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Gaza mourns after air strike hits refugees

29 December 2023

Story updated on 4 January


The scale of destruction in Gaza is shown as fighting between the IDF and Hamas militants continued on Wednesday (3 January)

The scale of destruction in Gaza is shown as fighting between the IDF and Hamas militants continued on Wednesday (3 January)

A MASS funeral was held on Christmas Day in Gaza, after an Israeli air strike the previous day reportedly killed 86 people at Maghazi refugee camp.

“Heavy Israeli bombardment from air, land, and sea” continues in most of Gaza, especially in the refugee camps in central Gaza, and in areas where Palestinians have relocated, following evacuation orders from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), according to an update from the UN aid-co-ordination office, OCHA, on Saturday. Palestinian armed groups continue to fire rockets into Israel.

It has been reported that on 24 and 25 December there were more than 50 strikes on three refugee camps: Bureij, Nuseirat, and Maghazi. The IDF has said that, when targeting Hamas militants, neighbouring buildings were hit, causing “unintended harm to additional uninvolved civilians”.

Last Friday, an Israeli government spokesman, Eylon Levy, told Sky News that the incident at Maghazi was due to the use of an “incorrect munition” and “should not have happened”. But he emphasised that Israel was facing a “unique counter-terrorism challenge” and that it was “inevitable that mistakes will be made” and lessons would be learned. He was critical of the UN’s approach to relocating civilians, “funnelling them to Hamas strongholds”, while Israel had set aside a designated safe-zone free of Hamas militants.

Writing on social media, Mr Levy described the UN aid distribution as an “abject failure, because it goes through UNRWA, an agency that covers up for and is complicit with Hamas”.

In total, the number reported by the Palestinian authorities as killed in Gaza since 7 October has exceeded 22,000, of whom 70 per cent are said to be women and children. Another 7000 are reported to be missing or under the rubble. An estimated 1.9 million people have been displaced. UNWRA reports that more than one million are seeking safety in Rafah, in the south, where “hundreds of thousands [are] sleeping in the open with inadequate clothing or materials to keep out the cold”.

The latest report from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), an initiative designed to measure food insecurity in countries, issued last month, warns that there is now a risk of famine in Gaza. The volume of aid has been described by the UN as “woefully inadequate”.

UN humanitarians carried out an “emergency fact-finding mission” to Al-Aqsa Hospital, in central Gaza, on Christmas Day, in response to reports of the strikes on refugee camps. The World Health Organization’s emergency medical teams co-ordinator, Sean Casey, described watching the death of a nine-year-old boy, Ahmed, who had been injured in a blast after crossing a street and was treated with sedation to ease his suffering as he died. “There’s nothing anybody can do for him,” Mr Casey said in a film posted on social media. “Like so many cases here, there isn’t capacity to manage complex neurological cases, complex trauma cases.”

The chief of the general staff of the IDF, Herzi Halevi, said last week that the Israeli campaign would continue for “many more months”. On 20 December, Hamas said that it would not enter further discussions about the exchange of hostages and prisoners until the military campaign was halted.

The IDF continues, it says, to discover Hamas’s tunnels “inside and around multiple hospitals within Gaza”. The force maintains that it seeks to minimise civilian casualties, and has released recordings of its air force aborting a mission on identifying the presence of children.

On Tuesday of last week, it reported that an anti-tank missile fired by Hezbollah, in Lebanon, had hit St Mary’s, Iqrit, in northern Israel. Nine Israeli soldiers and one 80-year-old civilian were wounded, it has been reported.

On New Year’s Eve, buildings in Israel were lit in yellow in solidarity with the 133 hostages who remain in Gaza.

In recent days, some of those released have begun to speak out. In an interview with the Israeli Channel 13, Mia Schem, a 21-year-old French-Israeli woman seized at the Nova musical festival, described her captivity as a “holocaust”. Shot in the arm, she had lost consciousness several times. Her arm had been strapped to a piece of plastic, and she had been held in a dark room, watched at all times and fearful of being raped. Her last days had been spent in a tiny room with other hostages, “one on top of the other inside a cage” — they had begged her, on her release, to tell others not to forget about them.

“There are no innocent civilians there,” she said. “Families there live under Hamas. From the moment those children are born they are brainwashed that Israel is Palestine and that they must hate Jews.”

In his Christmas message, the Pope spoke of carrying in his heart “the pain for the victims of the execrable attack of last October 7”, and renewed his appeal for the release of those still held hostage. He also reiterated his plea for a ceasefire, speaking of the “appalling consequences of innocent civilian victims”.

Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem were muted this year: an Associated Press report described it as a “ghost town”. In place of a Christmas tree in Manger Square, there was a nativity scene with a model of the infant Jesus wrapped in a white shroud and surrounded by barbed wire.

Last month, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem issued a call encouraging congregations to “stand strong” with the victims of the conflict, “forgoing any unnecessarily festive activities” (News, 1 December 2023). On Christmas Eve, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, was welcomed into Bethlehem by a procession in which the Terra Sancta Scouts raised banners asking for peace and justice.

AlamyRelatives of people killed at the Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza, on Christmas Day

This year has been the deadliest on record (since 2005) for Palestinians in the West Bank, the UN Human Rights Office, OHCHR, reportrs. It says that it has verified the deaths of 300 Palestinians, including 79 children, from 7 October to 27 December. Of these, at least 291 were killed by Israeli security forces, it says.

The head of OHCHR, Volker Türk, said on Thursday of last week: “The violations documented in this report repeat the pattern and nature of violations reported in the past in the context of the long-standing Israeli occupation of the West Bank. However, the intensity of the violence and repression is something that has not been seen in years.”

He called on Israel “to take immediate, clear and effective steps to put an end to settler violence against the Palestinian population”, warning that “the dehumanization of Palestinians that characterizes many of the settlers’ actions is very disturbing and must cease immediately.”

The report also documents the arrest of more than 4700 Palestinians, including about 40 journalists, “in most cases not linked to the commission of a criminal offence”. Detainees were “stripped naked, blindfolded and restrained for long hours with handcuffs and with their legs tied, while Israeli soldiers stepped on their heads and backs . . . spat at, slammed against walls”.

Last week, it was reported that Tal Mitnick, an Israeli teenager, had been sentenced to 30 days in prison for refusing to enlist in the Israeli army. “We are not being sent to fight for peace but in the name of revenge,” he said in a statement. “I refuse to believe that more violence will bring security, I refuse to take part in a war of revenge.”

Writing in The New York Times on Tuesday, Ruti Munder, a 78-year-old woman kidnapped from the Nir Oz kibbutz, reflected: “I do not know if Gazans will choose to concentrate their efforts on rebuilding Khan Younis rather than burning Nir Oz. . . I hope our two peoples can finally live in peace, side by side. And I know that if Hamas remains in power, that will never happen.”

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