Little Relief Seen in Gaza Safe Zone 12/08 06:17

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 
their facilities.

   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.

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