The Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip started on 10 May 2021 and is still ongoing. Civilians and their homes are being targeted directly and intensively, with heavy missiles, random artillery and intense shelling from war planes and gunboats to the east and west of the Strip. These extensive and systematic attacks on buildings, and the shelling of residential areas, especially those near the separation fence, force civilians—men, women and children—to flee their homes in search of safety.
Israel is well aware that the Gaza Strip lacks secure shelters for civilians under attack, but nevertheless uses tactics that offer people no choice but to leave their homes. It also deliberately destroys electricity and water and sanitation networks, making it impossible for people to stay.
Forcibly displaced people resort to UNRWA schools, hoping to find protection under the UN flag, though it is known that Israeli forces targeted schools that were being used as shelters in 2014.
Forced displacement was precipitated by the shelling of Um al-Nasser (Bedouin) village and parts of the al-Shujaiya neighborhood on 12 May 2021, when high-explosive missiles and a barrage of artillery shells forced dozens of people to leave their homes and travel to relatives and friends living far away. The attacks then expanded to other residential areas in several Gaza districts. According to information available to Al Mezan, around 41,900 people have moved to 53 UNRWA schools, and the numbers are still increasing. At the time of publication, the UNRWA administration has yet to officially open its shelters.
According to information collected by Al Mezan’s fieldworkers:
Displaced people experience appalling humanitarian conditions, especially when these schools have not officially been opened as shelters.
Al Mezan’s collected data shows that forcibly displaced people live in classrooms without mattresses or blankets, and without the provision of essential services, such as sufficient drinking water, food and adequate toilets. Most live on what little food they have brought with them, or on food given by neighboring residents or provided by charitable associations and popular committees for refugees. Moreover, those people live without alternative power sources during hours-long power cuts. They must survive without the basic necessities of life, and children and women particularly lack any psychological support programs. The UNRWA still refuses to acknowledge these centers or to provide them with the necessary services.
Forced displacement during the current aggression is happening in the context of Coronavirus. There is a high number of infected people in the Gaza Strip, but the authorities are paying little attention to this. Since it is difficult for forcibly displaced people to uphold preventive safety measures, those in shelters are threatened by a health and humanitarian disaster, which in turn threatens society in general with further Coronavirus outbreaks.
Al Mezan stresses that Israel’s massive and disproportionate use of heavy munitions against residential and commercial buildings as well as governmental sites appears not to serve any discernible military purpose. Instead, it inflicts unwarranted large-scale destruction on Gaza’s already deteriorating infrastructure in flagrant violation of the fundamental principles of distinction, proportionality, and necessity as enshrined in customary international humanitarian law.
Alarmingly, Israel’s planned tactical use of non-combat techniques, in what amounts to psychological warfare, has increasingly subjected Palestinians to additional suffering and harm. Israel’s air force routinely launches airstrikes in the late hours of the night amid near-total blackout in most districts of the Gaza Strip. These airstrikes are occasionally preceded by short-notice evacuation warnings (sometimes as short as a few minutes), forcibly displacing thousands of families and sending them into the street. Al Mezan’s monitoring shows that the targeted buildings have so far been either residential or designated for governmental use. Some of the buildings also housed media offices; none of them had been used by Palestinian armed groups.
While Al Mezan strongly condemns Israel’s ongoing military offensive against Gaza, it also denounces the international community’s inaction and dereliction of its moral and legal obligations towards the protection of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory. Therefore, Al Mezan reiterates its call on the international community, especially the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention, to take firm and swift action to end Israel’s attacks against civilians and civilian objects in Gaza. In this connection Al Mezan stresses that Israel’s repeated cycles of violence as well as persistent apartheid practices and forced displacement of Palestinians is the result of the international community’s failure to enforce accountability for such crimes. Unless an approach to remedy the situation based on international law and relevant UN resolutions is formulated, which the Oslo Accords failed to achieve, Israel’s impunity will persist, and collective punishment crimes will continue to be perpetrated.
In light of the current humanitarian crisis, Al Mezan appeals to international institutions and United Nations agencies, especially UNRWA, to mobilize relief and aid to the displaced Palestinian families in a manner that ensures the respect of their human dignity.
The multifaceted humanitarian crisis facing the civilian population in Gaza, an exacerbation of the pre-existing crisis caused by years of closure, can only be resolved by a swift international intervention.