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Fearful, humiliated, and desperate: Palestinians heading south in Gaza face horrors

Displaced Palestinians from the northern Gaza Strip passed through an Israeli checkpoint on their way south on Sunday.SAMAR ABU ELOUF/NYT

They walked for hours, raising their hands when they encountered Israeli troops with guns trained on them to display their ID cards — or wave white rags. All around them was the sound of gunfire and the incessant buzzing of drones. Bodies littered rubble-filled streets.

For the tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have fled the northern part of the enclave where the heaviest fighting has been taking place, evacuating to the south has been a perilous journey, according to at least 10 Palestinians that The New York Times spoke to on the ground and by phone. Even though a tenuous cease-fire in place since Friday has brought temporary relief from the bombardment, they face an uncertain future — and the threat the strikes will return, leaving them displaced yet again.


The Israeli military launched a deadly bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip after an attack on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7 in which, Israeli officials say, 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage. In the seven weeks since, Israel has pounded the tiny coastal enclave with the aim of destroying Hamas’s military capabilities. More than 13,000 Palestinians have been killed as of Nov. 21, according to health authorities in Gaza.

For weeks, Israel has been urging Palestinians living in northern Gaza towns to flee along Salah al-Din Street, the strip’s main north-south highway.

Those lucky enough or with means fled early, but some Palestinians who spoke to the Times said they could not leave earlier because they do not have relatives or anyone they know in the south, cannot leave older family members behind, or don’t have the resources. Instead, many sheltered in increasingly dangerous and desperate conditions at schools or hospitals in the north. But at some point, they made the difficult decision to leave.


Even that decision was fraught. In the weeks leading up to the cease-fire, Israel has also bombed the southern part of the Gaza Strip, and some Palestinians feel uprooting themselves further with no guarantee of shelter in the south is not worth it.

The United Nations says 1.7 million of the 2.3 million residents in the Hamas-controlled enclave have been displaced.

The Palestinians who spoke to the Times said they felt shame, loss of dignity, and anger at finding themselves struggling for their lives in the latest war between Israel and Hamas. The journey — which takes Palestinians hours depending on where in the north they are leaving from — is usually done on foot or on a donkey cart.

Aya Habboub, 23, remained in northern Gaza earlier this month, heavily pregnant with her third child. She gave birth in a hospital under intense bombardment but was forced to evacuate when the baby, whom she named Tia, was just 4 days old.

Barely able to walk, Habboub tried to rest by the side of the road, but her husband urged her to keep going. Israeli soldiers, she said, stopped her mother-in-law and ordered the woman to stand for half an hour and raise her hands.

“Then they were firing," Habboub said, “and we started running.” Habboub was speaking in a hospital in Deir al-Balah, a city in central Gaza, where many are sheltering. In her lap, Tia, cocooned in a white cloth, was sleeping peacefully.

“I dropped my baby,” she said. “I was crying and screaming.”


Several Palestinians described similar scenes of soldiers firing in the general vicinity of those fleeing. It was not possible to verify independently such claims.

The Israeli military did not comment on the specific allegations. In a statement responding to questions about them, the military said it had taken “significant precautions to mitigate civilian harm.” It added that it had issued warnings of airstrikes ahead of time, when it can do so, and told civilians when to make use of “safe corridors” to evacuate.

It reiterated its assertion that Hamas has embedded itself within “civilian infrastructure and uses civilians as human shields.

In the few days since a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas took hold, some Palestinians have continued moving south. Others have tried to return north to check on loved ones and their homes, but Israeli troops have prevented that.

Mohammed El-Sabti said he began a trek from the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City on a recent morning with 15 family members, including his elderly mother. He saw another older woman screaming by the side of the road. She begged him for help, but El-Sabti was struggling with the load he was already carrying while he pushed his mother on a cart.

El-Sabti, who is now sheltering at a college building in the southern city of Khan Younis, rejected Israeli assertions about the safety of the so-called humanitarian corridor that Palestinians are being urged to use to flee from the north.


“The corridor is not humanitarian, and it’s unsafe,” he said. “It’s an area of horror.”

After weeks of enduring intense airstrikes, smelling corpses, and losing their homes and relatives, they speak with numbness about the horrors they’ve witnessed in their hometowns and on the road south.

“I had two boys and five girls,” said Malak El-Najjar, 52, who used to live in the Mukhabarat area in Gaza City and is now sheltering in Khan Younis. “Two of the girls are dead,” killed in an airstrike before they left, she said, ages 18 and 20.

Iman Abu Halima, 33, who first fled from Beit Lahiya in the north before taking shelter temporarily in Jabalia and then carrying on south after it got too dangerous, described seeing “bloated bodies, flies on them,” next to scattered body parts.

“We saw many dead bodies,” said Mazen Abu Habil, 52, a father of eight, who eventually made it to Khan Younis, which has become a teeming place of refuge for displaced people. There, Palestinians cram into hospitals and UN shelters, living in substandard conditions — chasing a meal a day, sleeping with barely any blankets, wearing the clothes they fled with.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.