Forced from home, family makes walk across war zone

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Cairo, Apr. 3: It wasn’t lack of food that pushed Heba al-Haddad and her family to leave their home in Gaza City. They had a source of clean water and could live off boiled peas. It wasn’t the incessant shelling. They felt the stairways would protect them even in a direct hit on their building.

Even watching soldiers force neighbours from their homes — some in their underwear, some apparently pulled away for detention — didn’t convince al-Haddad to leave Rimal, once Gaza City’s most upscale neighbourhood but now a hellscape of destroyed buildings and rubble-filled streets.

It took a unit of 14 Israeli soldiers storming her apartment to force her out. They ordered al-Haddad, her husband and his elderly parents — one half-blind and the other in a wheelchair — their two teenage sons and seven other family members to leave in the middle of the night on March 21.

The soldiers handed them glow sticks with strict instructions: Walk south with a woman in front holding a stick so soldiers at checkpoints don’t shoot you. Later, she learned the troops set fire to the house after they left.

“I can’t describe the terror of leaving the house, and we know that outside is a war zone,” al-Haddad told The Associated Press. She spoke from Rafah, at the far southern end of the Gaza Strip after a harrowing 10-hour walk out of the north along the main coastal road, now an obstacle course of craters and debris lined with tanks and snipers.

Witnesses say Israeli troops conducted building-by-building expulsions of residents in nearby neighbourhoods during the military’s two-week raid on Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, which triggered furious fighting across the area. Israeli troops ended their assault on Shifa early Monday, saying they had rooted out Hamas militants grouped inside to direct attacks, a claim that could not be independently confirmed.

In many cases, the troops destroyed or set fire to buildings after clearing them of residents, according to witnesses and the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, which follows the conflict through researchers on the ground.

Al-Haddad said she saw troops blow up or set fire to nearby buildings after expelling those inside. A Euro-Med researcher said in a voice message shared with the AP that when he was released from detention by Israeli soldiers in the Shifa hospital, he walked out into fire spreading from buildings surrounding the hospital.

Asked about the reports, the Israeli military said there are no specific procedures for evacuations, only that it “depends on the situation” and if there is an “operational threat.” The Israeli military didn’t respond to questions about burning homes, instead saying its troops carry out “demolitions of Hamas infrastructure and other military targets using approved and appropriate means.” It said it could not comment on the specific case of al-Haddad’s family.

Throughout its nearly six-month offensive in Gaza, the Israeli military has largely relied on announcing evacuation orders for large areas through leaflets, text messages or loudspeakers, urging people to leave before ground assaults.

The past weeks’ campaign of evacuations in Gaza City has been more aggressive and direct, Euro-Med director Ramy Abdu said: Troops went door to door to expel people or sent detained Palestinians to tell residents to leave. The monitor estimates some 7,000 people were forced from neighbourhoods around Shifa, where fighting left wide-scale destruction.

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel killed some 1,200 people. Israel’s assault has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, more than 13,000 of them children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, and driven some 80% of its 2.3 million people from their homes.

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