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ConflictsMiddle East

Israeli bombardment 'recurring nightmare' for Gaza residents

Tania Krämer
October 12, 2023

After a massive Hamas terror attack against Israel, the civilian population in the Gaza Strip is paying a high price. Hundreds of thousands have fled within a territory under constant shelling as Israel retaliates.

A man carries a little girl while walking over debris in a street in Gaza City. A woman with a head scarf carrying a backpack and a man with a plastic bag over his shoulder follow closely behind.
Civilians in Gaza navigate debris-strewn streets in the aftermath of Israeli airstrikesImage: Mohammed Salem/REUTERS

At this point, there is no shelter anywhere, Mona Sabbah says over the phone from Gaza City. Since Saturday, the 29-year-old has spent most of her time in the basement of her residential building, together with her children, her husband and their neighbors. "Last night, the bombardment didn't stop. It was especially intense in Rimal," she adds, referring to a district in the center of Gaza City. "We're asking ourselves: What target will they hit next? Will we survive the night? Will we live to see the start of a new day?"

Violence has broken out between Israel, Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups numerous times before, but this time everything is different. On Saturday morning, Hamas, the terrorist organization that rules the Gaza Strip, began firing rockets at Israeli towns and settlements. Then hundreds of armed Palestinians broke through the high-security border fence and invaded Israeli communities in the vicinity of the sealed-off Gaza Strip in order to indiscriminately kill and kidnap.

A view of children standing in front of the debris of houses destroyed in Israeli strikes
Destruction in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza StripImage: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/REUTERS

As a consequence, Israel's government declared a state of war. Since then, Israel has been bombarding the isolated coastal strip. Simultaneously, Israeli towns and settlements are permanently shelled with rockets fired by the Palestinian militant groups in Gaza.

The small territory, home to some 2.3 million residents, has been largely cordoned off from Israel and, partially, Egypt, for more than 16 years. In 2007, the Islamist Hamas group forcibly assumed power in Gaza. Now, many people there are extremely concerned by this most recent outbreak of fighting.

'No power, little water'

"If they have a problem, they should sort it out with Hamas. They hit us, not Hamas," Sabbah says. "I've been crying all night, we all screamed and cried. It's unbelievable that this is happening to us again. We are civilians, we didn't do anything, we want this to be over at last. There's no power, no internet, only little water. Is it not enough that we've been living under a blockade for 15 or 16 years? What will be next?"

A view of smoke billowing over a high-rise building in Gaza City
Smoke billows over a high-rise following Israeli strikes on Gaza CityImage: Mohammed Salem/REUTERS

According to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, more than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in the territory since Saturday, while more than 6,000 have been wounded. Israeli media report that the bodies of some 1,500 Palestinian terrorists who crossed the border into Israel are still there.

In Israel, more than 1,200 people have been killed thus far, while more than 3,100 have been wounded. Most of the victims were killed during Saturday's terrorist attacks. It is estimated that between 100 and 150 people, including children, elderly people and foreign nationals, were abducted to Gaza and are being held hostage there.

'Total blockade'

On Monday, Israel's Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced a "total blockade" of Gaza and discontinued supplies of electricity, food and fuel from Israel to the sealed-off territory. Usually, food and fuel enter Gaza via Israel's Kerem Shalom crossing, where all imports are subject to thorough checks. Even drinking water — which the Palestinian National Authority buys in Israel for residents in the Gaza Strip — is no longer supplied. Egypt has, in the meantime, closed its border crossings in the south of the Gaza Strip.

A view of an Israeli mobile artillery unit firing a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip
Israeli mobile artillery unit firing at targets in the Gaza StripImage: Erik Marmor/AP/picture alliance

Israeli human rights organizations such as Gisha, which champion freedom of movement for Palestinians, has criticized Israel's retaliatory measures as collective punishment and a "total disregard of the civilian population."

On Wednesday afternoon, Gaza's only power station finally ran out of fuel. Although the people in Gaza are familiar with extended power outages, this total blackout takes the small territory to its limits. "Electricity has gone, and there's no fuel for generators either," reports a journalist in Gaza, as he recharges his mobile phone with the help of a small solar gadget.

Somber warning from the ICRC

This reinforces the sense of isolation even more at a time when everyone is looking for provisional shelter from Israel's airstrikes at home and mobile phones are their only way to reach out to family and friends. However, hospitals as well as the already fragile healthcare system are also affected and on the brink of complete collapse due to the ever-growing number of casualties. As a result, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has just warned that hospitals could soon turn into morgues.

A view of people lining up in front of body bags
Bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli airstrikesImage: Mustafa Hassona/AA/picture alliance

"I just can't go on any longer," says Raed El Athamnah, speaking to DW on the phone. For many years, he has worked as a driver for foreign journalists. On Saturday, he and his family had to flee from Beit Hanoun, a city in the north of Gaza, near the Israeli border.

He and his family have now received temporary shelter in Jabalia, a refugee camp and one of the districts of Gaza City. The shelter is located in a school and run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). "All we have left are the clothes we wore on Saturday. And we haven't taken showers since then. We don't sleep, they hit targets everywhere around us," says El Athamnah. Like him, countless others are on the run within the Gaza Strip. There aren't many options: The borders with Egypt and Israel are closed, and there are no dugouts or bunkers.

Looking for shelter

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), some 340,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since Saturday — especially those living in areas near the border in the north and east of the Gaza Strip. Around two-thirds of these people have sought shelter in UNRWA schools. Others try to stay with relatives living further west in Gaza, but there Israel's air force and navy carry out bombardments from the coast.

The deep-seated fear and trauma of past wars haunts many people in Gaza. "It's a constantly recurring nightmare," says El Athamnah, who first lost his home in the three-week Gaza War that took place in 2008-2009.

"We don't feel safe even here — and who knows what's still ahead," says El Athamna, adding that Israel's current airstrikes are more intense and more severe than anything he has witnessed before.

The fear that he and others have expressed would seem to be justified by recent statements from Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned Hamas had "made a mistake of historic proportions," and the price to be paid for it "will be remembered (…) for decades to come." The Israeli military has called up over 300,000 reservists in preparation for the next phase of the conflict and although defense officials have yet to say so publicly, a ground offensive into Gaza appears imminent.

Hazem Balousha contributed to this piece from Gaza.

This article was originally written in German.