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World News

In Gaza, Families Have Huddled At Home, Hoping For A Warning Before An Israeli Strike

Palestinian children walk past the rubble of a house hit by Israeli airstrikes this week in Beit Lahyia in the northern Gaza Strip.
Palestinian children walk past the rubble of a house hit by Israeli airstrikes this week in Beit Lahyia in the northern Gaza Strip.

Updated May 20, 2021 at 5:52 PM ET

When Jamal al-Shareef, his wife or any of his six children need to go to the kitchen of their home in Jabalia, north of Gaza City, they plan when to do so as a family.

The kitchen is on a side of the house that faces east, toward the Gazan border — and shellfire from the Israeli military. It feels too exposed to let any one of them go alone and risk injury.

"Sometimes we crawl on our feet and hands in order to go to the kitchen to bring water," Shareef says. They try to avoid the windows in case there's a shelling attack.

The Israeli government announced a cease-fire late Thursday with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist rulers of Gaza. But for the past week and a half, as Israeli airstrikes and artillery have pounded the Gaza Strip, Palestinian families across the territory huddled in stairwells or whichever room in their home puts the most walls between them and the offensive outside.

The bombardments began on May 10 after Hamas fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem. That followed Palestinian protests against a heavy-handed Israeli police raid at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem and attempts by Jewish settlers to force Palestinians out of their homes. The exchange of Hamas' rockets and Israel's heavy artillery and airstrikes are the latest escalation in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, taking the deadliest toll in Gaza since 2014.

Gaza's Health Ministry says at least 230 Palestinians, including 65 children, have died in this latest round of violence in Gaza. The Israelis say the rockets fired from Gaza have killed 12 people in Israel, including two children. The Israeli military says more than 3,750 rockets have been launched from Gaza since the fighting began, more than in any previous conflict between Israel and Hamas, and its defense system has intercepted most of them.

Early Thursday, Israel said it hit Hamas tunnels and the homes of the militant group's commanders. Hamas and other armed groups fired more rockets from Gaza at Israel. The air raids in Gaza often take place in crowded residential neighborhoods, damaging homes and roads and civilian infrastructure. Residents there said at least five family homes were destroyed in the bombardment Thursday.

Shareef, 48, a linguistics professor at Gaza's Al-Azhar University, speaks with NPR by phone from the bedroom of one of his sons, where the family of eight now live. To avoid having to leave, they eat canned food they have stored there and follow the news of what's happening outside on their phones. Sometimes power cuts plunge them into darkness for hours. The Israeli airstrikes have made it impossible to sleep for more than two or three hours a night.

Twice loud explosions punctuate the phone interview. On the first boom, Shareef's youngest son, 6-year-old Tamer, cries.

"He's run to his mom to hide. He hugs her," Shareef says.

The second blast is much louder as a shell hits. "Its light was in my face," Shareef says, breathless.

He quickly regains his composure. "You know, children usually look to their father as the strongest person in the world," he says. "So I try to play this role. I try to act like I'm strong in order to calm them down. But internally, I'm not that strong."

All the while, Shareef thinks through contingency plans for a possible attack on their home. The closest medical facility, Indonesia Hospital, was damaged in an Israeli airstrike a day earlier and access roads were torn up. If anyone is injured, he'll need to use side roads to try to get close to the hospital.

"It's difficult for a car or ambulance to pass," he says. "You reach a certain point, then continue on foot carrying the injured person."

Palestinians rescue a survivor from the rubble of a destroyed residential building following Israeli airstrikes Sunday in Gaza City. Access to hospitals remains a challenge in Gaza.
Khalil Hamra / AP
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Palestinians rescue a survivor from the rubble of a destroyed residential building following Israeli airstrikes Sunday in Gaza City. Access to hospitals remains a challenge in Gaza.

The access roads to this hospital were reportedly cleared with diggers a day after the strike. But Suhair Zakkout, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross who lives in Gaza, says access to hospitals and medical centers remains a challenge. "You know that if you are injured, you might not be able to reach the hospital," she says.

The U.N. humanitarian affairs office said as of Wednesday six hospitals and 11 health care centers were damaged in Gaza, one of them severely. One hospital is not functioning because of three days with no electricity.

Hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza have lost their homes in the Israeli offensive. The hostilities have resulted in 230 buildings destroyed, including 991 homes and businesses, in addition to 678 housing units with severe damage, the U.N. humanitarian report said, citing Gaza's Ministry of Public Works and Housing.

In some cases, before an airstrike, the Israeli military warns Gaza residents to flee. Often one person in a residential block receives the call and is told to spread the word. One such warning was captured on a video broadcast on local and social media.

It shows Mohammed al-Sousi at the front of a modern high-rise, Cairo Tower, where he lives.

Sousi pleads for more time: "What do you want me to do?" he says into the phone. "There are 30 apartments in this building, not just one!" As he hangs up, he looks pale gray with shock.

In a call with NPR, Sousi says a man who identified himself as a member of the Israel Defense Forces gave him 20 minutes to alert everyone in the building that it was targeted for an airstrike. He says he used the intercom to call his parents, who live in the building. They alerted other neighbors.

Meanwhile, he and another neighbor ran to the apartment of an older woman who was unable to hear a doorbell or phone call.

"We broke down her door and pulled her out," he says.

Sousi then moved his family out of his apartment. They stood over 300 feet away and watched the airstrike come in. It hit the top of Cairo Tower, blowing out the upper floors. Sousi's apartment is on the fifth floor. The building didn't have electricity or water for a few days after the strike, but Sousi's home was intact enough that he could move back in.

Others have had even less warning. The Massri family fled in a panic from their home in Beit Hanoun, a city close to the Gaza border with Israel, after an airstrike hit so close it smashed windows and sent shrapnel flying. It was May 13, the first night of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Arafat al-Massri says cousins of his, including children, had died in a strike earlier that day. When the airstrikes came, they ran out of the house without even their shoes.

"It was terrifying. We ran out barefoot," he says. "We even didn't have money; we left with only the clothes we were wearing."

The family walked half an hour to a refugee camp. From there, they moved to a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, already crowded with displaced people and lacking enough blankets and mattresses for all. Some 47,000 people are seeking protection in 58 UNRWA schools across Gaza, and thousands more are staying with host families, according to the U.N. humanitarian report. (The report did not say how many were newly displaced.)

A Palestinian woman hangs up washing Wednesday in a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, where some families are now living, following Israeli raids on Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.
Fatima Shbair / Getty Images
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A Palestinian woman hangs up washing Wednesday in a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, where some families are now living, following Israeli raids on Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.

Bilal Shbair, 34, teaches young children at an UNWRA school and lives with his wife and 20-month-old son in the central area of the Gaza Strip. "This war is literally unspeakable," Shbair says in a phone interview, adding he has lived through previous rounds of hostilities over the past 15 years.

He says he has heard warplanes and drones overhead constantly, including during the interview. "I'm hearing now. It's over us here now. It doesn't stop," he says.

"We need psychological help" to cope with the trauma, he says. "We cannot even sleep one full hour at all."

"We are experiencing more danger day after day, or even hour after hour. ... We just don't want to die under the rubbles of our houses."

That fear is all too real. The Israeli military says it often notifies someone at a building ahead of a planned strike but also stages surprise attacks, depending on the target. So some civilians do not get forewarned when their home is targeted or when an airstrike topples a different building nearby or Hamas tunnels, causing powerful explosions that can damage or destroy surrounding homes and businesses.

This is what happened Sunday on al-Wehda Street in Gaza City, where Gazan officials say 42 people died when homes collapsed on top of whole families.

In a statement to NPR, an Israeli military official said IDF planes targeted underground tunnels belonging to Hamas located under the road. "The underground military facilities collapsed, causing the foundations of the civilian houses above them to collapse as well, leading to unintended casualties," the official said.

Nisreen Abu Alouf, 17, lived in a house behind buildings that collapsed.

"We heard the rubble falling around us," she says. "Debris and smoke entered our whole house; we couldn't see anything."

When she ran outside, she says she found "buildings full of civilians" had collapsed, "all of them families and children. They're all our relatives."

She searched for her siblings, fearing they too were dead. She eventually found one brother and her younger sister in a hospital in Gaza, and another brother at a neighbor's house.

They are all reunited now — exhausted and hoping another air raid doesn't touch them again.

Ruth Sherlock wrote this story from Beirut, while Anas Baba and Siham Shamalakh contributed reporting in Gaza City. Daniel Estrin contributed reporting in Jerusalem and Nada Homsi from Beirut. Steve Inskeep contributed from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.