GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel’s offensive in Gaza has forced as many as 90,000 Gazans to abandon their homes, and thousands more may soon have to flee in search of safety, humanitarian aid organizations said Monday.
For civilians caught in the crossfire between Hamas militants and Israel’s military, however, there’s no escape to safety abroad and no sure sanctuary in Gaza.
In the 17 days since Israel began pummeling Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed al-Sultan’s family has moved four times, from house to house, shelter to shelter, having left all their possessions behind. Now they’re among hundreds of displaced Palestinians who are sleeping in cold concrete classrooms in a schoolhouse that’s serving as a temporary shelter in Gaza City.
“They have no place to hide, and no place to run,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who announced that he would visit the region this week to push for a cease-fire that the U.N. Security Council has ordered but that Israel and Hamas have ignored.
Senior Israeli officials said they’re close to achieving the objectives they set for the war: stopping Hamas militants from firing rockets into Israel and preventing the group from re-arming itself. Relief officials and human rights groups, however, said the Israeli military failed to plan for the safety of civilians in one of the most densely populated patches of the Middle East.
When Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, was asked at a news conference on Sunday where civilians would be safe in Gaza, she suggested that refugees could find shelter in the razed Israeli settlements on Gaza’s northern border with Israel. That would require refugees to go through Israeli-controlled military areas, however.
Israeli officials said that Hamas operates from the vicinity of homes, schools and mosques, making fighting in civilian areas unavoidable. Of the more than 900 Palestinians who have died in the conflict, about half were civilians, according to Gaza medical officials.
“They (Israel) knew this operation was coming, they knew what the geography and demographics of Gaza are like, and apparently they didn’t plan for the humanitarian needs,” said Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
So 1.5 million Gazans remain inside their tiny coastal strip – at about 140 square miles, roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia but three times as populous.
The U.N. has opened 36 temporary shelters housing more than 28,000 people, but two of those have come under fire. Relief officials said that tens of thousands more displaced Palestinians are on their own, staying with family members or friends.