For Battered Gazans, Few Places Left to Hide

Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as diplomats in Cairo suggest tentative progress in their efforts to reach a cease-fire.
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Reyham Abdel Kareem
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 6 -- It was shortly after noon Tuesday when Intisar Sultan walked through the clusters of dirty children and fatigued adults, leaving behind a U.N. school that had been turned into a refuge for families hoping to escape the fighting around them.

She walked out its doors without her son, Abdullah, 19, who had died along with two cousins hours earlier in an Israeli airstrike that hit the school in Gaza City. They had been returning to bed from the bathroom.

"We left our house for this shelter away from the fire, away from the shelling. But they followed us here," she cried uncontrollably. "This place was supposed to be safe."

In the sliver of land called the Gaza Strip, thousands of Palestinians are trapped between advancing Israeli forces and Hamas gunmen, who often fight from the houses, high-rise apartment buildings and office compounds of the crowded neighborhoods.

The conflict on the ground has made the desperate search for refuge more difficult for Palestinian civilians. By Tuesday, more than 15,000 Palestinians had arrived in the nearly two dozen U.N. emergency shelters, some entering rooms that days earlier had hosted classes.

"People are terrorized by this situation, and they have a right to be," said John Ging, head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza. "They are fleeing their homes thinking they are going into a U.N. location, that they will be safe. But there is nowhere to flee. They are trapped."

Less than 17 hours after Abdullah and his cousins died, Israeli artillery hit another U.N. shelter located in a school inside the Jabalya refugee camp. At least 40 people died in the strike.

Israel said Hamas fighters had fired mortars from the school and named two of the dead as heads of Hamas mortar units. Israel also released a video showing Hamas fighters launching rockets and mortars from another school in 2006.

U.N. officials called for a probe of the attacks on both schools. "For a long time, the school was filling up -- women, children and others fleeing the conflict. For a military that apparently has very good surveillance, it would have been clear that these were people fleeing the conflict," said Christopher Gunness, a U.N. spokesman, adding that officials of the world body had given the Israeli military satellite coordinates of all their schools. "All our facilities are clearly marked. We want an impartial investigation to find out what happened."

Many people in Gaza are making painful choices about whether to remain in their homes or flee.

Amenhe al-Douse, 55, said that 70 people had crowded into her family's apartment building and that they were too scared to leave. "I am afraid if I go outside I'll be shot," she said, speaking by phone. "We are living without electricity. There's no water."

Her son, Eyad, an auto mechanic living in Ramallah in the West Bank, said travel restrictions have kept him from seeing his parents for more than a decade. Now, from afar, he worries about them day and night.

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