“We don’t sleep, it’s happening all around us”

The civilian population in the Gaza Strip is suffering from Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel. Hundreds of thousands are forced to flee because of the retaliatory attacks. Snapshots from an area under fire.

There is currently no protection anywhere in Gaza, says Mona Sabbah on the phone from Gaza City. Since Saturday, the 29-year-old has been spending most of her time in the basement of her home with her children, her husband and the neighbors. “Last night there was continuous bombing, especially in (the district of) Rimal it was heavy. One wonders: Where will the bombings occur next? Will you survive the night? Will we see a new day dawn?”

It is the fifth clash between Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. And yet everything is different. Early Saturday morning, Hamas, the terrorist organization that rules the Gaza Strip, began firing rockets into Israeli villages and towns. Then hundreds of Palestinian gunmen broke through the high-security fence and entered Israeli towns around the sealed-off Gaza Strip to randomly kill and kidnap people

Israel’s government then declared a state of war. Since then, Israel has been bombing the isolated coastal strip. At the same time, Israeli cities and communities are under constant rocket fire from militant Palestinian groups from Gaza.

The small area with around 2.3 million inhabitants has been largely sealed off from Israel and partly from Egypt for more than 16 years. The Islamist Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 after an election victory and battles with Fatah fighters. The renewed war is raising the worst fears among many people in Gaza.

1,300 Palestinians killed, more than 6,000 injured

“If they want something, they should settle it with Hamas. They hit us, not Hamas,” says Sabbah. “I cried all night, we all screamed and cried. It’s unbelievable that this is happening to us again. We are civilians, we have done nothing, we want it to be over. There is no electricity, no internet, hardly any water. Isn’t it enough that we’ve been living under a blockade for 15, 16 years? What’s next?”

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, more than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed and more than 6,000 people have been injured since the war began. Israeli media reports that the bodies of around 1,500 Palestinian terrorists who crossed the border are in Israel.

So far, more than 1,200 people have died in Israel and more than 3,100 have been injured. A majority of the victims were killed in the terrorist attacks on Saturday. 100 to 150 people, including children, senior citizens and foreign citizens, have been kidnapped to Gaza and are being held hostage.

Israel is rigorously sealing off the Gaza Strip

Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced a “complete blockade” on Monday and stopped deliveries of electricity, food and gasoline from Israel to the sealed off area. Otherwise, food and fuel are brought to Gaza – under strict controls – via the Israeli border crossing Kerem Shalom. The drinking water that the Palestinian Authority buys in Israel for the Gaza Strip will also no longer be delivered. Egypt is currently keeping its only border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip closed in light of Israeli airstrikes.

Israeli human rights organizations such as Gisha, which advocates for freedom of movement for Palestinians, criticized Israel’s retaliation as collective punishment and a “total disregard for the civilian population.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Gaza’s only power plant ran out of fuel. Long power outages are common in Gaza, but this complete blackout is pushing the small area to its limits. “The electricity is now gone and there is no more fuel for generators,” reports a journalist in Gaza, who is charging his cell phone with a small solar device.

The health system is in danger of collapsing

This makes the feeling of isolation even more intense, especially now that everyone is at home seeking makeshift shelter from the air raids and cell phones are the only way to stay in touch with family and friends. But the hospitals and the already weak health system are also affected and are in danger of completely collapsing given the increasing number of injuries. The International Committee of the Red Cross has now warned that the hospitals are in danger of turning into morgues.

“I just can’t do it anymore,” Raed El Athamnah said in a telephone conversation with DW. The father of the family worked as a driver for foreign journalists for many years. On Saturday he had to flee with his family from Beit Hanoun, a city in the north of Gaza, in the border area with Israel.

They are now poorly housed in a school run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in Jabaliya, a refugee camp and neighborhood in Gaza City. “We only have what we wore on Saturday. We haven’t showered since then. We don’t sleep, it’s happening all around us,” says El Athamnah. Like him, countless others are on the run within the Gaza Strip. There aren’t many options: The borders to Egypt and Israel are closed and there are no shelters or bunkers.

Hundreds of thousands of people on the run

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 340,000 people have had to flee their homes since Saturday, mainly from areas near the border in the north and east of the Gaza Strip. Around two thirds of them seek protection in schools run by the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. Others are trying to stay with relatives further west of Gaza, but there too the Israeli air force and navy are bombing from the coast.

The fear and trauma of past wars runs deep among many people in Gaza. “It’s a nightmare that keeps coming back,” says El Athamnah, who had already lost his house in the 2008-2009 war.

“We don’t feel safe here either – and who knows what’s to come,” says Athamnah, who says the Israeli airstrikes are more intense and violent than anything he has experienced before. People’s fears are well-founded: Israel’s prime minister has warned that “Hamas has made a mistake of historic proportions” – and the price will be “remembered for decades.” A ground offensive is said to be imminent.

Hank Peter

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