Khan Younis and Beit Lahia, Gaza—Hussein Shinbari is the only member of his family that survived the attack on a United Nations school in Beit Hanoun on Thursday. He is covered in blood. His undershirt, his pants and his hands are all stained a deep red.
After Israel launched its ground invasion into Gaza last week, the Shinbari family left their home in the northeastern town close to the Israeli border and sought shelter at the nearby school. “They told us it was safe,” Hussein says, sitting on the ground by the morgue of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahia.
More than 1,500 displaced Palestinians were staying at the school. The conflict has caused unprecedented massive displacement in Gaza, forcing over 140,000 people to seek shelter in more than eighty UN shelters.
On Thursday afternoon, the people in the Beit Hanoun school were told they were being transferred to another area, away from the shelling and clashes on the streets outside. According to multiple survivors, they were instructed to gather their scant belongings and assemble in the schoolyard to await buses that would take them to another shelter.
At around 2:30 pm a barrage of artillery shells crashed into the school, according to witnesses. At least sixteen people were killed and more than 200 wounded, many of them women and children. Hussein lost his mother; his stepmother; his 16-year-old brother, Abel Rabo; his 12-year-old sister, Maria; and his 9-year-old brother, Ali.
“I was the only one who walked out,” Hussein says. He helped carry his dying family members to the ambulances that eventually arrived. “I’m not asking Hamas or Fatah for anything,” he says. “I only have God left.”
The Israeli military says Hamas was firing rockets from Beit Hanoun and that it had told the Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, and the Red Cross to evacuate the school. Yet UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness says the UN had asked the Israeli military for a lull in the fighting to allow for an evacuation but did not hear back. Gunness says precise coordinates of the shelter had been formally given to the Israeli army. The attack marked the fourth time a UN facility has been hit by Israel since the conflict began on July 8.
“These people had no place to go. They are very poor, so they sought the protection of the United Nations,” says Dr. Bassam al-Masry, the head of the orthopedic department at the Kamal Adwan Hospital, whose house is adjacent to the school in Beit Hanoun. “Today they were shelled. Why?”
The hospital is filled with heart-wrenching scenes. Men and women being carried in on stretchers. People rushing through the halls with wounded children in their arms. It is unbearably hot and humid. In one corner, six women gather in a knot of grief, sobbing and holding each other. One of them collapses in shock.
Inside the morgue a baby is brought onto the wooden examination table. She is about 1 year old. She looks unharmed, except when her head is turned to reveal that a small chunk of her neck is missing. The other bodies lie in the refrigerated morgue drawers cocooned in bloodied white shrouds. Only their faces are uncovered.