The Globe’s Patrick Martin was in Gaza City on Wednesday, observing how Palestinian residents are coping with the escalating violence. Read his full report here.
Because of the threat of Israeli bombardment – and because the Israelis have been sending out warning notices to some neighbourhoods of impending attacks – there are close to 20,000 Gazans who have sought refuge with relatives in safer districts or in United Nations schools.
The Fakhoura School is one of them, offering temporary housing to about 1,200 people who arrived last week after receiving an Israeli warning. That works out to about 30 people in each of the school’s 40 classrooms – a pretty tight fit when you consider everyone has to find room to sleep there.
Most of the people walked here or rode in donkey-pulled carts from Beit Lahia, a few kilometres to the north, and the only cooking equipment or bedding they have is what they brought with them.
The smell of urine is heavy when you walk through the steel gates of the blue-and-white compound. The two- and three-storey buildings are set up around a central square, and lots of people must be ducking around the back of some of the buildings to relieve themselves. There are worse smells at the back of the biggest building where feces and bad food have been left, now covered in flies. Jihad, my interpreter, covers her nose and mouth the entire time we’re in the compound.
The master of the school seems understandably overwrought. I’m ushered in to see him in his large chaotic office because no one is allowed inside the facility without his permission. When I ask how many people are being sheltered in the school, he tells me to speak to someone at the headquarters of the UN Relieve and Works Agency. Only they can answer such questions.
The same went for every other question I asked, except one: Could I walk around the school and talk to the people? “Absolutely,” he said. “Feel free.”
People complained about the lack of privacy – rooms are divided by hanging blankets and piles of desks – about the lack of mattresses and about the poor food they’re provided.
On Tuesday, it was pita bread and lentils. Wednesday, it’s pita and a tin of tuna. Those families with money buy what they need from local grocers, but it’s clear there are many who don’t have the cash.
When it came time to distribute the UNRWA food, a patrol of clean-cut Boy Scouts, around 16 years of age, marched into the compound dressed smartly in khaki shirts and purple neckerchiefs with the white fleur-de-lys Scout emblem. They were volunteers from Jabalia and organized themselves in front of the distribution doors so as to make sure people stayed in line and there was no pushing or shoving.
To help people just like these, Israel announced Wednesday that it would facilitate a five-hour humanitarian truce on Thursday to allow people who fled their homes to return to them to pick up supplies. During these hours, Israel said it cease all operational activity in Gaza and hold its fire.
Heading toward the exit, we were overwhelmed by the jet-like sound of two rockets being launched from somewhere near the school. Hamas, or some or militant group, clearly is hoping the Israelis won’t strike at the launchers, which are kept underground until the moment of firing, because they’re close to the school and so many refugees.
As the Hamas-made missiles screamed off into the sky, leaving a white vapour trail, the kids all cheered. One older boy of maybe 12, shouted in Arabic “They’re R160s,” named for the late Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi who was assassinated by Israel in 2004. These are the big, long-range rockets usually reserved for Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or the airport in between.