Israeli Airstrikes on Gaza Force Thousands to Flee, Destroy Health Infrastructure

Harsh humanitarian conditions at shelters in UNRWA schools threaten to increase spread of COVID-19

Amid the ongoing rocket attacks and air strikes between Israel and Gaza that started nine days ago, thousands of Palestinians living in the border areas of the coastal enclave have left their homes to escape intense Israeli artillery shelling. They are sheltering in United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) schools located in western Gaza.

More than 52,000 Palestinians have been displaced by Israeli air strikes that have destroyed or badly damaged nearly 450 buildings in the Gaza Strip, the UN aid agency said on Tuesday.

Over 48,000 people so far have taken refuge in 58 UNRWA schools, according to the agency.

Matthias Shamale, the head of UNRWA operations in Gaza, describes the situation in Gaza as “dramatic.”

“We have the capacity to accommodate 100,000 displaced, so we’re almost halfway there already, in just a couple of days; It’s a seriously dramatic situation,” he told The Media Line.

The agency faces many challenges in order to meet the basic needs of those taking refuge at the shelter schools, Shamale said.

“Fifty schools have solar energy, proper sanitary facilities, and water desalination kits,” he said. But, he added, “we’re still struggling to prepare” schools in northern Gaza.

Om Ammar Alattar and the 75 members of her family left their homes in the Alatatra area of the northern Gaza Strip after an Israeli airstrike nearby spewed shrapnel and damaged their homes.

“Without prior warning nor communication our houses were bombed over our heads. We have little children with us and they were hysterically terrified, so we had to find a safer place to shelter in,” she said.

The whole family has sought shelter in The New Gaza school, a United Nations facility in the western Gaza Strip. They have complaints about the harsh humanitarian conditions in the shelter school.

“Until now, we sleep on the floor with no mattresses nor pillows. Here we miss the most essential basics such as drinking water and sanitizers. I really hope we go back home because it is, anyway, better than here,” Alattar, an elderly woman, told The Media Line.

Alattar is under a great deal of stress and has lost patience with the situation. She has demanded urgent intervention by the international community to put an end to the hostilities, saying that “they must take action now, we can no longer bear all this suffering.”

We’re still in the COVID-19 crisis and we’re extremely worried about thousands of people being put in a contained space

Mohammad Alqader, 12, from Bedouin Village in northern Gaza, described for The Media Line what happened on the night before his family decided to leave home for a shelter school.

“There was heavy bombing everywhere. We, all, had to sleep in the kitchen [the only room in the house with a concrete roof]. I, and my siblings, smelled a weird and suffocating smell so, once the dawn broke, we ran until we reached this shelter school. It’s a bit safer here, but I want to sleep comfortably in my home,” he said.

Shamale is concerned over the massive displacements, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re still in the COVID-19 crisis and we’re extremely worried about thousands of people being put in a contained space,” he said. “Since yesterday, we have been focusing on [providing] clean water and on shade as well. The next step will be the hygiene kits and food.”

Mahmoud Barda, 30, is a father of four who fled his home in the Shujaiya neighborhood of eastern Gaza to a shelter school in the Alnasser neighborhood in northwestern Gaza six days ago.

He told The Media Line that “artillery shells and missiles were fired toward residential areas indiscriminately and intensively. This reminded us of the bloody 2014 war; that’s why we decided to leave our homes before history repeats itself.”

He added that “the situation here [in the UN shelter school] is catastrophic. Each classroom includes at least seven families, nearly 40 people, leaving no chance for social distancing amid the pandemic, which is terrifying to me and my family. One of the classrooms actually has five COVID-19 cases hosted with healthy people. I know this is insane but, during wars, priorities change.”

Such circumstances will definitely aggravate the epidemiological crisis, and further burden the fragile health system in Gaza, especially during these critical times. At the same time, core health care installations in Gaza have been hit during Israeli air strikes.

Dr. Ashraf Al-Qedra, spokesperson for Gaza’s Health Ministry, told The Media Line that at least 21 health institutions have been hit in Israeli attacks, including the Health Ministry’s main building and the Rimal Clinic, which is the central location for primary care services, and the central laboratory where COVID-19 tests are conducted.

“Health care staffs too are being intensively targeted by the Israeli occupation which doubles the already existing crisis,” Al- Qedra asserted.

There currently is a serious shortfall, of nearly 45%, of all medicines, 33% of medical supplies, 56% of laboratory supplies, and a dramatic decline in the provision of the ministry’s anti-pandemic services, Al-Qedra confirmed.

Shamale says that the Israeli strikes on vital bodies, most notably health care ones, is an unacceptable act.

“In war, installations, especially health infrastructure, need to be protected … what we are talking about is collateral damage, I think, in the military terms. They [the Israeli army] are targeting so close to health infrastructure, to aid infrastructure, like ours, and this is not acceptable because the damage is too big and the threat to human lives is too big.”

Overnight on May 11, two UNRWA schools inside the agency’s compound were bombed during airstrikes launched by Israel on Gaza, causing severe damage to the western perimeter of the compound and to at least 29 classrooms. On May 12, a building belonging to the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza was bombed, damaging the wall surrounding the offices, the UN reported the following day.

Shamale said that reaching a cease-fire is the top priority at this stage.

According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, at least 213 Gazan Palestinians have been killed so far, including 61 children, 36 women and 16 elderly people, with 1,442 wounded.

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