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Kevin ClarkeNovember 08, 2023
Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip on Salah al-Din Street in Bureij, Gaza Strip, on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. ( AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip on Salah al-Din Street in Bureij, Gaza Strip, on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. ( AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

As images of people fleeing on foot along rubble-strewn roadways in Gaza emerged on Nov. 8, Caroline Brennan, a communications officer for Catholic Relief Services, reports that “the situation in North Gaza is unraveling.” Ms. Brennan has been daily contact, as much as that is possible, with C.R.S. staff who remain at work inside Gaza as the war rages around them.

C.R.S. team members who have stayed in the north, many sheltering in two church compounds near Gaza City, tell her that the last few days of bombardment from Israel Defense Forces have been the worst yet, with shelling and missile strikes almost constant. Water and food supplies are completely exhausted.

A sign of the desperation felt by Gaza’s families was a recent hurried baptism celebration for nine children at St. Porphyrius church.

“Now that north Gaza has been cut off from the south,” she said by email on Nov. 8, “the humanitarian situation is deteriorating fast. People are desperate to find any form of food or water. Safe passage of humanitarian aid is urgent. We are talking about imminent life or death.”

Humanitarian workers acknowledge that a trickle of aid is getting through the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza but say that the current level of assistance represents “a drop in the ocean” of the actual daily need. Speaking from Cairo on Nov. 7, Ms. Brennan implored “a lifeline of humanitarian aid to get in…. But ultimately, and most importantly, for there to be an end to this violence.”

A sign of the desperation felt by Gaza’s families was a recent hurried baptism celebration for nine children at St. Porphyrius church. The pastor at the Greek Orthodox church quickly organized the service after two unbaptized children were killed in an I.D.F. missile strike on the compound on Oct. 20. That explosion left 17 dead, including Caritas Jerusalem employee Viola Al ‘Amash, her husband, Abdel Nour Al Souri, and their infant daughter, Alya. A colleague told Ms. Brennan the sacramental celebration brought together the entire Greek Orthodox community which has been sheltering at St. Porphyrius, allowing these nine families a small moment of beauty and hope even as the need for baptisms spoke to their terrible circumstances.

I.D.F. officers have urged Gazans for weeks to leave the north, well on its way to becoming a battlefield as Israeli soldiers, tanks and mechanized vehicles probe for Hamas tunnels and strongpoints. The Israeli onslaught began in response to a devastating terror strike by Hamas on southern Israel on Oct. 7 that left more than 1,400 dead and more than 240 people taken as hostages. The U.N. reports more than 1.5 million Gazans have by now been displaced by the war.

According to Ms. Brennan, many C.R.S. staff have indeed evacuated to the south. “But there are some who aren’t able to,” Ms. Brennan said. She explained that “a lot of our partners” stayed to assist the elderly and disabled who were unable to leave.

Decisions in Gaza: “Do we all stay together in case something terrible happens, so that we are dying together, holding each other? Or do we separate in parts of our families so that at least some of us might survive?”

But as bad as conditions are in the north, they are little improved in the south, where I.D.F. strikes continue. “There is no safe haven and there is no way out,” was Ms. Brennan’s assessment of the plight of the more than 2.3 million people living in Gaza.

Virtually all of the C.R.S. staff and their collaborators in the community, “many of whom have lost close family members,” have been displaced by the fighting. Those who are not sheltering inside the Holy Family and St. Porphyrius church compounds have fled to U.N. schools or other U.N. sites or found temporary shelter with family members in Gaza’s south.

Ms. Brennan described horrendous living conditions for the displaced families, whether sheltering in overcrowded compounds or in single homes or apartments that may include scores of family members. One colleague said his entire extended family is now in his home—more than 80 people. “They…have in every room up to 10 people sleeping on the floor, and they just have to manage these really crowded, very unsanitary conditions,” she said. “No matter where you are, you’re in a place that [does not have] the capacity to host the numbers of people who are staying there.”

For Gazans, according to Ms. Brennan, each day has become a brutal grind of listening for air strikes then enduring hours seeking water and what bread and food can be had; hundreds wait in line to use the few remaining functional toilets.

“It truly is unbearable, the conditions that people are living under,” she said, especially in a culture that strongly values modesty and privacy.

“They are facing increased deprivation of food and water and medical care despite an abundance of aid just out of their reach,” she added. Scores of humanitarian aid trucks remain parked outside the Rafah crossing in Egypt waiting for clearance to enter Gaza.

Gazans “are facing increased deprivation of food and water and medical care despite an abundance of aid just out of their reach.”

U.N. officials report that strikes by Israel on targets within Gaza have killed more than 10,500 people, including over 80 U.N. staff. More than 25,000 people have been wounded. Nearly 70 percent of all fatalities, according to the Gaza health ministry, are women and children.

In the end the actual death toll will likely prove much higher. More than 2,300 people—among them 1,300 children—are reported missing so far, most of them likely trapped under the rubble of their homes. According to the United Nations, the I.D.F. strikes have demolished or damaged 45 percent of all housing units in Gaza.

Harout Bedrossian, a Caritas Jerusalem official, urged an immediate ceasefire in an email to America and “the opening of a humanitarian corridor from the West Bank so that we can have access to our medical center and provide basic necessities to Gaza that are either diminishing or already non-existent.” Caritas Jerusalem sponsors a number of medical facilities and other services in Gaza, where its staff is struggling to continue its humanitarian mission.

In Baltimore, Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at C.R.S., urged all parties to return to a path toward peace. “Innocent civilians cannot wait another day for safety and sustenance,” he said by email. “The already grim prospects for the people in the region will only worsen should this conflict metastasize.”

C.R.S. and Caritas Jerusalem staff share the vulnerability and suffering of other Gazans, according to Ms. Brennan, facing each day “constant uncertainty” and “unbelievable violence with no way to protect themselves or their families.”

“There are no safe spaces,” she said. “A hospital or a church or school are also affected by shelling and airstrikes. There is truly no place to run.… People are trapped in a nightmare with no way out, and the conditions are only deteriorating.”

C.R.S. and Caritas Jerusalem staff share the vulnerability and suffering of other Gazans, facing each day “constant uncertainty” and “unbelievable violence with no way to protect themselves or their families.”

Her colleagues have told her that no one can say when the next air strike will hit, “how close it will be and when they hear it they have to wonder, ‘Is it affecting the people they love?’”

After frequent electric and communications blackouts, colleagues describe scrambling to charge up phones or to check in on social media. “That’s when they realize how many friends they have lost. It is a true environment of despair.”

In a C.R.S. situation report, she shared the story of one colleague who told her, “My 7-year-old daughter is wanting to wear her fancy dress every day because she says if she’s going to die, she wants to be wearing this dress.”

Families, Ms. Brennan said, have been forced to make “unfathomable decisions” since Israel Defense Forces unleashed its assault on Gaza: “‘Do we all stay together in case something terrible happens, so that we are dying together, holding each other? Or do we separate in parts of our families so that at least some of us might survive?’”

Speaking on behalf of U.S. bishops in a statement released on Oct. 27, Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, chair of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, warned of the conflict’s potential for regional and international escalation. Calling for the release of hostages and protection of civilian populations, Bishop Malloy said, “The October 7 terrorist attacks of Hamas which initiated this war must be condemned. At the same time, we affirm continued efforts to allow humanitarian access, including corridors for those seeking safety, and urge Congress to provide support for relief efforts. As Pope Francis reminds the world, ‘War is always a defeat; it is a destruction of human fraternity.’”

The Group of Seven leading industrial democracies—including the United States—meeting in Tokyo this week, announced a unified stance on the Israel-Hamas war on Nov. 8, condemning Hamas and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense, but also calling for the “unimpeded” delivery of food, water, medicine and fuel and for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has left open the possibility of such pauses to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, but has ruled out a broader ceasefire unless all Israeli hostages, among them 10 U.S. citizens, are freed.

With reporting from The Associated Press

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