Gaza Evacuees Crowd Into Schools Remade As Shelters

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While Israelis seek refuge from Hamas rockets in ubiquitous shelters, Palestinians crowd into schools to escape Israeli airstrikes. Conditions there grow dire as the conflict drags on.


Hamas militants fired rockets into Israel today, more rockets, after the Israeli government announced it was expanding ground operations in the Gaza Strip. Thousands of Palestinians continue to flee their homes. Early this morning, some, still wearing their pajamas, left in haste to take shelter in local schools. Those schools are already packed beyond capacity. NPR's Emily Harris reports on the increasingly dire situation.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Three women and 13 children shuffle into an elementary classroom in Jabalia, a Gazan town just a couple miles south of what's now a fighting frontline. These are the ninth, tenth, and eleventh families to be put in this one classroom to escape the war.

YAFFA NASSIR: (Speaking Arabic).

ABU LABAN: (Speaking Arabic).

HARRIS: There was so much bombing, says Yaffa Nassir in a lilac headscarf and rimless glasses, holding a baby who's spitting up. So much smoke I couldn't see my kid, says Arij Abu Laban.

The ground invasion has now gone beyond the undeveloped lands just inside Gaza's border with Israel. Troops have entered houses. The military says one was booby-trapped with explosives. Israeli soldiers have also captured at least a dozen men for interrogation. Abu Laban says as she fled, she felt like she was on the wrong end of a computer game.

ABU LABAN: (Through translator) Is this a game Israel's playing? We are not games. We are human. I hope one day they will become homeless.

HARRIS: This classroom is not the first place these women have sought shelter. Their parents' homes and another school were already full. Here wooden desks are stacked at one end to clear the floor for sleeping. Sheets cover the windows to the courtyard where kids fly paper airplanes during the day and the men sleep at night. UN officials fear the number of people seeking shelter at their schools could top 70,000 today. Deputy Director of the main UN agency here, Scott Anderson, says this goes well beyond preparations.

SCOTT ANDERSON: Our plan was for 50,000 people. So our supplies, for example, mistresses, we're done. We've issued every mattress we have.

HARRIS: And Anderson says people need more than just emergency supplies.

ANDERSON: How do you provide child-friendly spaces? If you look at the average six-year-old in Gaza, this is their third major conflict in their very brief life.

HARRIS: Israel says its military is taking unprecedented measures to avoid killing civilians. But the UN says during the last ground war here, some school sheltering evacuees were hit. This week, a stash of rockets was discovered in an empty school, bolstering Israel's claim that militants hide among civilians. Head of the UN agency here, Robert Turner.

ROBERT TURNER: It was really a shock to us that somebody would've done this, put at rick our installations, put at risk our civilians, put at risk, you know, the trust that we've built up over 64 years of operation here.

NASSIR: (Speaking Arabic).

HARRIS: Back at the school, Yaffa Nassir and Arij Abu Laban wept over the single deadliest Israeli hit yesterday, killing eight members of a family they'd seen just the day before. Hamas, the militant group Israel is fighting, has been proudly touting their successes, including the two Israeli soldiers killed yesterday inside Israel after Hamas snuck out of Gaza through a tunnel. Nassir and Abu Laban support Hamas' fight.

ABU LABAN: (Speaking Arabic).

HARRIS: Do you think they're doing this for no reason? Arij Abu Laban says. They're trying to end the blockade against Gaza and let us live like normal humans.

NASSIR: (Speaking Arabic).

HARRIS: We don't mind having someone to fight for us, Yaffa Nassir adds. We are civilians, so we won't fight Israel ourselves. Another woman in the classroom says she's ready for a cease-fire. She says her child woke up the other night asking if the war was over yet. No, she told him. Sleep. Sleep.

Emily Harris. NPR News, Gaza.

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