Israel has told Gazans to seek safe shelter, but many say there is no such thing


Palestinians inspect the rubble of the destroyed Al Aqsa Martyrs' mosque in Gaza City on July 22. (Mohammed Saber/EPA)
July 22

Ordinary people in the Gaza Strip have been told by Israel they are being used as human shields by Hamas. Leaflets dropped from the sky and phone calls have warned them to flee the fighting immediately.

But many Gazans want to know: Flee where?

In the past two days, Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire have struck an evacuation shelter, cemeteries, a school, mosques and al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al-Balah, where four people were killed. The border crossings to Egypt and Israel are closed to Palestinians.

“You tell me where should we go,” said Nael al-Safadi, a refrigerator repairman who at sunset Monday heard a teeth-rattling explosion and ran from his house to find a head lying on the sidewalk outside.

It might have belonged to one of the 10 members of the al-Kilani family who were killed. The family had just moved into a high-rise across the street in central Gaza City when the top six floors were smashed by missiles.

Gaza is small and getting smaller. It is 25 miles long, almost the length of a marathon, and between four and seven miles wide. Even before the current conflict, Gazans complained their home was a prison.

With Israeli troops now inside the border fence and the fight moving from the margins to populated areas, more than 40 percent of the territory has been declared a “closed military zone” by Israel, according to the United Nations.

More than 118,000 people in Gaza have fled their homes to search for a place beyond the fighting, but many say they are running out of options. Even the graveyards are filling fast.

According to their neighbors, the Kilanis had fled from Beit Lahiya, one of the first districts to be hit by Israeli bombardment, to Shijaiyah, the scene of the bloodiest fighting, to an apartment they might have imagined was relatively safe in the city center. It was in a building called al-Salam, meaning “peace.”

Israel says mosques, schools and hospitals are being used to fire rockets or cache weapons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netantayu said Hamas is “targeting our civilians and hiding behind its civilians. That’s a double war crime.”

On Tuesday, the U.N. agency that is sheltering evacuees said that for the second time it had found a stockpile of rockets stashed in one of its schools.

In the past two weeks, Israel has destroyed or severely damaged 472 homes, according to the United Nations. Israel says it has targeted Hamas militants inside homes or destroyed houses that were allegedly being used as militant bases.

“Does this happen anywhere else in the world? You get a phone call. They tell you, ‘Run for your lives!’ Then they blow your house up?” said Gaza Housing Minister Moufeed al-Hasainah.

The repairman who gathered the remains said he did not know the Kilani family.

“This is also a problem,” he said. “Everyone is moving around. You don’t know who your neighbors are. Maybe someone wanted by the Israelis is living next door.”

St. Porphyrius monastery is the heart of the small Greek Orthodox community in Gaza. The church dates to the Crusades in the 12th century. Since Sunday, more than 700 evacuees, all of them Muslims, have crowded into the courtyard for what they hoped was refuge.

“I was just saying to my friend, ‘Relax, this is the safest place in Gaza,’ when the first rockets hit,” said Majid al-Jamal, 22, who works in a body shop and was struck on the head by a piece of flying brick Monday night.

That is when four Israeli missiles struck the tombs in the small church cemetery. Shrapnel peppered the school next door. Jamal said militants fired rockets, from the cemetery or nearby.

“A child was born, right here, right after the airstrike,” said Archbishop Alexios, leader of the church. “I think the fear pushed the baby out.”

Islam Abdul Karim contributed to this report

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