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Fear, shortages for those caught in Gaza fight

As Israeli's offensive moved from pinpointed airstrikes to artillery shelling and ground fighting, Gaza's civilians are increasingly exposed to the violence.
Palestinians carry a boy Sunday into Shifa hospital in Gaza City, after he was wounded during the Israeli army operation. Ashraf Amra / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Anas Mansour sleeps in his street clothes in a south Gaza refugee camp, with his ID in his pocket so he can flee quickly if fighting gets worse. In Gaza City, the 10 members of the Karam family huddle in their hallway at night, kept awake by artillery fire booming outside.

And in the central Gaza refugee camp of Nusseirat, Munir Najar said he only had another day's worth of flour to feed his family of seven, but ventured out to find streets deserted and shops closed.

"There's not a loaf of bread to be found," said Najar, 43.

As Israeli's offensive moved from pinpointed airstrikes to artillery shelling and ground fighting, Gaza's civilians are increasingly exposed to the violence. Since the ground assault began, 64 Palestinian civilians have been killed, said Dr. Moaiya Hassanain, a Health Ministry official.

Hundreds killed since Dec. 27
More than 512 Palestinians have been killed since the operation began Dec. 27, at least 100 of them civilians, say Palestinian and U.N. officials. In the same period, three Israeli civilians and two soldiers have been killed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross called Sunday on Israel and Hamas to stop killing and wounding civilians, citing international humanitarian law.

Israel says the offensive aims to stop Hamas from firing rockets at the Jewish state and its airstrikes target only Hamas installations and leaders, but bombs have also destroyed or damaged adjacent houses.

Lubna Karam, of Gaza City, said airstrikes had shattered her home's living room windows days before, letting cold air pour in. She said she feels under threat at all times, and her family has taken to sleeping in the hallway for safety.

"We keep hearing the sounds of airplanes and we don't know if we'll live until tomorrow or not," said Karam, 28.

Mansour, 21, of the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border, described watching his neighbor pile a mattress and blankets on a donkey cart to flee, but hadn't decided if he'd do the same. "Where can we go? It's all the same," Mansour said.

Fighting comes amid shortages
The latest fighting came at the end of an ever-tightening blockade of the seaside territory, imposed after the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007. The borders were virtually sealed in the last two months, leading to shortages of cooking gas and basic foodstuffs.

Israel says there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, noting that it has continued to allow supplies into the territory.

But the Israeli human rights group Gisha said Israeli airstrikes have left Gaza's water and sewage system on the verge of collapse. About one-third of the 1.4 million residents are cut off from the water supply and 75 percent of Gaza is currently without electricity, including the territory's largest hospital, Shifa, the report said. Shifa has backup generators.

The Palestinian telephone company Paltel warned that Gaza's communications network has been extensively damaged by the Israeli strikes and is on the verge of collapse. The company added that three of its technicians had been killed and many injured in the fighting while trying to repair the network.

Infrastructure damaged
Adding to the shortages, last week's bombing further battered Gaza's infrastructure, making many feel that the situation they thought couldn't get any worse had done so.

"When there was a siege, we kept talking about a catastrophe," said Hatem Shurrab, 24, of Gaza City. "But then the airstrikes started, and now we don't even know what word to use. There's no word in the dictionary that can describe the situation we are in."

Hamas leaders have remained out of sight, but some Gazans remain ardent in their support, saying Israeli violence will rally Gazans around the group.

"They say Hamas is hiding in civilian places, but it's not that: We are Hamas," said Umm Bara, 25, of the Jebaliyah refugee camp. She gave only a nickname because many of her relatives are militants, she said. "After this (shelling), I'm so angry. My blood is Hamas and I want it to explode in their faces."

Others trying to get on with lives
Others said life in Gaza inured them to violence and that they're trying to go on with their lives.

Even as Israeli troops operated two kilometers (one mile) from Sulafa Odeh's home in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, the 25-year-old translator walked through an orchard to a neighbor's house to see if it had power so she could plug in her laptop.

Odeh said the ground-shaking explosions frightened her, but that she refused to stay indoors.

"It's a problem: This is strange, and frightening, but we have gotten used to it," Odeh said. "Unfortunately, we are used to this life."