Khan Younis attack: Gaza families shelter in school bathrooms and X-ray rooms

Israel's military push into south and centre of enclave is forcing displaced families to flee fighting yet again

Palestinians set up camp at Shuhada Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al Balah, in the central Gaza Strip. Getty Images
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Civilians in Gaza, already displaced after 60 days of war, are being forced to find shelter yet again as Israel pushes ahead with its ground incursion and bombardment of southern and central Gaza.

Thousands of families are once more fleeing fighting as Israel steps up its attacks on the cities of Khan Younis and Deir Al Balah.

Many have already fled their homes in northern Gaza, which was the focus of Israel’s initial campaign, after being told to head south by the Israeli military.

With Gaza’s north cut off and those who remain there left without access to humanitarian aid, many families are now being forced further south and west, towards ever-shrinking areas away from Israeli troops.

Fayza, a mother of seven in her 30s, has already been displaced twice since the war broke out on October 7.

Having left their base in Jabalia camp nearly three weeks ago with nothing but the clothes on their backs, Fayza and her family headed to Al Nuseirat in central Gaza, where she stayed in Al Mufti school for a couple of days. Then she moved again.

“The school came under attack and I was terrified for the safety of my kids, so I picked them up once again and looked for a safer place to go,” she told The National.

“I came to Shuhada Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al Balah, hoping to find any empty tent to shelter me and my kids from the chilly weather and the rain,” she said, as she carried her youngest, who is only one year old.

“But I was told by the hospital’s management that there were none left.

“I pleaded and begged but they said it was not possible. So I gathered my kids once more and we went searching for any place that would take us in and off the streets.

"We went from one school to the next,” she said. "They were all crammed with people. Until we found a deserted bathroom in a girls’ school here in Deir Al Balah. This is where we are staying now – a bathroom. That’s all we could find."

Four in five Gazans displaced

According to Ocha, the UN’s emergency aid co-ordination body, there are 1.87 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Gaza, amounting to more than 81 per cent of the enclave’s total population.

Out of the nearly 1.1 million IDPs registered in 156 UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestinian refugees) facilities across Gaza, 958,000 are registered in 99 shelters in the south.

Fayza is one of nearly 191,000 displaced people estimated to be staying in 124 public schools, hospitals and other venues that are unregistered with UNRWA. The sheer numbers mean she is struggling to receive essentials to help her fend for her family.

“Where I am, I am not offered anything, we’ve got nothing,” she said.

“So I came to Shuhada Al Aqsa Hospital to ask for a piece of meat to feed the kids but was told I’m not registered here and priority is given to those who are. But how do I get us registered here?” she asked helplessly.

The hospital in Deir Al Balah, which is already overcrowded with displaced Palestinians who have set camp in its courtyard over the past few weeks, has been receiving more and more refugees as Israeli forces distributed leaflets ordering people in central Gaza to head south.

People crowded around the hospital, circling its walls in an attempt to find a foothold to get in, while doctors and medics scurried to attend to the wounded with what little medical equipment they have.

Ocha reported on December 4 that the overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions at UNRWA shelters in the south have led to significant increases in some communicable diseases and conditions. These include diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, skin infections and hygiene-related conditions such as lice, in addition to initial reports of disease outbreaks, including potentially Hepatitis A, the UN said.

Living among the dead

Um Anas Al Serhi, a resident of Shati Camp on Gaza’s coastline, was forced to leave her home a week into the war.

“They [the Israeli forces] dropped leaflets warning us against staying, so we left and headed to Al Shifa,” she said, referring to the hospital in Gaza city which Israeli soldiers raided late last month.

Gaza's Nasser Hospital overwhelmed with wave of casualties

Gaza's Nasser Hospital overwhelmed with wave of casualties

“We stayed there for a month, living in the X-ray department, with others who had also escaped the violence, witnessing the dead and wounded being brought in day and night. I can’t describe the misery of it,” said the mother of five.

Struggling to find food, Um Anas stayed put where she thought it was safe.

“Exactly a month after we arrived at Al Shifa, they began dropping leaflets ordering us to move once again,” she said. "We ignored them until the assaults got too near, eventually reaching the doorsteps of the hospital. We were seeing bodies of martyrs right outside the hospital’s doors. We had no choice but to leave."

As she spoke to The National, sirens of ambulances bringing in the dead and the wounded drowned out her words.

Having stayed in a tent at Shuhada Al Aqsa Hospital for three weeks, Um Anas is terrified of moving again.

“We’re starved, we’re cold,” she said. "But we have a tent over our head. We wouldn’t know where to go if they make us leave once more."

This article is published in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: December 06, 2023, 6:54 AM