AL SHEJAIYA, GAZA — On the deadliest day so far in the new Gaza war, at least 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting that, in less than two weeks has killed at least 348 Palestinians and wounded 2,700. Hamas also claimed it captured one Israeli soldier.
Thousands of Gazans are fleeing the intense Israeli shelling of the Al Shejaiya neighborhood. Earlier Sunday, columns of scared and traumatized families carrying whatever belongings they could were streaming out of the eastern Gaza district that borders Israel. Tank shells exploded all around as occasional barrages of retaliatory Palestinian rockets fired toward Israel and bursts of machine-gun fire rang out along the emptying streets.
As I made my way among war-scarred apartment blocks, dozens of people huddled together trying to judge the risk as they pause, then walked briskly in the opposite direction. The sound of shells exploding mixed with the constant buzz of drones overhead, all against the deadly white noise of constant Israeli and Palestinian machine-gun fire. A screaming shell hit a building on an adjacent street. Fleeing residents screamed and moments later an ambulance sped toward the billowing smoke.
While Israel is demonstrating its unquestionably overpowering force, Palestinian guerrilla tactics have started to taking a toll on Israel as well, killing 13 soldiers and, according to Hamas, leading to the capture of one soldier. But the civilians, even those who are proud of the largely symbolic resistance, can take little consolation for the future. They have nowhere to run to, no place that guarantees safety. They can only hope that their extended families can give them shelter and support.
Many of the Palestinian residents of Al Shejaiya are descendents of those who arrived after fleeing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Many of those who were fleeing today had done so before in the 2008 and 2012 Gaza wars.
While ambulances stretched to capacity zip between the bombs to pick up dead and wounded, the hard-pressed hospitals are about the only social services Gazans can rely on.
“We are going to my wife’s parents [in central Gaza],” said 32-year-old Mohammad Abu Qumbaz, as he walks quickly down the street gripping his wife’s hand. “Where else can we go?” he asked, panic in his voice, trying to carry the two small children who clung to him desperately.
According to Palestinian estimates, 60 people have been killed in this one neighborhood so far and more than 400 injured. By some counts that brings the overall total to more than 400 Palestinians killed in this 13-day conflict.
As Israel intensifies its attacks and the Palestinian resistance expands its guerilla tactics, that death toll rate will only rise.
Qambaza described a night of intense artillery bombardment that started yesterday around 7:30 p.m. As explosions went off he moved his wife and children from room to room trying to keep them safe. Seeing people cut down and bodies strewn in the street, he said the family waited nervously for daybreak before trying to escape to his in-laws. Still, he is skeptical that he will find much refuge. “God willing,” he said.
For those who don’t have families in parts of Gaza that are less targeted, the options are even more limited. United Nations schools and even microfinance offices have been opened as shelters for the displaced, but according to Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, they are already trying to cope with 61,000 internal refugees displaced since this outbreak of violence.
Magdin Ayad, 26, standing with her seven children in front of a shuttered store on the edge of Al Shejaiya, doesn’t know where she can go. “We will just sit and wait,” she said amid the routine boom of exploding tank shells. With all her family also fleeing from the district, her only option is to join the hundreds seeking safety at Gaza City’s Al Shifa hospital.
Although strained and running out of supplies, the hospitals are the sole sign of any functioning civil institutions. There is a constant flow of ambulances bringing in wounded while doctors scurry to save them. Hamas spokesmen stand by the hospital gates and denounce the attack on Al Shejaiya as a massacre and vow to fight on. It’s the only place to get official government comment in Gaza and a handful of guards are the only security forces to be seen.
A few hundred meters away, the bodies pile up in the morgue and people walk through rooms that reek of blood and death, looking at the corpses under white sheets to find loved ones. Gazans feel like they are alone in this onslaught, and in the face of the advancing Israeli military, they can only rely on each other.