By Stephen Farrell, Aditi Bhandari, Prasanta Kumar Dutta and Claire Trainor
LONDON (Reuters) – Israeli air strikes devastated parts of the Jabalia refugee camp in north Gaza this week, flattening buildings in a densely populated area where, Palestinian authorities say, at least 195 civilians were killed and scores more are still missing.
Israel says the attacks successfully targeted Hamas military leaders, their fighters and the tunnel network they dug beneath civilian areas and used for operations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has pledged to destroy Hamas – the Palestinian Islamic militant group that controls the Gaza Strip – in retaliation for its Oct. 7 attacks on Israel that killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians.
The strikes at the Jabalia camp – the largest of several refugee settlements in Gaza – have fuelled international concern at the mounting humanitarian toll of Israel’s offensive.
In the wake of the first airstrike on Oct. 31, which left deep craters filled with broken concrete and twisted metal in the midst of Jabalia’s tightly packed buildings, the Office of the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Volker Turk said in a tweeted statement that the scale of the destruction and the high number of civilian casualties aroused “serious concerns that these are disproportionate attacks that could amount to war crimes.”
Turk had previously said on Oct. 7 that he was “shocked and appalled” at the killings of civilians, hostage-taking, and rocket attacks on Israel by Palestinian armed groups.
Hamas gunmen rampaged through Israeli border areas on Oct. 7, in the deadliest day of the nation’s 75-year history. Israel says around 240 people were taken as hostages into Gaza, where they are believed to be held in Hamas’ extensive tunnel network.
Israel’s ensuing bombardment of the small Palestinian enclave of 2.3 million people has killed more than 9,000 people, according to health authorities in Gaza. Food and water are scarce, and medical services are collapsing.
At least five other refugee camps in the coastal enclave have been hit during Israel’s ongoing offensive, according to satellite images analysed by Masae Analytics. An Israeli military spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the images.
The United Nations refugee agency for Palestinians said that schools used as shelters by thousands of people have been damaged in the Jabalia, Beach and Al Bureij camps, and nearly 50 of its buildings and assets have been affected across the 360 sq km Gaza Strip. The U.N. agency said that more than 70 of its staff have been killed.
Israel has held Hamas accountable for the civilian death toll in Gaza, saying that it is using Gazans as human shields. Israeli officials note they have repeatedly warned residents to evacuate northern Gaza in recent days.
Reuters has used satellite images, pictures and videos shot by its journalists in Gaza to piece together an account of this week’s attacks in Jabalia.
At 1.4-square kilometres, Jabalia is the largest of eight refugee camps in Gaza and is home to some 116,000 registered refugees, many of whom are dependent on food, medicine and other aid provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).
The densely packed camp was set up in 1948 to shelter the wave of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes amid the fighting that accompanied the creation of the modern state of Israel. Palestinians lament this as the Nakba, or catastrophe. Israel contests that it drove Palestinians away, saying it was attacked by neighbouring Arab states.
The Jabalia camp decades ago evolved from its original temporary tents and huts into a maze of concrete and breeze-block buildings separated by shoulder-width alleyways.
Living conditions are poor: conflict and years of Israeli-led blockade on Hamas-run Gaza have led to high unemployment, poverty, contaminated water and a shortage of building supplies for new homes.
The camp has long been a flashpoint for tensions. Jabalia was where the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation erupted in 1987 after an Israeli truck driver crashed into a vehicle carrying Palestinian workers, some of them from the refugee camp.
Ever since it has been a hotspot. In 2008, Israeli ground forces went into Jabalia when Hamas began firing longer range rockets into Israel, killing more than 60 Palestinians during the military operation.
In 2009, an Israeli air strike killed senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayan and members of his family in an airstrike on his home in the camp.
PLUME OF SMOKE
Reuters live footage at 1224 GMT on Tuesday Oct. 31 showed the first sign of the air strike on the Jabalia refugee camp: the camera shakes and then captures a plume of black smoke rising over northern Gaza. Details in the camera shot – a water tower, minaret, solar panels – matched satellite images of the area and confirmed the blast was in the Jabalia camp.
First reports of the airstrike appeared online around 1235 GMT, a few minutes after the blast was seen in Reuters footage.
Standing at the edge of one of the craters in the wake of the attack, Abdel Kareem Rayan, a resident of the camp, held a paper listing the names of the 15 family members that he said he lost. “They were innocent, just staying (in the camp). What wrong did they do?” he said.
Professor Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence and security think tank headquartered in London, said that the Reuters images of the Oct. 31 attack showed “multiple sizeable bomb craters.”
Bronk said that, while it was hard to do an exact weapons identification from photographs, the craters were consistent with the Israeli Air Force’s standard guided air-to-surface Joint-Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) – specifically GBU-31 2000lb or GBU-32 1000lb JDAMs.
“The primary use for the GBU-31 family of 2000lb JDAMs in U.S. service is for striking relatively deeply buried targets or for demolishing large structures,” he said, adding that U.S.-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan generally tried to use munitions with significantly smaller warheads such as Hellfire missiles or the GBU-38 family of 500lb JDAMs in densely populated areas. “However, these munitions lack the capacity to reliably penetrate and destroy structures several stories underground.”
Israeli defence officials have said aircraft were involved in the attack. A military spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the munitions used. The Pentagon declined to comment on the assessment.
HAMAS LEADERS TARGETED
Satellite imagery shows that the location of the strike was near the intersection of Al Mouhawel and Al Almey streets.
Israel’s military said the Oct. 31 attack killed a significant military leader of Hamas: Ibrahim Biari, commander of the Jabalia Battalion and a ringleader of the Oct. 7 attack on Israeli towns and kibbutzim.
Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said that Biari was also “the dominant leader” of Hamas fighters operating in northern Gaza from a network of tunnels beneath the camp.
“He was killed while situating himself inside the Jabalia Camp – with dozens of additional terrorists around him in the same area – which contains a headquarters and other operational facilities located in buildings within the civilian camp,” Hagari said on Nov. 1.
Hagari said the strike caused the collapse of the tunnels and underground military infrastructure, which in turn brought down additional surface structures.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem denied there was any senior commander present in the camp. Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said seven civilian hostages were killed in the strikes on Jabalia, including three foreign passport holders. Reuters was unable to verify that independently.
The second airstrike hit on Wednesday Nov. 1 in the Falouja neighbourhood of Jabalia refugee camp, approximately half a mile from the site of Tuesday’s explosion.
The blast flattened several big apartment buildings. The Interior Ministry in Gaza said the strike had destroyed an entire residential block, which Reuters was unable to confirm.
As the wounded were being carried from the scene on blankets and in the arms of residents and rescue workers, one local man told Reuters he said been praying in a local mosque and had rushed out when he felt the blast. “It is a massacre,” said the man, who did not give his name, as emergency workers tried to free survivors from the rubble by hand.
Israel’s military said the second strike killed Muhammad A’sar, head of Hamas’s anti-tank missile unit.
CALL FOR HUMANITARIAN PAUSE
According to the health ministry and the Hamas government media office, at least 195 people were killed in the two airstrikes on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, which left 120 missing and more than 700 wounded.
A third Israeli airstrike hit the Jabalia refugee camp on November 2, Reuters reported. The bombardment hit the UNRWA-sponsored Abu Hussein school, where many displaced Gazans were residing, according to eyewitnesses and a statement from the U.N. agency. Injured camp residents were rushed to the Indonesian hospital. Reuters was unable to determine the number of casualties.
Israel said it has so far killed 10 Hamas commanders responsible for planning the Oct. 7 attack. Hamas – designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States, among others – called in its 1988 founding charter for the destruction of Israel.
On a visit to Israel on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that Israel has a right to “do everything possible” to ensure that there would be no repetition of the Oct. 7 attack.
But he called called for a humanitarian pause: “It is very important when it comes to protection of civilians who are caught in the crossfire of Hamas’s making, that everything be done to protect them and to bring assistance to those who so desperately need it, who are not in any way responsible for what happened on Oct. 7.”
Speaking shortly after Blinken, Netanyahu said: “We are proceeding with all our might, and Israel refuses any temporary ceasefire that does not include the return of our kidnapped hostages.”
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Jon McClure)