JERUSALEM — The Israeli military told them to leave the north, so many Palestinians packed up and fled to southern Gaza.
Some walked on foot for 20 miles, others tied mattresses onto the roofs of their cars, with as many as a dozen people then piling on. With no way to leave Gaza, residents sought refuge in schools, sheltered at hospitals, and lined up at the southern border. But they were bombed there, too.
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have intensified, following a lull during President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel on Wednesday.
And within hours of him leaving At the Ahmed Abdelaziz school in the southern city of Khan Younis, a blast killed at least five and left dozens injured, according to local health officials. Crying children and panicking residents filled the hallways in video filmed at the scene by NBC News.
One after another, civilians were lifted onto stretchers and loaded into ambulances. Those who weren’t injured improvised first aid for those who were: torn cloth soaked up blood from one man’s wounds, and a piece of wood served as a splint for another’s leg as he was carried into the hospital on a mattress.
The school is among the 183 run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, the agency tasked with supporting Palestinian development since 1949.
The bombing came a day after the office of the U.N. secretary-general condemned an attack on another UNRWA school at Al Maghazi refugee camp that killed at least eight, emphasizing that, “hospitals, clinics, medical personnel, and U.N. premises are explicitly protected under international law.”
Some 4,000 people were sheltering at the Maghazi school at the time of the bombing, according to an UNRWA situation report on Tuesday. Hours later, a blast at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City killed hundreds, sparking international fury.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas of stopping people from “getting out of harm’s way,” again urging Palestinians to move “south to safe zones.”
In the chaos of the Ahmed Abdelaziz school, a man wearing a white shirt said, “We escaped from the war, we are displaced. We were surprised by a rocket attack.” Before NBC News could take his name, he was alarmed by a rocket and ran to take cover.
“It was a massacre,” a U.N aid worker at the scene said, before rushing off.
Ambulances swarmed into Nasser Hospital, bringing victims, including injured babies and teenagers — some crying, others silent with shock. A nurse attempted to resuscitate a patient as the person was rolled into the hospital on a gurney.
The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
It is this inescapability from danger in the south that Sami Malfouh said led his family to move back north, despite the risk of a looming ground invasion.
Malfouh, 42, who lives in San Jose after moving to the U.S. 20 years ago, said his family was almost entirely based in Gaza City. After the Israeli military dropped flyers from the sky, warning some 1.1 million people living in the north to move south, his family evacuated to a relative’s home in Rafah, near the Gaza Strip’s southern border with Egypt.
But by Wednesday, he said relentless bombing there drove the family back north.
“If we’re going to die, let’s die in the comfort of our house,” Malfouh said his mother, Subheya Almalfouh, told him.
While his immediate family has so far escaped the bombardment, his cousin, along with his wife and two children, were killed in one of the safe zones Netanyahu had called for people in Gaza to move to repeatedly, Malfouh said.
“The bombings need to stop on these people,” he added. “These children did not even vote for Hamas to come into power. Why do they have to pay the price for this? These children were just born there.”
Aid worker Allaaeldin Abusakar, 30, who lives with his family near the Rafah crossing on the southern border with Egypt, also said there was no point in moving north.
“We don’t have any place that we feel it’s safe for the citizens of Gaza Strip. When we walk in the street or even walk in our homes, it doesn’t feel safe,” Abusakar said.
Abusakar, who leads Palestine Charity Team, an organization that distributes food aid, said the population of the Rafah camp has doubled in the past few days. The density is so high, he said, that “if they bomb one house, 10 houses will be destroyed.”
Heeding the warning from Israel, Nowar Diab, 20, fled her home in Gaza City last week. Shortly after she set off, she said she saw that one of the campuses of Al Azhar University, where she is a student, had been destroyed.
“That street is demolished, so now we can’t go back to college,” Diab said. “I don’t even know if my teachers are OK.”
After she arrived in Khan Younis, the UNRWA school was hit.
“It’s risky. It’s dangerous,” Diab said about the situation in southern Gaza. “There’s not an inch safe here.”
Marc Smith reported from Jerusalem, and Mithil Aggarwal reported from Hong Kong.