With messages telling Gazans to leave their homes and medical staff to evacuate their hospitals, a build-up of troops on the border and continued airstrikes that killed dozens of people as they fled, Israel on Friday confirmed what the world had suspected for a week: It is once again invading the Gaza Strip.
The operation is payback for the attacks that Hamas and other Gaza-based militants carried out inside Israel on October 7, killing 1,300 Israelis and taking more than 100 hostages, mostly civilians.
Israel’s response has already extended beyond armed Palestinian groups, with Israeli airstrikes so far killing more than 500 children in Gaza, according to local authorities. And the full-scale offensive that is now underway threatens all of the region’s more than 2 million people, residents and humanitarian organisations say.
Abderhmam, a New York-based physician who asked HuffPost to withhold his last name for fear of retribution from future employers, said he is relying on “doomsday measures” to keep track of his family members in Gaza – including his parents, his two sisters, and his nieces and nephews, the youngest of whom is just 6 months old. He is maintaining an Excel spreadsheet tracking their movements so he can know if they are in one of the residential neighbourhoods that are being targeted by Israel.
The Israel Defence Forces say they are giving civilians fair warning to depart for safety with evacuation orders, including a directive issued to the United Nations on Thursday that gave Gazans a 24-hour deadline to leave the north of the strip for its southern section. And the U.S., Israel’s most important backer, is reportedly seeking to delay a total Israeli ground invasion until it can negotiate safe passage for civilians to leave the area.
Yet those warnings have sparked panic. Gazans who are attempting to take one of the two routes to the south of the strip are fleeing with mattresses strapped to the top of their cars, while others are cramming into whatever semblance of safe haven they can find. Abderhmam said his relatives fled to his uncle’s home south of Gaza City, which is now hosting close to 60 people.
“I don’t know how people come out of these things with a sense of humanity,” he told HuffPost.
Many internally displaced Gazans are now sleeping on the street, Amnesty International said in a Friday statement. Meanwhile, some of the most desperate members of the community cannot flee northern Gaza at all because they need consistent medical support or are too injured, the World Health Organisation said on Friday.
And any American talk of Israeli restraint has a clear limit. HuffPost revealed on Friday that the State Department has discouraged U.S. diplomats from publicly endorsing a “ceasefire” or “de-escalation,” which aid agencies say would be vital to give Gaza residents any real chance to reach safety.
Ghada Alhaddad, a Gaza-based media and communications officer at the charity Oxfam, told HuffPost the last week of Israeli bombardment has already felt “like the last few escalations of violence multiplied by one thousand,” referring to multiple previous episodes of protracted Israel-Hamas conflict.
“This time’s bombardments are louder and crazier — loud enough to make your heart race really quickly,” Alhaddad wrote in an email, adding that her nieces and nephews have been shivering when they hear the sound of bombs falling.
To her, Israel merely sending warning signals ahead of an even more devastating assault is insufficient.
“Leaving our homes in order to feel safe cannot be the solution — we need to be safe in our own homes,” Alhaddad told HuffPost.
Already Worn Down
The past six days of Israeli bombing — and Israel’s decision to cut off electricity and water — have fuelled mass trauma in Gaza.
Ghada Kord, a freelance journalist based there, told HuffPost she witnessed displaced residents going to Shifaa Hospital, the largest medical facility in Gaza City. They built makeshift tents there with pillows and bedcovers as hospital officials warned civilians they only had around 48 hours of fuel left.
The hospitals in northern Gaza are already overcrowded, the WHO reported Friday, and those in the south are at or nearing capacity.
Many of Alhaddad’s colleagues have lost their homes and sought shelter at United Nations schools, she said. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency said Friday it had moved its operations center and international staff away from northern Gaza.
Aid workers are tracking whether it is safe enough for them to restart humanitarian work, but as they wait, fuel, food and medical supplies are running low, she added. “The response will not be able to meet [people’s needs] while a total siege is in place,” Alhaddad said.
The WHO has nearly used up its full stockpile in Gaza and has not yet received permission from Egypt to move in additional supplies, the U.N. agency said in its Friday statement.
For Gazans trying to stay with their families — and just stay alive — the current fighting compounds the misery they have experienced since Hamas won elections in the strip in 2006, quickly imposing heavy-handed rule. Israel and Egypt began blockading the region beginning in 2007.
“There is a lack of housing, a lack of jobs, a lack of feeling of hope and security… This has pushed people to be more frustrated, more radical, more desperate,” said Omar Shaban, the director of a Gaza-based think tank called PalThink for Strategic Studies.
A number of Gazans privately and publicly bid farewell to the broader world on Friday in anticipation of an all-consuming Israeli offensive.
“Our mom sends messages from there saying ‘We’re alive,’ but that’s it. The other day, we didn’t hear from them for 18 hours and we thought: ‘That’s it.’”
– Mona, New Jersey resident with parents in Gaza
Shaban was one of the few Gazans able to flee to Egypt on Monday before the country closed its border following multiple Israeli airstrikes on the crossing. He fled for two reasons, he told HuffPost.
“I knew that the Israeli reaction would be extraordinarily tough,” said Shaban, who noted that as a 62-year-old, he has experienced multiple rounds of warfare. And he was focused on reuniting with his wife, who had traveled abroad for work and was unable to reenter Gaza after the Hamas attack on Israel. The two are now in Cairo.
Still, Shaban is wary of the suggestion from some observers worldwide that Gazans should be encouraged to travel to Egypt en masse, noting that it echoes the Palestinian experience when Israel was established and many fled their homes and were never able to return.
“Palestinians have experienced leaving their homelands in 1948 and they realized that they will never come back, at least for the foreseeable future, so I don’t think Gazans will leave to [the Sinai Peninsula], and Egypt will not accept this at all,” Shaban said.
Up to 600 American citizens remain in Gaza as it braces for the larger Israeli advance. Their relatives are worried about staying in touch with them and their basic survival.
Mona, a New Jersey resident who asked to withhold her last name for fear of retaliation, told HuffPost she has been trying to help her parents evacuate from Gaza to no avail.
“Our mom sends messages from there saying ‘We’re alive,’ but that’s it,” Mona said. “The other day, we didn’t hear from them for 18 hours and we thought: ‘That’s it.’”
She has sent nearly a dozen messages to the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem but has only received automatic messages about evacuation recommendations from Israel.
“I cannot believe how unheard we are. We are not seen at all,” Mona said. “The government is doing so much [for Israeli Americans.] You’d think you would get the same because you are also a U.S. citizen, but no.”
The U.S. government began charter flights out of Israel on Friday but has not yet solidified a plan to help U.S. citizens leave Gaza.
Mona has been missing work. She’s worried about her parents — particularly her father, a diabetic who has been unable to find power to charge his phone — and no one in her family is eating or sleeping well.
“We are hoping for a sign of relief. A light,” she said. “Anything to look forward to. To give you some hope that you’re going to see your parents again.”
Duaa Abufares, a 24-year-old college student at Montclair State University, has similar hopes for her father, who went to Gaza to visit his family last month.
“He doesn’t want to leave his mom or his siblings” in the strip, she said.
She’s looking for a response bigger than one just for her family — one that gets to the heart of the U.S.’s responsibility for the current situation and the way it might be able to halt this and future episodes of violence.
“I want people to know that they not only are targeting Palestinians — they are targeting American families as well,” Abufares said. “The U.S. is hurting their own people at the same.”