Israel launched a massive military offensive on Thursday, sending thousands of troops into Gaza.
In a tweet, the Israeli Defense Forces said: “We have hit Hamas hard, and we will continue to hit Hamas hard.”
But caught between Israel’s forces and Hamas’s rockets are approximately 22,000 Palestinians who have taken refuge in one of the United Nations’ 24 designated emergency shelters.
That number, Sami Mshasha, a spokesperson with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) tells Mashable from the Gaza Strip, only represents a fraction of the overall total of internally displaced persons in Gaza.
“There is a much larger number of people from the border areas who sought refuge with family, friends,” he says. “Many of them are in mosques, others in public buildings. A good number of the mosques here were destroyed, a good number of buildings were destroyed,” he adds, saying that he expects the number of displaced people to rise significantly, if a cease-fire deal isn’t reached in the next few days.
On Wednesday, during a regular inspection of its facilities, the UNRWA says it discoveredapproximately 20 rockets hidden in a school in the Gaza Strip.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness tweeted that the relief agency strongly condemns the group responsible — presumed by many to be Hamas — calling the incident “a flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law” that “endangered civilians including staff and put at risk UNRWA’s vital mission to assist and protect Palestine refugees in Gaza.”
Aside from issues over shelter, those refugees also are struggling to find food, water and basic health services, a result, Sami says, of the eight-year blockage on Gaza that’s only intensified during the week-long flare in violence between the two sides.
“The situation over all is rather miserable and the destruction is massive,” says Sami.
“The situation over all is rather miserable and the destruction is massive,” says Sami. “The health situation in Gaza is in bad, bad shape. The major hospitals here are reporting shortages in basic health items, and many of those injured cannot be moved even if we did manage to evacuate them.”
Due to a serious deficit in fuel supplies, infrastructure that supports water, sewage and hospitals are basically shut down.
“We are extremely worried about fact that before the current crisis 90% of drinking water in Gaza’s aquifer was deemed not fit for human consumption,” the relief agency’s spokesperson says.
“The fact that there is no diesel to power the electricity grid means that the raw sewage goes untreated, so every day 90,000 liters of whole, untreated sewage goes into the sea.”
“God knows what goes underground, contaminating what is already contaminated drinking water.”
And then there’s the food shortages — the agency says it is supplying nearly one million Gazans with food.
These are people, Sami says, who used to be middle class who now come to the agency seeking bags of flour, sugar and rice. Over the past 48 hours, the agency helped distribute 6,000 50-piece bread packets, and approximately 18,000 tins of tuna, sent to Gaza by the United Nations’ World Food Programme.
It all adds up to an extremely difficult situation.
Nearly 60 UNRWA installations have been damaged since the violence resumed on June 1. Three of them — a health clinic, a boys school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip and a girls school in Kahn Younis — were damaged in the past 48 hours.
The Israeli military has assured UNRWA that it will not target UN-identified refuge shelters. The UN’s refugee agency has provided Israeli authorities with the GPS coordinates that identify the locations of 90 of them.
“We are asking [Israeli] authorities to respect the fact that these are centers of refuge and safety,” Sami says. “We have trained staff who are capable of ensuring that these centers only accept civilians.”