys’ bedroom. I saw blood all over Fares’s face. I grabbed his face and tried to get him to talk to me. I screamed at the top of my voice. My husband who had already gone out to fetch an ambulance was not there,” she said in a phone interview.
Israeli officials say they’re targeting weapons depots, smuggling tunnels, and top Hamas militants. They say the militants put civilians at risk by operating in residential areas and hiding rockets and other weapons in urban centers.
Elsewhere in Gaza, at least four other children have been killed since Wednesday, including Hanan Tafesh, a 10-month-old girl whose home in Zeitoun was hit by an Israeli missile. When Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil visited Gaza’s Shifa hospital yesterday, he held the bloodied body of another child whom Palestinians said was killed in an Israeli attack.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem is touring Gaza today, in another unprecedented visit since Hamas grabbed power there in 2007.
Palestinian human-rights groups said at least 250 buildings had been damaged in Israeli attacks since Wednesday, including a Hamas government compound where Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s office is located. Israeli warplanes struck the building overnight.
Israel is continuing its preparations for a possible ground assault, with the government Friday approving the call up of 75,000 reservists—up dramatically from the 17,000 officials had initially ordered. By comparison, only about 10,000 reservists were mobilized during Israel’s massive three-week invasion of Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009 dubbed Cast Lead—an operation that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many call-up notices had actually been issued or why Israel would need so many troops for the operation. In remarks on Israeli television Friday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ruled out a long-term reoccupation of Gaza, which Israel withdrew from in 2005.
While there seems to be broad Israeli support for continuing the assault on Gaza, some analysts are now warning that an invasion of Gaza could end up being disastrous for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election in two months.
With reporting by Nuha Musleh