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.
“We thought the school was safer than our house,” says 32-year-old Monther Hamdan. He is lying on a cot with a wounded leg and grasps his father’s hand as he speaks. All thirteen members of his family were injured in the attack. They arrived at the school three days ago. “The tank shells fell like rain.”
The attack on the UN school came on one of the bloodiest days of the conflict. Approximately 120 Palestinians were killed yesterday, bringing the death toll in Gaza to nearly 800, the vast majority of them civilians, including at least 190 children, according to the Health Ministry. Over a two-day period, a child was killed every hour in Gaza. More than 5,100 have been wounded.
The level of violence has escalated significantly since Israel’s ground invasion last week. Calls for a cease-fire seem to have had the opposite effect. A three-kilometer buffer zone has been declared by Israeli military, equivalent to 44 percent of the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces have pushed in from the border backed by tanks and a continued assault from the air. Thirty-two Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed.
In southern Gaza, the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning residents to evacuate areas east of Khan Younis. “The Israeli Defense Forces are not targeting any of you,” it says. “If you follow directions, the IDF will not hurt any of you, the civilian population.”
Testimonies by the residents of the town of Khuzaa, one of the Palestinian residential areas closest to Israel, belie that claim. They describe a nightmarish ordeal trying to escape the Israeli invasion. Multiple witnesses say they were prevented from getting out by Israeli tanks and troops, that Israeli forces fired on ambulances and that the dead and wounded were left behind in the streets.
“There was no mercy,” says Wael Abu Irgala, a 24-year-old resident of Khuzaa. “We saw things you couldn’t imagine.”
Wael says the Israeli military began indiscriminately shelling Khuzaa on Tuesday at around sunset. By 1 am, Israeli troops began knocking on doors and shouting out taunts to the residents inside, calling for the men of the houses to come and face them, says Wael’s aunt Asmaa. The next morning Wael and Asmaa and hundreds of the town’s residents tried to evacuate, but it would be another twenty-four hellish hours before they made it out.
Town residents gathered on Wednesday morning and held up white flags as they walked. Two handicapped girls were being pushed in wheelchairs. Without warning, an Israeli tank stationed on the main road opened fire, shooting bullets into the crowd. The residents fled in panic. The man pushing one of the wheelchairs was shot, leaving the handicapped girl alone on the street.
“There were wounded on the ground and we couldn’t save them,” Wael says. “They would shoot anything that moved.”
Many people were injured in the attack and a number sought refuge at the house of a local doctor, Kamal Gedeih. He tended to the injured with very basic first aid supplies, including Wael’s other aunt, who was shot in the stomach.
Multiple calls were made to local hospitals, human rights organizations and the Red Cross, pleading for help in escaping the conflict, but no one came.
In the afternoon, an airstrike hit the yard of Gedieh’s house where the doctor’s brother was filling up water bottles for the people inside. It took him ten minutes to die. Another fifteen minutes later, a shell smashed into the side of the building. Gedieh himself was injured along with several others.
Wael and Asmaa decided to leave the doctor’s house and took their wounded relative, who was shot in the stomach, and other family members with them. They ended up finding a basement where dozens of other residents were seeking shelter. They spent the night there. There was no water, food or electricity. Several people collapsed from exhaustion.
The shelling and bombardment continued throughout the night. On Thursday morning, they decided to try and make their way out again. They walked in a group with their hands in the air. Some carried white flags.
“We didn’t expect to get out alive,” says Asmaa. “We walked for five kilometers waiting for death.” She says Israeli troops on tanks and deployed in the streets were blocking all the main roads. They gestured which direction for them to go. The relative with the stomach wound had to be half-carried the entire way.
In the assault, the town had been demolished. “We found a burning land, we didn’t know the streets or the houses of our own neighborhood,” Asmaa says. “It looked like a different world, empty of people.”
They finally made it out to Nasser hospital in Khan Younis late Thursday morning.
The scene at the hospital is one of chaos and overcrowding. People fill the corridors. The wounded are ferried back and forth. One man follows two corpses being carried into the morgue. He is holding a bright blue plastic bag. In it is all that remains of one of his relatives.
“This was the worst night in this hospital,” says Dr. Jamal al-Hams, the director general of the hospital. He says at least twenty-one people are dead and 150 injured. “The fridges are full and there’s nowhere to put the bodies.”
Multiple medical workers and witnesses say the Israeli military did not allow ambulances to enter Khuzaa during the brutal assault.
“There are many wounded still inside. They are calling us and we can’t get to them,” says Dr. Wissam Nabhan at the European Hospital in eastern Khan Younis. Nabhan says he took four ambulance trips on Thursday morning to try to evacuate people, and every time he came under fire from the Israeli military.
“This was a massacre of the people of Khuzaa.”