‘We’re not Hamas’: Gaza residents say airstrikes are putting civilians in grave danger

GAZA CITY, Gaza — After days of devastating Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, residents of the besieged enclave say there is no way to escape death. 

The airstrikes are in retaliation for the brutal terrorist attacks by Hamas, the militant group that is considered a terrorist organization by several countries. Hamas controls the Palestinian enclave, where 2.2 million people live in about 140 square miles — making it one of the most densely populated places in the world. 

Schools have been flattened, walls blown off houses and entire families buried under tons of concrete. Residents are scrambling to rescue relatives from the rubble as smoke and dust from the relentless bombing make it difficult to breathe. 

“It’s all collateral damage. We are all civilians, normal doctors, nurses, teachers, students. We’re not Hamas,” Mohamed Mughisib, a Palestinian doctor and a deputy coordinator with Doctors Without Borders, said in a telephone interview from Gaza. 

“It’s the children who are dying,” he said.

A Palestinian man carries the body of a child killed in overnight Israeli shellingA Palestinian man on Tuesday carries the body of a child killed in overnight Israeli shelling during a funeral in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. Said Khatib / AFP – Getty Images

Hamas, which took control of Gaza after elections in 2006, considers itself a freedom-fighting movement against occupation, but it is divisive among Palestinians because of its use of violence. Since 2007, Israel has had blockades by land, air and sea in Gaza, also enforced by Egypt, and critics say it has allowed Hamas to fill a power vacuum there.

With the Egyptian border also damaged by airstrikes, Nowar Diab, 20, said, there is nowhere to flee from the barrage of missiles.

“My safety is not guaranteed, because I’m in a house that can be bombed any moment,” she said. “People think that we can protect ourselves. This is impossible. This is really impossible. We can’t leave, and we can’t escape,” she said. “This is a literal prison.”

Palestinians carrying personal belongings walk past heavily damaged buildings following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City's al-Rimal districtPalestinians walk by heavily damaged buildings Tuesday after Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City’s al-Rimal district.Mahmud Hams / AFP – Getty Images

The population in the Gaza Strip is overwhelmingly young, with 7 out of 10 residents under age 30.

The Israel Defense Forces say 1,200 people have been killed and more than 2,700 have been injured since Hamas’ surprise attack Saturday, the deadliest incursion into Israeli territory in 50 years. The status of scores of people, including children, kidnapped by Hamas in Israel remains unknown. Nearly 1,100 people in Gaza have been killed in Israel’s retaliation and 5,000 have been injured, the health ministries in Gaza and the West Bank said Wednesday.

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On Monday, a spokesperson for the military wing of Hamas said it would kill one civilian hostage every time Israel targets civilians in their homes in Gaza “without warning.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised a devastating response to the attack, saying, “What we will do to our enemies in the coming days will reverberate with them for generations.” 

Anticipating a full-scale war, Suhaib Abu Haleina, who lives near the border in the Gazan city of Beit Lahiahad, sought refuge with her family at schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the U.N. body charged with supporting Palestinians. 

“The children were terrified and afraid,” she said of the Israeli government’s bombardment. “They were terrified, terrified, and tired, as well.”

The relief agency said Wednesday that more than 175,000 internally displaced people were sheltering in 88 schools across the Gaza Strip, a number that is expected to increase. Twenty of its schools have been affected by the Israeli airstrikes, the agency said, and nine of its personnel have been killed. 

A Palestinian woman reacts as bodies of people killed in overnight Israeli shellingA Palestinian woman reacts Tuesday as the bodies of people killed in overnight Israeli shelling arrive for their funeral in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip.Said Khatib / AFP – Getty Images

While the last few days have brought a big escalation in the conflict, life has been difficult for many in Gaza for years.

“I carried water in 2008, more than 10 years ago, when my son was not born, and now my son is the one who carries water in 2023,” said Haleina, who comes from a family of farmers.

Amid heavy bombing in Gaza of what Israel says are military targets, hundreds of residential buildings, mosques and medical facilities have been destroyed.

“Everyone freezes, starts shaking and tries to find their moms or sisters or brothers to hang on tight,” Gaza resident Ahmad Alghari said. “Sometimes we jump when we hear the sound of a bomb. Most people are like zombies.” 

The U.N. said Wednesday that more than 260,000 people in Gaza had been displaced, either because their homes had been destroyed or because they had sought shelter in fear for their lives. An intensifying Israeli siege has cut off supplies of water, food and power to the territory, where electricity is available only a few hours a day and only 5% of residents had access to clean drinking water in their homes even before the current war.

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Gaza City's al-Rimal neighborhoodA Palestinian man walks through debris early Tuesday from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City’s al-Rimal neighborhood. Mohammed Abed / AFP – Getty Images

On Wednesday, Gaza announced its only power plant had stopped working after Israel blocked fuel imports. 

The pace of attacks is likely to accelerate with Israel’s “full siege,” which could include a ground operation. A spokesperson for the Israeli military said Wednesday that the scenes coming out of Gaza in the coming days will be “difficult to understand and cope with.” 

Netanyahu on Saturday warned all civilians in Gaza to “get out of there,” but that is nearly impossible under the Israeli land, air and sea blockade.

Israel, which had controlled Gaza since 1967, defends the blockade as necessary to prevent Hamas attacks on Israelis. It has long been condemned by the U.N. and human rights groups, who say it has turned Gaza into an “open-air prison,” ravaged its economy and only increased local support for Hamas.

“This most recent violence does not come in a vacuum,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Monday. “The reality is that it grows out of a long-standing conflict, with a 56-year-long occupation and no political end in sight.”

Palestinians mourn the death of their relativesPalestinians on Monday mourn the deaths of relatives after an Israeli airstrike on the refugee camp of Jabalia in the Gaza Strip. Mahmud Hams / AFP – Getty Images

Mughisib and others say the retaliation from Israel is the worst they’ve experienced in decades of conflict.

“Every 30 minutes you wake up from a severe strike and shaking of the building and shrapnel flying,” he said.

Afraid that his home, which is near many government offices, would be hit, Mughisib rushed his wife and three children to his office before Israel began retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza on Saturday, hours after Hamas launched its attack.

But even at his office, Mughisib said, his family barely escaped a direct hit a few blocks away Monday night.

“You see your neighbor has been injured, someone that you know has been killed,” he said. “Every minute there is some sad news.” 

Wajjeh Abu Zarifa reported from Gaza, Mithil Aggarwal from Hong Kong and Yasmine Salam from New York.

Wajjeh Abu Zarifa

Wajjeh Abu Zarifa is an NBC News producer in Gaza.

Mithil Aggarwal

Mithil Aggarwal is a Hong Kong-based reporter/producer for NBC News.

Yasmine Salam

Yasmine Salam is an associate producer with the NBC News Investigative Unit. Previously she worked in the London Bureau, covering international stories.

Mirna Alsharif, Lawahez Jabari, Jean Lee and Khalid Razakcontributed.

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