Jabaliya, Gaza—The bombardment of Gaza is almost always worse at night. The missiles and shells rain down in greater number after dark. The sky is lit up by flares that illuminate the onslaught. With hardly any electricity, the Strip is turned into a vast silhouette. There is little sleep.
For more than three weeks, Israel’s unrelenting air and artillery assault on the Strip has targeted homes, schools, hospitals, ambulances, beaches, marketplaces, media outlets, mosques and cemeteries.
At dawn on Wednesday, the Israeli military shelled a United Nations school in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Up to twenty people were killed, including four children, and more than 100 wounded. The school was sheltering more than 3,300 displaced Palestinians, many of them women and children. They had gone there to seek refuge from the falling bombs.
“Children were killed as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom in a UN designated shelter in Gaza,” said Pierre Krähenbühl, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, in a statement. “Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”
With Gaza’s borders closed and 44 percent of the Strip declared a military buffer zone, the UN-run schools were seen by many displaced Palestinians as one of the only sanctuaries from Israel’s continued assault. They were wrong. The Jabaliya school is at least the sixth UN shelter to be struck since the conflict began.
On July 24, a UN school in Beit Hanoun was shelled, killing sixteen people, many of them women and children, and wounding over 200. UNRWA staff have also come under attack while driving UN-marked vehicles and in their homes. At least seven UNRWA local staff members have been killed since the conflict began.
More than 240,000 Gazans are living in UN shelters and another 200,000 may be taking shelter with host families, according to the United Nations. That means nearly a quarter of Gaza’s population has been displaced.
Like all UN schools, the Jabaliya Girls Elementary is incredibly overcrowded. Families live crammed together, more than seventy people to a classroom. They hang their clothes in the windows. There is little food and water to go around. At night the women and children are inside, the men on mattresses and blankets in the open courtyard.
It was still dark when the school was hit. According to multiple eyewitnesses at least three shells struck at around 4:30 am.
“I was running and stumbling over corpses,” says Nasser Khafaja, a 49-year-old who evacuated his apartment in the Al-Nada towers in Beit Hanoun on July 10, two days after the war began. He is bleeding from the chin, stomach and arm. “I was in the middle of death here. Now I have nowhere to go. I will be in the street.”
The roof and walls of one of the classrooms were severely damaged in the attack. A blood-stained blanket lies atop the rubble amid piles of clothes and upended furniture. The blackboard is still decorated with a drawing of a flower in faded chalk.
“I thought it was safe here,” says 25-year-old Ibrahim Haboub, who had been living at the school for over two weeks. He tried to help carry the wounded to the ambulances that eventually arrived. He says he saw a man with both his legs cut off lying in front of one of the classrooms and a woman a few yards away with her head smashed in. “If I knew this would happen, I would have stayed at home. I would prefer to die there.”