Palestinians Face Harrowing Hunt for Safety as War Intensifies

A plume of smoke rises over Beit Hanoun in after an Israeli airstrike on Nov. 16. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES
A plume of smoke rises over Beit Hanoun in after an Israeli airstrike on Nov. 16. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES

Summary

Israel urges civilians to move out of harm’s way, while families in Gaza say ‘there’s nowhere else to go.’

The first call came at 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 8. The recorded voice instructed doctor Hussam Abuouda, his wife and five children to get out.

Leave Beit Hanoun, the city at the Israeli border in northern Gaza, Abuouda recalls the unidentified man saying in Arabic.

He had received a call like this before, in the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. That time, he moved out for 45 days, then returned to repair his damaged home. This night felt more urgent. A bomb had obliterated a building hundreds of yards from his home, killing people inside.

“I feared the same would happen to me and my family," says Abuouda.

At dawn, with explosions all around, the family piled into their green Fiat, the children crying as they raced along empty roads to Gaza City, as directed, 6 miles south.

It was the first of five moves the Abuoudas would make in less than a month as they followed Israeli instructions to get out of the way of airstrikes its military says are aimed at eliminating Hamas, the militant rulers of the enclave.

A truce to free hostages and allow aid into the enclave stopped the bombing for a week late last month. When it expired early Friday, Israel urged Palestinians to make way again.

The resumption of bombing will force the Palestinians to again calculate and recalculate an impossible and potentially deadly equation—whether it is safer to stay put, or keep moving in search of a safe place within Gaza, a territory roughly the size of Philadelphia.

About two months earlier, Hamas stormed the Israeli frontier, carrying out attacks on a desert music festival and in borderland farming communities that left 1,200 people dead, most of them civilians, according to Israeli authorities. Militants took more than 200 people hostage.

Apart from the temporary cease-fire, Israel has been striking back ever since. Over 15,000 people have died in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the government media office in the Hamas-run enclave. Most were women and children. The figures don’t distinguish between civilians and militants.

In recent days, the U.S. has warned Israel that the number of deaths in Gaza must start to trend downward. “Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed," said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. “Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering, and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating."

The death toll has surged as extended families crowd under one roof. Uprooted Gazans camp in relatives’ homes or make do in shelters, and a single strike can take out generations. Of the around 2.2 million people in Gaza, some 1.8 million have been displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations.

Abuouda’s family sheltered for two days at his cousin’s home in Gaza City, with 25 people crammed into a house built for four in the Daraj quarter of the city, sleeping wherever there was floor space. Abuouda returned north to his work as a gastroenterologist at Indonesia Hospital.

Then the second call came. This time, the voice recording told Abuouda’s family to vacate Daraj, but didn’t say where to go.

Israel says it has undertaken extensive efforts—including sending millions of voice messages—to ensure the safety of civilians in the Gaza Strip during the conflict. On Friday, the Israeli military released a map that divides the enclave into hundreds of numbered blocks. Those living in or near the blocks on a list published daily by the military on its social media should follow accompanying instructions on where to go, the Israeli military said Sunday.

“Residents of Gaza! It is a safe means to preserve your safety, lives and the lives of your families," says the Israeli military website accompanying the map. Most people in Gaza don’t have reliable access to the internet or enough electricity to charge cellphones, so residents are unlikely to see the messages in time, according to U.N. officials.

Israel accuses Hamas of embedding itself in civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, using ordinary Palestinians as human shields, a claim Hamas denies.

“Israel is 100% compliant with international humanitarian law," says Ophir Falk, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We’ve warned them from day one to get out of harm’s way."

Wafaa Eid has had 68 relatives die in the bombing across Gaza. PHOTO: WAFAA EID
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Wafaa Eid has had 68 relatives die in the bombing across Gaza. PHOTO: WAFAA EID

Trapped

For most families, there is no way out of Gaza. Israel sealed its border after the Hamas attacks and later only foreign passport holders and their direct relatives or the very badly injured could attempt to cross into Egypt.

The Israeli military began telling everyone in the north of the strip to move south one week into the military campaign through text messages, phone calls and air-dropped fliers. Some messages warned that those who didn’t comply risked association with a terrorist organization.

For decades, Israel has used calls and leaflet drops to minimize civilian casualties in conflict but the Israeli military says it has done so on an “unprecedented scale" in this war, with more than 30,000 phone calls, four million leaflets, and millions of text and voice messages. “This outreach aimed to alert civilians about impending airstrikes and guide them to safety," a spokesman for the military said.

Many in Gaza heeded the initial warnings right away, traveling south in a chaotic rush only to find it overcrowded. Food and water were scarce, and bombs still fell from the sky. Rents in the south had more than doubled.

Some 807,000 people remained in north Gaza in mid-November, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, unable or unwilling to move. Israel’s ground operation, which also resumed on Friday and is expected to expand south, includes block-by-block battles with militants in Gaza City. Before the truce, Israel opened what it called a “humanitarian corridor" for a few hours on some days to enable civilians to go south, though some who used it reported shelling nearby. Israel’s military didn’t respond to requests for comment on whether it would do so again.

“We are at war with Hamas, not with the civilians of Gaza," the Israeli military said last month on X, formerly Twitter.

According to an Israeli security official, Israel estimates it has killed thousands of Hamas fighters, of more than 30,000 that it said were in the group’s ranks before the conflict.

In Al Bureij, near the middle of the Gaza Strip, residents got calls from people who identified themselves as Israeli intelligence as early as Oct. 10. “They said they want to bomb our homes," psychologist Wafaa Eid recalls her neighbors saying. She grabbed what clothes and tins of food she could and within half an hour fled just over a mile west, to her sister’s home, where no evacuation call came.

In all, 24 members of Eid’s family moved that day. “For me, it was like the world had ended," Eid says.

Almost every day brought news of another home flattened, crushing beneath it a branch of her family tree. Over the next three weeks, 68 of Eid’s relatives died in the bombing across Gaza.

Eid’s brother Essam Eid, a travel agent, and nine members of his family also left Al Bureij on Oct. 10. They sheltered at his daughter Samah’s home in Nuseirat, in the center of the strip, where no evacuation calls came.

Five days later, that house was blown apart. Children as young as 2 years old were under the rubble, and rescuers digging with hands couldn’t reach them. Some 16 of Eid’s relatives were killed. She remembers feeling numb.

Two days later, she heard news reports of strikes on Al Bureij, the neighborhood where her sister Hayam Eid lived.

“Is it true, is it true?" she cried out to her sister Om Ahmed as she rushed downstairs. Ahmed’s weeping told Eid enough, and she fainted. In all, 16 in her family were killed in the strike. The youngest was 6 years old, and the oldest—her sister Hayam—was 62.

History of flight

Eid’s grandparents had come from Al Maghar in the sun-baked hills above the Sea of Galilee and now a city in Israel’s north. In 1948, at the creation of the Israeli state, the family, like hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, was forced to leave.

Palestinians refer to that displacement as the Nakba, or catastrophe. Many see the current war through the lens of that 75-year-old event and fear losing their land again.

“We have been living in Gaza ever since, but we have never forgotten our homeland," says Eid.

Her family settled in Al Bureij, a small refugee camp. They became merchants, travel agents and government employees, and as the family grew the neighborhood took on their name, which means holiday or festival, Eid says.

She is the youngest of eight siblings, with two sisters and five brothers, two of whom died before the war. “We are very connected despite the large number of our family," Eid says.

On Oct. 23, Eid discovered four of her cousins and their families—12 people in all—had died in airstrikes in Zawaida, a neighborhood in Deir Al Balah, further south. On Nov. 2, another cousin, Marwan Eid, living in Al Bureij had taken his grandson across town for a shower. On the way back, they were killed in an airstrike, Eid says.

“None were Hamas," she says. “They were just living their lives."

A few days later, three more of her cousins and their families—22 relatives in all—died.

“I am a psychologist but I cannot deal with all of this," she says through tears. “I need 20 psychiatrists to help me recover from this trauma."

Her phone is full of the photos of the dozens of slain relatives. One shows her niece Areej, a 23-year-old dentist, with her Egyptian fiancé. The pair were set to marry in November. Areej Eid died on Oct. 17 in the strike that killed her mother, Wafaa Eid’s sister Hayam.

“We are living but dead inside," Eid says.

On the move

As Israel readied to send ground troops into northern Gaza, some Palestinian families held out, wary of Israeli claims that the south was safe and also haunted by their losses from Nakba.

Israel has said Palestinians can go back to their homes after the war but told them not to attempt a return during the temporary cease-fire. Many now have no homes to go back to.

Abuouda, the doctor, says the idea of another Nakba seemed unimaginable at the outset of the war. “I thought that we would be away from our home for a while and then go back," he says.

On Oct. 10, after the second warning, his wife and children fled to a relative’s home in Al Shati, a refugee camp a few minutes’ drive northwest of Gaza City.

The next morning, an airstrike at an adjacent building killed several neighbors. Abuouda heard the news at the end of a 48-hour shift, left the hospital and rode an ambulance to meet his family. “I started to look for ways to protect them," Abuouda says. They went to a packed U.N. shelter slightly further north in Jabalia.

At 3 a.m. on Oct. 13, the family’s first night in the refuge, U.N. officials told them Israel wanted everyone to move south of Wadi Gaza, roughly midway across the strip.

The family’s car still had fuel, but Abuouda had to retrieve it from Gaza City. They headed to Abuouda’s sister-in-law’s, in Deir Al Balah, just south of the evacuation zone. It took them four hours to travel 12 miles.

Around 100 family members were at that house. The air was thick with the smell of smoke, the sound of shelling never far away. On the ninth day, a strike hit a house about a quarter of a mile away, killing dozens of people, Abuouda says. They brushed the dust from that blast off their clothes and hair, he says.

On Oct. 23, the Abuoudas climbed into their Fiat again, dodging craters and driving past burned out buildings, along the 12-mile journey south to Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town and next to Egypt’s Sinai. They squeezed into another U.N. school shelter as bombs went off nearby. The explosions worsened, Abuouda says, as negotiators homed in on the temporary cease-fire and hostage release deal.

Just over a month after they arrived in Rafah, on Nov. 24, the bombing paused, bringing the first quiet for a long time, Abuouda says. It was also the day he learned his six-story home in Beit Hanoun was destroyed.

“It contained family memories," he says.

With the cease-fire over, he can hear explosions but not close, he says, and the instructions offered by the Israelis so far remain vague. Israel has designated a small area of land by the coast known as Al Mawasi as a humanitarian zone, but it has no buildings and isn’t a suitable place to live, Abuouda says. Winter is approaching.

“There’s nowhere else to go," he says.

Wafaa Eid, whose home has also been wiped out, left Gaza for Egypt with her brother, who works for Jordan’s Arab Bank, on Nov. 18. They were among the few people in Gaza who could do so without a foreign passport, in an arrangement facilitated by the Jordanian government. In her exhaustion and grief, she thinks about her two siblings, still in Gaza.

“All I want now is to get my family out of hell and death," she says.

Dov Lieber contributed to this article.

Write to Chao Deng at chao.deng@wsj.com and Omar Abdel-Baqui at omar.abdel-baqui@wsj.com

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