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Live Life Deliberately

As Gazan civilians flee south, those in the north grow more desperate

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Since the war’s early days, the Israeli army has been telling Nisreen Amour to leave her home in Gaza City and head south.

She tried to stay. Even after 45 relatives from further north crowded into her home. Even after her husband died in an airstrike near his shop and was buried in a mass grave.

But on Oct. 25, after a nearby strike damaged her house, she fled with her family to al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, where some 50,000 other displaced people had sought refuge. She expected the hospital would be a safe place, with access to basic resources.

But Shifa is collapsing and is part of the ever-expanding battlefield, like most of Gaza’s other hospitals and the United Nations-run facilities that have provided cover to civilians during past conflicts. As the deaths mount, and Israeli forces draw closer, hundreds of thousands of people in northern Gaza are still in harm’s way, rationing what little food and water they have left.

Israel closes in on Gaza City; Blinken leaves region without combat pause

“We can bear hunger, but we cannot bear this amount of death that surrounds us from everywhere,” Amour told The Washington Post by phone earlier this week.

Israeli forces on Thursday pushed deeper into Gaza City, hoping to oust Hamas from its primary stronghold in the strip. The militant group killed more than 1,400 people and kidnapped more than 240 in a brutal Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel. After a month of war, more than 10,800 Gazans have been killed and more than 26,000 injured.

Since Sunday, an estimated 70,000 Gazans have fled by foot from north to south along the Salah al-Din Road during hours-long pauses in the fighting. Israel has agreed to extend the daily pauses, the United States said Thursday. The mass exodus follows a much larger displacement in the war’s first week, after Israel ordered more than 1 million people in northern Gaza to move south.

No one knows exactly how many civilians are still left in the north. The United Nations and other aid organizations that would normally keep track have relocated to the south. After weeks of a ceaseless air war and a near-total siege, Gazans feel trapped.

“We are surrounded,” Osama Aishi told The Post in a WhatsApp voice message sent at 4 a.m. Thursday as he listened to Israeli forces battle Hamas fighters in the streets of his Gaza City neighborhood.

He spoke in a hushed voice, too afraid to look out the windows of his apartment or turn on a light.

When the Israeli airstrikes began on Oct. 7, “we were thinking about how we could secure basic needs such as food and water and how to charge phones and other necessities,” Aishi said. “Now all we hope for is to stay alive.”

He said he would try to leave Thursday, “but I do not think that we will succeed.” It was just too dangerous, he said. When The Post tried to contact him later in the day, his phone was off.

Later, fireballs filled the night sky after a swift succession of strikes close to the Indonesian hospital, further north in Beit Lahia, where thousands of Gazans are sheltering, Muhammad al-Awaidiya, a journalist there, told The Post by phone. The Israel Defense Forces did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

International law requires militaries to make clear distinctions between civilians and militants, and to take all possible precautions to prevent civilian harm.

Israel has accused Hamas of using civilians as “human shields” and hiding fighters, weapons, tunnels and command centers in densely populated areas, including in and around hospitals and U.N. schools, making them, Israel says, legitimate military targets.

As Gaza death toll soars, secrecy shrouds Israel’s targeting process

“Hamas seeks to deliberately cause the maximum amount of harm and brutality possible to civilians,” the IDF said in a statement.

Hamas has “cynically” and “systematically” exploited hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari said at a recent press briefing.

“We know the civil situation in the Gaza Strip is not an easy one,” said Col. Moshe Tetro of COGAT, the Israeli military agency that handles civilian affairs in Gaza.

“But I can say that there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip,” he told reporters Thursday.

Yet humanitarian agencies say the situation is catastrophic and getting worse by the day, exacerbated by the bombardment of traditionally safe spaces.

At least 120,000 Gazans are still sheltering in U.N. facilities in the north, according to Juliette Touma, the director of communications for UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, even though there are no aid workers left to provide services. Tens of thousands of other displaced Gazans remain at hospitals, including Shifa, which Israel says is home to an underground Hamas command center.

The Post cannot independently verify the claim.

A hospital is “protected under international law,” Tanya Haj-Hassan, a pediatrician who works with Doctors Without Border, told The Post by phone from Amman, the capital of Jordan. Targeting hospitals, she said, violated international law and could be considered a war crime.

On Wednesday, an airstrike hit a UNRWA school in Gaza City, killing dozens of displaced Palestinians, according to initial U.N. reports. Touma said the agency could not safely verify further information about the incident. The IDF said it had targeted a Hamas tunnel.

A third of the 99 UNRWA staff members killed since the war began — the most in any conflict in the organization’s history — and 70 percent of damaged UNRWA facilities have been in the center and south of the enclave, Touma said, belying Israel’s claim that they were “safer zones.”

“There is nowhere safe in Gaza — not the north, not the middle, and not the south,” she said.

Amour slept for two weeks in the courtyard of Shifa Hospital, in a small makeshift tent alongside other displaced women. They had no privacy. Finding toilets was a struggle. An endless stream of dead and wounded people rushed past them each day, she said — children without limbs and parents without children.

Gaza becomes ‘a graveyard for children’ as Israel intensifies airstrikes

Ghassan Abu Sitta, a surgeon at Shifa, said the area around the hospital was “rocked to the core by massive explosions” during a communications blackout Sunday night.

That same night, the Gaza Health Ministry reported attacks on several other hospitals, including Gaza’s only psychiatric hospital, killing eight people. Other strikes killed four people at the Gaza Eye Hospital and four more at the Rantisi Pediatric Hospital.

The Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment on those strikes.

On Tuesday, the IDF said it struck Hamas fighters “barricading” in a building near al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City. “The attack led to significant secondary explosions which indicate the presence of a Hamas weapons depot in a civilian area,” it said in a statement.

The blasts have effectively cut off al-Quds from the rest of the city, according to Marwan Jilani, the Ramallah-based director general of the Palestine Red Crescent, which runs the hospital. The 12,000 displaced Gazans on the premises cannot leave, he said, and doctors can no longer reach the wounded in the streets nearby.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, Amour headed south on Salah al-Din Road with a group of 80 people, most of them women and children, she said. Soon, they saw the Israeli tanks.

“We were told through loudspeakers to carry our IDs, raise our hands, raise a white flag, leave a clear distance between each person, and that we would not be allowed to drink water or food along the way,” she said.

As Amour walked, she passed at least a dozen decomposing bodies. The stench followed her. At one point, she said, Israeli forces fired warning shots when someone in the group lowered their hands. Later, she heard shots and screams behind her, but was too afraid to look back.

The children, hungry and thirsty, cried and cried.

After 12 hours, 18 miles and 33 days of war, she reached the southern city of Khan Younis. She is staying with her family, near another hospital, too tired to think about what comes next.

Harb reported from London.


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