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Ground fighting reaches one of Gaza’s last supposed ‘safe zones’ 

‘Where should we go? Fly to the sky or drown in the sea?’

Hamada al-Fara shows the keffiyah he used to to wrap his 13-year-old son who was killed in an attack by Israel early this month. Mohamed Souleimane/TNH
Hamada al-Farra shows the Palestinian scarf he used to to wrap his 13-year-old son’s body in after he was killed by a missile strike in al-Mawasi, an Israeli-designated ‘safe zone’ in Gaza, earlier this month.

Earlier this month, The New Humanitarian reported on the dire conditions facing hundreds of thousands of people who had sought refuge in al-Mawasi, an Israeli-designated supposed ‘safe zone’ in southern Gaza where the basics needed to sustain life were scarce, aid groups were struggling to operate, and bombs continued to fall.

Since then, the situation in al-Mawasi – a narrow coastal strip spanning Gaza’s two southernmost governorates, Khan Younis and Rafah – has dramatically worsened as the Israeli army encircled the city of Khan Younis, Gaza’s second largest, and the area came under attack.

Israeli ground forces advanced into al-Mawasi for the first time on 22 January. A strike that day on al-Mawasi school killed 10 people. Another strike the following day hit tents housing displaced people, according to the UN’s human rights office, OHCHR.

Then, on 24 January, a strike on a building at the Khan Younis vocational training centre killed at least 13 people and injured dozens more, according to the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA. Over 40,000 displaced people were registered at the centre, which is in Khan Younis close to al-Mawasi. Other displaced people had set up tents close to the facility.

Cut off from medical facilities besieged by Israel forces and with heavy fighting nearby, thousands of people who had sought shelter in al-Mawasi picked up their few possessions and fled, even as Israel reportedly continued to encourage people to take shelter in the area. 

‘The scariest I have ever experienced’

  • The toll of over 100 days of war

    More than 27,000 people have been killed in Gaza – including around 17,000 women and children – and more than 65,000 have been injured since the beginning of Israel’s military campaign on 7 October, according to health officials in the enclave, which is governed by Hamas 

      

    The Israeli military began bombarding and laying total siege to Gaza following Hamas’ 7 October attack into Israel, which left around 1,140 people dead, around two thirds of them civilians, according to Israeli officials. Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups also took around 240 hostages back to Gaza. Around 136 remain in captivity.

      

    The vast majority of Gaza’s population has been forcibly displaced and is being squeezed into the southernmost part of the enclave while facing a catastrophic humanitarian situation, with aid organisations warning of famine and widespread disease outbreaks. On 26 January, the International Court of Justice, the UN’s top court, ruled that charges brought by South Africa accusing Israel of carrying out acts of genocide in Gaza were “plausible”. 

  •   

    Violence by the Israeli military and settlers has also escalated in the West Bank, where at least 367 Palestinians have been killed – including 94 children – and more than 1,200 people have been forcibly displaced from their homes since 7 October.

Abdel Razeq al-Astal, his wife, and their two children, were among those who had set up makeshift shelters close to the UNRWA vocational training centre after being displaced from their home in northern Khan Younis on 2 December.

When the attack on the centre took place, “panic and terror overcame the displaced in the adjacent sheds. Everyone started repeating the Shahada (a Muslim prayer) as we sensed our death was imminent. There was the sound of bullets being fired over our heads and the explosion of missiles close by,” al-Astal, 30, told The New Humanitarian. 

Many families ran to find shelter in a nearby warehouse, but al-Astal decided to flee the area, despite his wife’s desperate pleas.

“We were running as fast as we could, like tens of other families. She was carrying our youngest child, and I was carrying our other son,” al-Astal recalled. “We ran tens of metres under the shelling until we reached the intersection of al-Mawasi’s main street. We had to cross it to reach a less dangerous agricultural area.”

The street, however, was swarming with Israeli tanks only a few metres away, al-Astal said, describing how some people – overtaken with fear and exhaustion – collapsed to the ground while others screamed hysterically. 

“One of the elderly men called out, ‘Do not hesitate. Do not go back. Quickly cross the street in front of the tanks, no matter the cost’,” he added. “Those moments, as we crossed the streets, were the scariest I have ever experienced.” 

“It was something out of a movie scene. Imagine you are running with your family with shelling, explosions, bullets, smoke, tanks, and death all accompanying you,” he said. “I never thought we would live to see another day.” 

‘Where would we go?’

Nahed Barbakh, 58, and his family – 13 people in total, including children and grandchildren – are staying in an agricultural area of al-Mawasi. They carefully chose a low-lying area to set up their shelter, hoping that the surrounding dunes would shield them from any missiles or rockets, and from the chilly gusts of wind. But as Israeli tanks advanced into Khan Younis, they came within a kilometre of the spot Barbakh had chosen.

“I fear for my family and my neighbours [because of] the Israeli shelling as the Israeli tanks keep advancing deeper into al-Mawasi,” he said. “But where would we go? How can I move my shed that I struggled to set up?”

Barbakh, who fled to al-Mawasi from his home in the centre of Khan Younis in early December, said the humanitarian situation for people in the area was rapidly deteriorating after UNRWA’s aid distribution centres in Khan Younis – where some members of his family were able to get aid – were surrounded by Israeli tanks. 

“The only market in Khan Younis has also been invaded by Israeli tanks, which means we need to go to Rafah or Deir El-Balah to buy our daily necessities,” he said, adding that whatever was still available in the market was being sold at extremely inflated prices.

“The invasion of the rest of Khan Younis has paralysed life for the displaced living in al-Mawasi, and the shelling is increasingly endangering our life. Although Israel told us to relocate here, we are worried about what is coming,” Barbakh said.

‘The Israeli army told us it was safe’

Standing outside a small house in al-Mawasi, Hamada al-Farra, 50, held the blood-stained keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) that he had wrapped the body of his 13-year-old son Abdelrahim in after he was killed by an Israeli missile strike two weeks ago. 

Al-Farra and at least 40 members of his extended family fled their home in the centre of Khan Younis when Israel issued evacuation orders on 2 December. Following Israeli instructions, they went to al-Mawasi, with the few items they could carry.

“We escaped the shelling and invasion in central Khan Younis to al-Mawasi after the Israeli army told us it was safe,” al-Farra said. 

But his son, Abdelrahim, was playing in front of the small house where the family was sheltering when a missile struck a wall nearby, sending shrapnel flying. Three cars were badly damaged, and the shrapnel punctured a metal door. “Can you imagine what my son’s small body looked like?” al-Farra said. “It was blown to pieces.” 

“Wasn’t al-Mawasi designated as safe?” he asked. “Where should we go? Fly to the sky or drown in the sea?” 

The article is published in collaboration with Egab. Edited by Dahlia Kholaif and Eric Reidy.

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