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Palestinian civilians trapped in Gaza amid intensifying Israeli bombing

“They cry all night and can never sleep,” said Muthana Najjar, who is struggling to comfort his increasingly desperate children.
Image: Palestinians riding on an auto rickshaw flee during Israeli air and artillery strikes as cross-border violence between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants continues, in the northern Gaza Strip
Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip flee Friday amid cross-border violence between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants.Mohammed Salem / Reuters

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The airstrikes that have engulfed Lina Wahbi’s neighborhood in the Gaza Strip feel random and relentless.

“We feel the bombing everywhere and every second especially,” said Wahbi, 19, who spoke by phone Thursday with NBC News. “We are all very afraid — adults and children. Nobody is feeling safe in their own homes and everywhere.”

“Every time I close my eyes I wonder if I’m alive or not,” Wahbi, a student at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, added.

After nights of continuous airstrikes by hundreds of Israeli missiles, Palestinian civilians living in Gaza are exhausted and scared. On Friday, in an intensification of the violence that Israel said was aimed at clearing militant tunnels, tank shells and artillery fire pounded the densely populated and blockaded enclave.

Since the aerial back-and-forth began Monday, Israel says it has struck around 600 military targets in Gaza. At least 119 people, including 31 children, have been killed and 830 wounded, officials in Gaza say.

Eight people have been killed in Israel — seven civilians, including one child and one soldier, according to the military.

At least three high-rise apartment buildings that were said to have links to Hamas were toppled after civilians were warned to evacuate, Israeli officials say.

Hamas, the movement that controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, and the smaller militant group Islamic Jihad have fired some 2,000 rockets at Israel, according to the Israeli military.

Palestinians outside Gaza City near the northern and eastern frontiers with Israel fled their homes Friday amid intensifying Israeli bombardments.

Image: Relatives mourn the death of two members of the Palestinian Alrantisi family, killed in an Israeli air strike, at their funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip,
Relatives mourn the death of two members of the Palestinian Alrantisi family, killed in an Israeli airstrike, at their funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Friday.Said Khatib / AFP - Getty Images

Muthana Najjar, who is a journalist for a local radio station, says he hasn’t slept in days because he is up all night reporting — running from the site of one airstrike to the next across Gaza.

But aside from the terror of witnessing death and destruction for his job, being separated from his wife and four children is agonizing — as is the fact he cannot calm his own desperate family.

“Last night there were strikes near my house and I wasn’t there,” Najjar said from Gaza City. “My little daughter, who is 5 years old, is very scared of the bombings."

He said his daughter, Nadeen, has night terrors and has been wetting the bed.

“They cry all night and can never sleep," he said of his children.

The bone-rattling airstrikes are particularly scary within Gaza, the densely populated, narrow strip of barricaded land that is home to about 2 million people, because there aren’t bomb shelters and there is nowhere for most people to go.

After the Israeli withdrawal of troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, Hamas won local elections and ousted the more moderate Fatah movement led by President Mahmoud Abbas. This is the fourth armed conflict with Israel that has resulted in barrages of airstrikes and thousands of deaths since Hamas took control of the area.

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Israel and Egypt have also enforced a strict land, air and sea blockade of the 25-mile-long and 7-mile-wide strip of land.

The blockade has had a devastating impact on Gaza's civilians and sent poverty and unemployment skyrocketing, according to a 2020 United Nations report. Residents can’t leave to look for work elsewhere because of the blockade, and the area has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates. Most people have no access to clean water and there are chronic electricity shortages and poverty rates are rising, according to the U.N.

“When people hear about the rockets falling on Israel, of course Israel has the infrastructure and resources to have bomb shelters. Individuals in Israeli towns can leave their towns and go elsewhere,” said Fadi Quran, campaign director for Avaaz, a left-leaning global human rights organization. “But in Gaza, everyone is besieged. It is one of the densest areas on earth.”

“There are no shelters in Gaza,” Quran, 33, said by phone from Ramallah, in the West Bank, on Thursday. “They have nowhere to run, they have nowhere to hide.”

He said that he’s spoken to friends and colleagues in Gaza over the last several days and they are just “terrified and devastated by what they are seeing.”

Many are taking the only precautions available to them, like looking for places to hide within their homes where the cement is most fortified and taking out windows to avoid being injured by shattered glass.

The Israeli military said that while it pursues its aggressive military campaign, it is trying to “minimize civilian casualties.”

“It’s a complex and challenging operation,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Friday. “We have all the sensitive targets mapped, including clinics, and we try not to hit those. Sometimes Hamas use these facilities on purpose.”

That’s cold comfort for Gazans living through the bombardment.

“We watch people fleeing their homes in seconds. They’re sitting in their homes and in a second they become homeless. Everybody is afraid,” said Wahbi, the student.

“We’re scared for our families, our friends, ourselves and for our people.”

Image: Palestinian families take shelter in a UN school in Gaza City
Palestinian families take shelter in a UN school in Gaza City after fleeing their homes.Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images

The bombardment has come at the end of the holy month of Ramadan and amid the coronavirus pandemic, just as people were meant to be celebrating Eid al-Fitr on Thursday.

The journalist Najjar said his children were very excited to celebrate Eid, but in the end they wouldn’t even put on the new holiday clothes he’d bought them for the occasion.

“To be honest, there’s no holiday,” Najjar said resignedly. “How can my children and I celebrate the holiday while our people are getting killed or left homeless?”

Wajjeh Abu Zarefah reported from Gaza City; Lawahez Jabari from Jerusalem; and Petra Cahill from London.