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For Trapped Gazan Civilians, Few Options for Safety

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By Craig Whitlock and Reyham Abdel Kareem
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 5, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 4 -- As Israeli forces attacked Gaza by land, sea and air, residents living in the congested coastal strip faced a fateful question: Flee the shelling and shooting, or hole up inside their homes and hope for the best?

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The five-member al-Jarou family decided to make a break for it around midday Sunday. They abandoned their home in the Shaaf neighborhood east of Gaza City and dashed by car to a relative's house a mile and a half away, thinking it would be safer, according to interviews with family members and neighbors.

For a little while, it was. Then came a series of explosions. Concrete and debris hammered through the air. Hassan al-Jarou, 10, was struck in the head. "I was in the house, with my uncles, my dad and my grandfather, and I saw stones flying," he said as nurses attended to his injuries at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. "I don't know what happened after that."

Hassan's grandfather and father were injured as well. Husam al-Shurafa, 26, a neighbor, helped rush them to the hospital. He said he had seen enough mayhem on the streets to persuade him to head back home and take his chances there. "I'd rather die with my family in my house," he said.

Like 1.5 million others in Gaza, Shurafa was trapped inside the territory with nowhere to go. He said life had become increasingly intolerable in recent years, with plenty of blame to go around. "I see death everywhere," he said. "If it's not the Israelis, it's Hamas and Fatah as well."

As the ground invasion unfolded, Israeli military officials continued to ban foreign journalists from entering Gaza, making it difficult to ascertain conditions there. But reports from Palestinian journalists and other eyewitness accounts described scenes of widespread panic as people scrambled for refuge.

Confronted by electrical blackouts and worsening food shortages, some people risked emerging from their homes, only to find more trouble.

Early Sunday afternoon, Diyaa Abu Amrou, 22, said he carefully drove to a market near Gaza City to look for groceries for his family. His path was blocked when a mortar shell carved a crater into a nearby street. "I jumped out of the car and ran behind a wall to hide," he said.

After the dust cleared, Amrou drove instead to Shifa Hospital to be treated for minor injuries. He resolved to go back home and not come out until the fighting ends. He said that his family of nine lives near a Hamas mosque that he assumes will be targeted by the Israeli military but that they don't know where else to go.

"Yes, I'm worried," he said. "But we have candles and a radio. That's enough."

The wards and trauma rooms of Shifa Hospital were packed with injured Gazans. Many complained that ambulances were nowhere to be found and said they had risked further danger just to get medical treatment. Generators kept electricity flowing, but occasionally they faltered, momentarily leaving the hospital in the dark after sunset.

The morgue also filled up, as rescue workers lay bodies on wooden benches and tables. Grief-stricken relatives moved from corpse to corpse to see if they could identify missing family members.

Beneath one sheet in the morgue was the body of a 17-year-old girl still dressed in a black head scarf, identified by relatives as Jehad Ahmed. They said the family had fled their home in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza, running from the sounds of artillery fire. But they then ran into shelling from another direction, they said.

Jehad sustained a severe head wound and was taken to the hospital. When her mother arrived later, relatives didn't have the heart to tell her that the teenager had died. "My daughter, oh, God, dear God!" the mother cried as she found her way to the morgue.

Ahmed Mutair, 21, and his brothers ventured outside their house in the al-Esraa neighborhood, north of Gaza City, on Sunday afternoon. He was shot in the chest by a sniper, according to his brothers and a neighbor. They screamed for an ambulance, but none came.

They carried Mutair to the hospital, where he underwent surgery. "My brother -- is he okay? Is he okay?" sobbed one of his brothers, Hassan Mutair, who was wearing blood-soaked cream-colored socks because he had lost his shoes in the chaos. Ahmed's prognosis, other relatives confided, was not good.

Abdel Kareem reported from Gaza City.


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