x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Palestinians flee northern Gaza as Israel threatens ground attack

Attacks on northern Gaza intensified on Sunday and thousands fled to UN facilities in Gaza City, reports Hugh Naylor

Palestinians pass a home that was recently damaged by an Israeli air strike as they flee to take shelter at United Nations facilities in Gaza City on July 13. Heidi Levine for The National
Palestinians pass a home that was recently damaged by an Israeli air strike as they flee to take shelter at United Nations facilities in Gaza City on July 13. Heidi Levine for The National

GAZA CITY // Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza fled for safety on Sunday as Israel threatened a ground invasion and escalated its now six-day campaign of airstrikes against Hamas targets.

About 4,000 residents of northern Gaza left their homes to head south to take refuge in United Nations facilities in Gaza City, said Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (Unrwa).

He said the agency feared that its Gaza compound would be targeted like it was during the three-week war against the territory that began in December 2008 and killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians.

“The key message from us to all parties, particularly the IDF, is that they must respect the sanctity of human life and the inviolability of UN installations,” he said in reference to the Israeli military.

Civilians have borne the brunt of Israel’s onslaught in the territory, which by yesterday afternoon had killed at least 165 people.

The UN said that 70 per cent of those killed were civilians.

In perhaps the largest massacre since hostilities began on Tuesday, 18 members of the Batsh family were killed by airstrikes on their home in Gaza City on Saturday. The Israeli attack came as Hamas launched a series of rockets at Tel Aviv.

In northern Gaza, airstrikes and naval bombardments on the area intensified on Sunday, forcing scores of families to gather belongings in plastic bags and head for sanctuary in Gaza City. Vehicles topped with those bags and mattresses streamed into Gaza City on Sunday morning.

“My family and I didn’t sleep at all last night because of the bombs. I’m scared,” said Hamada Al Sultan, 12, who fled the northern village of Salatin to a makeshift room at the UN-administered Beach C school in Gaza City with his parents and nine brothers and sisters. They left because of the Israeli attacks that pounded his village during the previous evening, said Hamada, who was playing with scores of other children in the school’s concrete courtyard.

By Sunday afternoon, the number of those arriving from the north appeared to far exceed the initial estimate of 4,000, evidenced by overcrowding at UN-run schools that have been transformed into shelters.

A Unrwa employee said 1,000 people had sought refuge at the Beach C school. She said the UN agency had plans to open dozens more schools and facilities, while on Saturday, UNRWA’s director of Gaza operations, Robert Turner, said the agency could provide shelter to 50,000 displaced people in the event of a ground invasion.

Israel has mobilised 33,000 soldiers for a ground assault and a small team of its commandos clashed with fighters during an attempt to take out rocket-launching infrastructure, the military said.

Militants have launched 809 rockets since the flare-up started, 635 of which have struck Israeli soil as far north as Haifa.

Over the last three days, Israel began warning people by telephone, dropping leaflets and television to leave large parts of northern Gaza, such as Beit Lahiya, Salatin and Atatra, said residents who fled the area. On Sunday, Israel dropped leaflets telling civilians to “evacuate their residences immediately and move by 12pm today”.

Um Ali Nijim, 45, was told to leave her home during a broadcast of the pro-Hamas Al Quds TV on Sunday morning that was interrupted by an Israeli message showing narrated text with a map. Her village of Atatra was one of those that the message said should be evacuated, said Um Nijim, who arrived on Sunday morning at the Beach C school with her husband, daughter and son.

Her other four sons refused to leave their home, which was rebuilt with UN-aid money after Israel destroyed it during the 2008-2009 war.

“My heart hurts thinking that my sons are there,” she said. “I’m so afraid that I’ll lose them. I’m already lost here.”

She was waiting with her family to find rooms at the Beach C school that had quickly filled up by the afternoon.

Misbah Al Sultan, 45, his wife, three children and 77-year-old mother also could not find space at the school, forcing them to drive their 30-year-old, red Fiat, topped with several mattresses, down the road to another UN school. He also fled his village of Salatin to Gaza City during Israel’s eight-day war with Hamas in 2012.

“We’re tired of this. We always face war and we, the civilians, have to pay for it,” he said. “My mother is old and she can hardly walk.”

In eastern Gaza, residents searched for five bodies of the Batsh family whose home was destroyed by an airstrikes on Saturday night. The attack killed 18 members of the family, including 19-year-old Samah, who was three months pregnant, and her one-year-old daughter Amal.

Samah’s relative, Ehab Al Batsh, 30, said the strike was so powerful that it flung her arm on top of a school dozens of metres away. One of Amal’s legs was found dozens of metres away from the blast site, which Mr Al Batsh called a “massacre and a war crime”.

Residents said the strike happened just after Gaza’s police chief, Tayseer Al Batsh, visited the house to pay Ramadan greetings. It was unclear whether Israel’s military was targeting Tayseer Al Batsh, whose relative, Majid, 50, owned the home.

Residents said Majid Al Batsh and nine other people in the house were killed, along with eight other relatives in surrounding homes, which sustained heavy damage.

“This one strike has destroyed our family. How can Israel get away with this atrocity,” said Mounthir Al Batsh, 55, a relative who lives nearby.

“Israel slaughters us like animals and the world does nothing.”

hnaylor@thenational.ae