Little Relief Seen in Gaza Safe Zone 12/08 06:17
MUWASI, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israel has designated a small slice of mostly
undeveloped land along Gaza's Mediterranean coast as a safe zone -- a place
where waves of people fleeing the war can find protection from airstrikes and
receive humanitarian supplies for their families.
The reality? The area of Muwasi is a makeshift tent camp where thousands of
dazed Palestinians live in squalid conditions in scattered farm fields and
waterlogged dirt roads. Their numbers have swelled in recent days as people
flee an Israeli military offensive in nearby areas of the southern Gaza Strip.
Roughly 20 square kilometers (8 square miles) in southwest Gaza, Muwasi lies
at the heart of a heated debate between Israel and international humanitarian
organizations over the safety of the territory's civilians.
Israel has offered Muwasi as a solution for protecting people uprooted from
their homes and seeking safety from the heavy fighting between its troops and
Hamas militants. The United Nations and relief groups say Muwasi is a poorly
planned attempt to impose a solution for people who have been displaced and
offers no guarantee of safety in a territory where people have faced the
dangers of continued airstrikes in other areas where the army ordered them to
"How can a zone be safe in a war zone if it is only unilaterally decided by
one part of the conflict?" said Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the
U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA. "It can only promote the false
feeling that it will be safe."
The area has no running water or bathrooms, assistance and international
humanitarian groups are nowhere to be found, and the tents provide little
protection from the coming winter's cool, rainy weather.
"It is very cold and there are no necessities of life," said Moneer Nabrees,
who fled Gaza City with some 30 family members. He recently arrived in Muwasi
and now lives in a nylon tent with displaced family members. "There are lines
for everything, even to get drinking water," he said.
Some don't even have enough materials to build a tent.
"At night we were freezing," said Saada Hothut, a mother of four from Gaza
City who faced another night with little protection from the elements. "We were
covering ourselves with nylon."
UNRWA and other international aid organizations do not recognize the camp
and are not providing services there.
Yet Muwasi is poised to play an increasingly important role in the
protection of Gaza's civilians, something Israel's allies have implored it to
do as it tries to eradicate Hamas.
Some three-quarters of the territory's 2.3 million people have been
displaced, in some cases multiple times, since Israel launched its war in
response to Hamas' Oct. 7 cross-border attack that left some 1,200 dead. More
than 17,000 people in Gaza have died in the war, according to the territory's
Health Ministry, which does not differentiate between civilian and combatant
Hundreds of thousands of people relocated to southern Gaza from the north
after Israeli ground troops entered the area. Now, as Israel widens its ground
offensive to the south, tens of thousands of people have found themselves on
the move yet again -- with few safe places to go.
Israel first mentioned Muwasi as a humanitarian zone in late October. It's
not clear how many people Israel believes can live there, and it blames the
United Nations for the poor conditions.
Col. Elad Goren, a senior official in the military body overseeing
Palestinian civilian affairs, said Israel has been allowing the entry of
temporary shelters and winter gear.
"At the end of the day, these are U.N. goods. It's their responsibility to
collect the goods and distribute it to the people," he said.
He said Israel does not expect Gaza's entire population to crowd into Muwasi
and that there are an additional 150 "shelter areas," including schools and
medical clinics, that are coordinated with the U.N. and other organizations.
But the army considers Muwasi a permanent safe zone. He noted that the army did
not respond to a pair of Hamas rocket launches from Muwasi on Wednesday.
"We understand the population needs a solution of where to be. We want to
encourage the population to go to this zone where assistance will be
delivered," he said.
But international aid officials have warned that Israel has done nothing to
create a true safe zone. Even the United States, Israel's closest ally, has
repeatedly said Palestinian civilians need more protection.
A joint statement signed by the leaders of some of the world's largest
humanitarian groups, including the top U.N. agencies, Care International, Mercy
Corps, and the World Health Organization, said the area could not function as a
safe zone until all sides pledge to refrain from fighting there.
"Without the right conditions, concentrating civilians in such zones in the
context of active hostilities can raise the risk of attack and additional
harm," said the Nov. 16 statement.
In Muwasi, there's little sign that any of that is happening, at least in a
way that could support hundreds of thousands of people.
On Thursday, a number of international aid groups condemned Israel's calls
for displaced Palestinians to head to Muwasi, describing it as unfit.
"Seventy percent of the surface of that area is deserted," said Danila Zizi,
from Handicap International's office in the Palestinian territories. "There are
no services, there are no schools, there is no health services. There is
Instead, people are fending for themselves. Many sleep in their cars or set
up their own tents. Like nearly everywhere in Gaza, the aid is not enough for
everyone and many are forced to buy their own food, water and firewood.
As Israel has intensified its ground operation in recent days, there has
been a sharp rise in the number of displaced people heading to this coastal
area. Many have fled nearby Khan Younis and other southern areas that have
become front lines of the conflict.
Despite being declared a humanitarian zone, nothing in Muwasi is now given
away for free and a black market has sprouted up. Many basic food items cost 13
or 14 times more than they did before Oct. 7.
With no aid shipments of food arriving, people are forced to venture out and
buy whatever they can find. What remains is mostly canned items like tuna, but
also rice and tomatoes that people cook over fires back at the camp.
Tents must be built from scratch, at a cost. Displaced families must
purchase wood and nylon, then assemble their new home. Those who have no money
hope that UNRWA and other organizations will bring aid.
Residents say that one of the most humiliating aspects of life is the lack
of privacy and poor hygiene. There are no toilets, so people relieve themselves
wherever they can. Some leave the camp and head to nearby hospitals to use
The tents will provide little shelter during the coming winter months, when
temperatures can dip into the single digits Celsius (mid-40s Fahrenheit).
Tent camps will also revive memories of the Palestinians' greatest trauma --
the mass uprooting they call the "nakba" or catastrophe -- when hundreds of
thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in the war
surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948.
For now, the people living in Muwasi are simply trying to get by.