Since the Israeli raids on the Gaza Strip began on Saturday, more than 73,000 Palestinian residents living along the eastern regions near the Israeli frontier have left their homes to take shelter in United Nations refugee agency schools.
According to Adnan Abu Hasna, a media spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), people are arriving from all parts of the Gaza Strip, as the area faces intense aerial bombardment.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
“Residents have taken refuge in 64 schools, with more coming, as they believe that they are the safest places in the Gaza Strip because they are affiliated with the United Nations,” Abu Hasna said.
At the schools and other UN institutions in Gaza, Abu Hasna explained, Palestinians can receive healthcare, nutritional and psychological services.
“Some of the elderly are medical cases that need follow-up in light of the current tension, and children need psychological and social counsellors in order to overcome this difficult stage they have lived through,” he said.
Families in Gaza are fleeing to the UNRWA schools after an unprecedented attack by Hamas fighters caught the Israeli military establishment by surprise. Members of Hamas’s armed wing flew into Israeli military sites and towns using motorised paragliders, while others broke through the Israeli fence.
The Israeli government subsequently declared war on Gaza on Sunday. About 800 Israelis have been killed, with more than 2,000 others wounded. On Monday, Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said a total siege will be imposed on Gaza, with no food, electricity, water or fuel allowed in.
“We are fighting against human animals, and we are acting accordingly,” Gallant said in his remarks.
According to the Israeli army, 100,000 reserve troops have amassed near Gaza, where Palestinian fighters say they are holding 130 people captive.
Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed more than 500 Palestinians, including 91 children.
Arifa Abu Laila, from the northern town of Beit Hanoun, said she left her home and is now taking refuge in an UNRWA school in the centre of Gaza City.
“We went out and saw explosions from all sides,” the 51-year-old said. “I am a sick woman who needs treatment, and my husband is also diabetic. In every war, we come to UNRWA schools because they say it is safe.”
The war was a surprise to everyone, she added.
“If we had known what would happen, we would have bought the supplies we needed, such as food, treatment and supplies. We had to walk to the schools barefoot, without provisions such as milk and diapers for our children.”
Trying to escape death
It is not the first time that Palestinians have taken refuge in UNRWA schools during Israeli offensives. In recent years, Gaza residents have sought shelter in the facilities amid aerial bombardments and other attacks.
But while the schools are part of UNRWA’s emergency response programme, they are not immune from violence during times of war.
In a statement, UNRWA said two of its schools — one in the Jabalia refugee camp in the north and another in central Gaza City — had sustained damages from air attacks by Israeli forces.
“Two UNRWA schools were bombed,” UNRWA spokesman Abu Hasna said, noting that 14 UN facilities in total have been damaged by the Israeli aerial raids so far.
“We have 200 UNRWA facilities located between residential areas and surrounded by various institutions. During the bombing, 14 facilities were subjected to various damages.”
With the schools being struck by bombing, Abu Hasna said he feared safety would remain elusive, even at UN sites.
“We faced this event in the 2014 war,” he added, pointing to a past incident when UN schools were hit by missile fire. “One of the schools was bombed, resulting in injuries, and this means that there is no safe place in Gaza.”
One grandmother, Etemad Salem, left her house in the Shujaiya camp with her family at night, screaming from the intensity of the bombing.
“I felt that it was an earthquake or that it was the day of judgement,” the 70-year-old said, describing the bombing as “terrifying”.
Salem’s home was bombed in the last Israeli offensive, and her children said they had no choice but to leave and seek refuge at an UNRWA school.
“We came here to escape death,” she said.
The school is a far cry from the comforts of a home, though. Salem, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, is unable to rest. “The explosions have not stopped, and here we cannot sleep either,” she said.
Salem ultimately does not know how long she and her children will be able to stay in the shelter.
“This is a safe place, but it is not suitable for living in for more than two days,” she said. “There are many people here. There are two families with me in the classroom, and the men are sleeping in the hallways.”
‘No one cares about our lives’
Saleh Al-Attar, 60, left his house in the town of Beit Lahia without knowing whether he would still have a home to come back to.
“I was sitting with my wife watching the news about the events on the Israeli areas surrounding Gaza,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Within moments, the Israeli raids started, and the women in the house began screaming, so I decided to leave the house to the UNRWA school in the city centre, hoping it would be safe. There is no alternative option to this.”
Al-Attar pointed to whole households that have been killed just sitting in their homes, ticking off their names: the Shabat family, the Abu Quta family and many more.
“We have no international protection,” he said. “No one cares about our lives. Therefore, when Israel decides to exterminate the people in Gaza, no one stops it.”
He doesn’t know how long he will be displaced from his home, but he said he has become accustomed to “this repeated pain”.
“How many wars have I lived through, and how many times have I been displaced to UNRWA schools? It is the fifth time since 2008,” he said.
‘Not a replacement home’
For Palestinian child Aseel Khaled, a school is supposed to be just an educational institution, not a replacement for a home.
“School is meant to be a place for study only,” she said.
The 12-year-old woke up in the middle of the night on Saturday to sounds of heavy bombardment. Thinking her parents and sisters were killed, she began to scream.
“My mother tried to calm me and to reassure me that the Israelis wouldn’t bomb our house,” she said. “But the next morning we came to the New Gaza School which is affiliated with UNRWA.”
The Israelis have bomb shelters they can hide in, Khaled said, but Palestinians in Gaza can only look to the schools as places of shelter.
“Here, we see our mothers’ tears and hear the children and babies crying either from the constant state of panic or from the sound of missiles,” Khaled said. “I try to keep busy during the day, but a lot of the time, I stay in the classroom with my mother because the school playground is not safe. I keep hearing and seeing repeated explosions.”