Israel’s latest strikes on Gaza have drawn warnings from aid workers and residents of a humanitarian catastrophe. “We are facing a huge disaster,” said one U.N. official.
Hospitals crowded with patients are running short on fuel. Fearful residents are racing to U.N.-run schools, seeking shelter from airstrikes. Water and electricity have been cut off, the borders are closed, and even the cemeteries do not have room to accommodate all the newly dead.
In one video to emerge from Gaza this week, a group of Palestinian men prepare to lower a white body bag, the word “unknown” scrawled on it, into a grave until someone yells to stop as the men realize there’s not enough room. There were already at least two bodies inside the grave.
The health ministry in Gaza said on Thursday that its health system had “begun to collapse,” and as night fell, most of the territory was plunged into darkness. Its only power plant had shut down on Wednesday for want of fuel.
On Thursday, at least 10 people were killed by an Israeli airstrike that hit the Shati refugee camp in Gaza, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa. Video from the aftermath of the strike showed a scene covered in gray ash and dust, the bodies and wounded nearly indistinguishable from the rubble around them.
The Gaza Strip, pounded for days by hundreds of Israeli airstrikes in retaliation for Hamas attacks on Saturday that killed more than 1,200 people, is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, residents and aid workers say. The strikes, along with a newly declared siege by Israel, have compounded the problems of years of blockade that had left the strip, a tiny enclave controlled by Hamas, impoverished and desperate even before the latest war.
“We are facing a huge disaster,” said Adnan Abu Hasna, the media adviser for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees.
Gazans and Israeli officials alike have described the strikes, which began on Saturday, as more severe and widespread than in conflicts past. Satellite imagery of residential areas showed dozens of flattened buildings, and video showed the wreckage of a refugee camp hit by a strike. Residents of Gaza said airstrikes have landed on hospitals, schools and mosques.
Israel has said its strikes are targeting sites connected with Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip, saying it believes Hamas members are hiding in homes, schools and hospitals; Hamas members, as Palestinians from Gaza, live among the community. Israel’s military has asserted that the neighborhood around Al-Shifa Hospital, the strip’s largest medical complex, is a financial hub for Hamas, and many of the limestone villas and high-rise buildings surrounding the hospital have already been reduced to piles of rubble and concrete.
But in the tight, densely populated quarters of Gaza, there is often nowhere for Palestinian civilians to go when a neighborhood is bombed.
Israel’s defense minister has also vowed to allow no food, water, electricity or fuel into the impoverished enclave. The strip, where more than two million people live, has already been under blockade by Israel and Egypt for 16 years.
The situation there was “extremely dire before these hostilities,” the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, said this week. “Now it will only deteriorate exponentially.”
At least 1,537 Palestinians have been killed and 6,612 others wounded since Saturday, according to the Gazan Health Ministry. It was not clear how many of the dead included Palestinian assailants who carried out Saturday’s attack.
Overwhelmed hospitals — with the wounded crowding the halls — are now dependent on generators with a dwindling supply of a few days’ fuel, including to power their morgues, where the bodies continue to pile up. Wounded Palestinians needing intensive care have no beds that can hold them, the health ministry said, and the number of injured exceed the hospitals’ capacities, even after some were placed in corridors.
“We have four, five days’ worth supply of fuel left” to keep aid operations going, said Mr. Abu Hasna, the U.N. official, adding that water and electricity had been cut off. “The shelling is not stopping.”
Fabrizio Carboni, a regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross, on Thursday criticized Israel’s declaration of a siege, calling it “not acceptable.” In a news conference, he urged the creation of a corridor to allow supplies to enter Gaza and for the protection of aid workers, saying, “We need a safe humanitarian space.”
At least 340,000 Palestinians have been displaced across Gaza, according to the United Nations. Many haven taken cover in schools and hospital hallways, but others are struggling to find a place to shelter.
On Thursday, more than a dozen people — women in prayer shawls and men carrying children on their shoulders — walked through the streets trying to get to a school. They carried a white sheet attached to a stick, hoping it would signal they were civilians and spare them being struck.
The rate of death in such a small territory is forcing people to open old graves for new bodies, to bury people in groups and to search out any available space in which a quick grave, often only child-sized, could hold a body.
In some cases, the dead appeared to even share a body bag. In another video, men lowered an unmarked bag into an open grave.
“Who’s in here?” one of the men carrying the bag asked.
“These are the children,” came the response.
There is rarely time to linger and say a final goodbye, and no time for funerals under the exposed sky with Israeli fighter jets overhead.
The Islamic prayer performed on behalf of the dead is often done in the hospital hallways, before the families collect bodies from the morgue and hurry to bury them.
Adel Al-Hor, a spokesman for the Gazan ministry that oversees burials, said Israel was “targeting civilians in an insane and indiscriminate way, and this goes against international law.”
Mr. Al-Hor said some of Gaza’s cemeteries — like those near the border — are considered too dangerous to use.
“We are using every inch of the cemeteries, even the roads of the cemeteries,” he said. “Until now we haven’t had to bury people in parks, and we pray it doesn’t reach that point.”
He said that officials were also struggling to identify many of the dead, especially when groups of people, likely family members, were killed together.
At the morgue at Al-Shifa Hospital, families gathered to look at the faces of bodies, hoping and fearing to identify a missing relative. But the morgues, too, have limited capacity, especially without fuel to keep the premises cold. They keep the unidentified bodies for a day or two at most, and then must bury them.
Outside an entrance of Al-Shifa, the hospital had set up a tent in which to quickly evaluate the victims. The living are taken inside, and the dead remain to avoid overwhelming the emergency room even more.
Samar Abu Elouf and Ameera Harouda contributed reporting from Gaza City, and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.