Israeli forces withdraw after 20-day operation destroys 70 per cent of Gaza's Jabalia camp

Palestinian officials say the site is unlivable after 800 homes are left in ruins

Palestinians view the devastation after Israeli forces withdrew from Jabalia refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip. Reuters
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Israeli forces withdrew from the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza early on Friday, after a 20-day military operation that destroyed about 70 per cent of the camp, Palestinian officials told The National.

The attack resulted in the destruction of the camp and its surrounding areas, where more than 100,000 Palestinians live, with scenes of devastation circulating on social media.

Civilians returning to their homes have found many in ruins.

“Around 70 per cent of Jabalia camp has been completely destroyed, with 800 houses demolished,” Mahmoud Bassal, civil defence spokesman in the north of the Gaza Strip, told The National. “The camp is unlivable, as the infrastructure and water pipes have also been completely destroyed.”

Jabalia is the largest of the Gaza Strip's eight refugee camps, according to the UN. After the 1948 war, refugees settled there, most having fled villages in areas of southern Palestine that became Israel.

The Jabalia camp is only 1.4 square kilometres, but 116,011 Palestinian refugees are registered as living there, according to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

Israel launched the operation in Jabalia in mid-May, having previously announced northern Gaza was cleared of Hamas fighters in the first stage of its military ground offensive following the Hamas-led October 7 attacks.

The Israeli military said the operation was over on Friday and that it had destroyed more than 10km of tunnels below Jabalia that it says were used by militants.

It accused Hamas of turning the “civilian area into a fortified combat compound” and claimed it had killed Hamas's district battalion commander and hundreds of militants in the raid.

Hamas denies Israel's accusations that it uses civilians as cover and accuses Israel of indiscriminately targeting Palestinians.

The military acknowledged it had conducted more than 200 air strikes on the densely populated area during the operation.

Many civilians are missing after the fighting, Mr Bassal said, as the civil defence received at least 20 dead bodies from the camp, with a team still searching for survivors and casualties.

“We still receive appeals from the families about the missing of their family members,” he said.

The Red Crescent in Gaza said it is having difficulty burying the high number of bodies without the necessary equipment.

“Rescue teams are facing difficulties in recovering and burying the dead, we urgently need equipment. The difficulty in retrieving the bodies threatens the spread of diseases and epidemic in the northern areas of Gaza,” the group said in a statement.

'It feels like Judgment Day'

Civilians told The National of the horror they witnessed after nearly three weeks of a military offensive and bombardment by Israeli forces.

“When I entered the Jabalia camp … I felt like it was Judgment Day because of the immense destruction and debris in the streets,” Sobhi Al Mokid, 48, told The National.

The smell of dead bodies spread across the camp, he said.

“We could tell there were bodies in certain places from the swarms of flies and insects around them,” he said.

He said he lives close to the UNRWA school in the camp but he couldn't find his home, which had been flattened.

“The house has turned into a pile of sand, as if someone had put it in a grinder and ground it down to bits. Everything was annihilated before my eyes. I wished for death rather than losing the home,” he said.

Mohammed Zoaiter, 35, told The National he couldn't find the site of his home for an hour, as everything around it was destroyed.

“A home isn't just walls; it's the memories that we lived in. I kept searching for more than an hour, trying to find the location of my house and my neighbours' houses in Block 2 until I managed to recognise them,” he said.

“They demolished our houses, along with our hopes, dreams, and all the beautiful memories we had."

Mr Zoaiter said he left his house with nothing and thought he might be back in two or three days to find moderate damage to his home, at most.

“The people in the camp weren't very wealthy and didn't have much money but they loved life, loved to help each other and stood by each other in every way possible,” he said.

Updated: May 31, 2024, 11:57 AM