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Source: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
16 January 2009

16-01-2009  Operational update  
Gaza: trapped and terrorized civilians seek shelter from intense fighting

The fighting of the past two days has been the most violent since the war in Gaza started almost three weeks ago, moving further into Gaza City. On Thursday, shells hit the Al-Quds hospital and a warehouse full of emergency aid, both run by the Palestine Red Crescent. Today, huge clouds of black smoke are still rising, enveloping the war-torn city.

On Thursday night, shells hit the PRCS compound where Al-Quds hospital is located for the second time in 24 hours, setting a building ablaze. Ambulances with ICRC escorts immediately evacuated dozens of patients to Shifa hospital.

Antoine Grand heads the ICRC's office in Gaza. He explains: "The area was full of Israeli tanks, so we had to escort the fire brigade to the scene. We evacuated 700 people from the Al-Quds compound, including 100 patients who were taken to Shifa Hospital. But the situation was chaotic. We had 150 terrified people in our garden, seeking shelter. We didn't have enough blankets to give them, only water."

After the terror and drama of Thursday night, Friday morning was relatively quiet, said Mr Grand, who personally accompanied the rescue teams.

Thousands of families living in the hardest-hit areas are trying to flee their homes in search of safety. "We are extremely concerned about civilians trapped by the fighting and exposed to its effects," continued Grand. "The situation remains very dangerous for ambulance teams trying to reach the wounded."

On Thursday, some 300 people came to the ICRC residence in Gaza City in search of shelter. About 130 of them stayed overnight. Some returned home, others went to their relatives, and some were taken under ICRC escort to UNRWA shelters in the city. With 45,000 displaced people living in them, the shelters have been overwhelmed for several days.

"People started turning up at our residence early in the morning, mainly women with children," said Ellen Verluyten, deputy head of the ICRC office in Gaza. "Most of them were in tears, devastated. Some were still wearing pyjamas and slippers. Later on, I went out on the street and saw dozens of people running in panic."

"We did not hesitate for a single moment about whether to accommodate them or not," Ellen continued, “we had expected people to come to us as the fighting moved deeper into Gaza City.”

Mukhtar is one of those who sought shelter at the ICRC residence, along with his family. "Our house is on the outskirts of Gaza, and the ICRC residence was closer than any UNRWA shelters. So I decided to flee with my 14 children and 18 grandchildren, as tanks were entering our area. My brother refused to go with us. He is dead."

"We had nowhere to hide," recounted Sumaya, a mother of four. "We were lying on the kitchen floor. Finally, we decided to leave, as the fighting was getting closer. After we had walked a few hundred metres, I turned back and saw my house collapse, hit by a shell."

The ICRC team immediately mobilized, trying to find places for the people to sleep, or at least rest. "There was a very old man among them, not injured but very weak. He stayed for hours, lying on a mattress, speechless, staring into space," recalled Ellen.

"We tried to keep families together. Plastic sheeting was turned into improvized tents in the garden of the residence, and we handed out blankets, because the night was cold. We set up some rooms on the ground floor for families and emptied a medical store room to fit in a few more."

"We were lucky to survive," concluded a tearful Sumaya before heading off to the nearest UNRWA shelter. "Many others were not that lucky."

Sumaya and her relatives are taken care of, at least for today. But there are many more in need of urgent help. Families trapped in the fighting begged to be evacuated from what they described as "hell".

"We are receiving an increasing number of calls from terrified people in parts of Gaza City where fighting is going on. They are asking for immediate evacuation," confirmed a member of ICRC staff in Gaza. "I just got a call from a man who was hiding in the bathroom of his apartment with all his family."

The intensified shelling and fighting in Gaza City is limiting the movements of ICRC personnel, but the organization continues to help coordinate the work of ambulances and fire brigade teams, day and night. The ICRC surgical team in Shifa hospital also continues to help Palestinian doctors and nurses deal with a steady influx of patients.

For further information, please contact
Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 25 90 or +41 79 251 93 18
Anne-Sophie Bonefeld, ICRC Jerusalem, tel: +972 2 582 88 45 or +972 52 601 91 50
Iyad Nasr, ICRC Gaza, tel: +972 59 960 30 15 (Arabic)
Yael Segev-Eytan, ICRC Tel Aviv, tel: +972 3 524 52 86 or +972 52 275 75 17 (Hebrew)
Nadia Dibsy, ICRC Jerusalem, tel: +972 5917900 or +972 52 601 91 48 (Arabic)

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