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How Gaza’s refugee camps became targets in Israel’s war with Hamas

International allies have condemned any attack on a camp as an "atrocity" because these people inside have already lives under deplorable conditions for generations. With Israel rejecting calls for a humanitarian pause, experts are questioning how militants were able to embed themselves with Gaza's most vulnerable civilian population.

Israel says Hamas 'uses the people of Gaza as human shields' as conflict stretches toward 2nd month

People look for survivors in the rubble of a destroyed building.

For weeks across the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of people inside the territory's crowded refugee camps have been bracing for the next explosion as Israel's military escalates its aerial attacks on the area — including targeted strikes on their neighbourhoods.

"No one sleeps under the bombing. My children keep jumping up and crying at every airstrike," Abu Abdallah, a Gaza City resident who is staying in Jabalia camp with relatives, told Reuters this week.

Israel has struck several of Gaza's refugee camps in recent days in its war against Hamas, with its defence forces this week saying Hamas militants are embedding themselves in residential areas to either hide behind or draw out strikes on the civilian population.

A representative of Israel's military has said its war is with Hamas, not Palestinian families, after militants killed more than 1,400 people and kidnapped roughly 240 others during a surprise attack on Oct. 7.

A woman reaches out for a child covered in dust as a man carries them away.

Health authorities in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, said strikes on its largest camp, Jabalia, have killed hundreds of people and wounded hundreds more this week,

Humanitarian leaders, including those at the United Nations,have condemned the attacks on the camps as potential war crimes, noting people inside have already been living for generations in deplorable conditions with no means to escape the conflict.

Under Israel's assertion that Hamas is using those populations as cover for its militant operations, international relations experts say the international community needs to question how fighters have been able to exploit some of the territory's most vulnerable civilians.

"How did Hamas get away with it?" said Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto.

"If you were a refugee in those camps, wouldn't you want to know?"

Camps targeted over and over

Refugee camps in Gaza were initially established to temporarily house hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homes and livelihoods during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Nearly 75 years later, they are home to many of the territory's 1.7 million refugees; they rely on humanitarian aid to survive.

Even before the latest conflict, the camps were some of the most densely populated areas in the world. There is little open space, with apartment buildings, shops and markets connected by narrow alleys.

A man sits on top of rubble as people search for survivors after an airstrike.

Food is scarce, power cuts are routine and roughly 95 per cent of the camps' populations don't have consistent access to clean water, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Nearly half of the population is unemployed, without access to proper job opportunities.

"Living conditions are pretty wretched," said Braun. "When there's a war, then these people are doubly punished."

UNRWA figures show the total number of registered Palestinian refugees grew from 750,000 in 1950 to around five million in 2013.

The eight camps — Jabalia, Rafah, Khan Younis, Deir al-Balah, Maghazi, Bureij, Nuseirat and Shati — have now become even more crowded with thousands of people who left their homes in Gaza's north to escape the violence.

Hamas using camps as strongholds, Israel says

Jabalia — the largest of Gaza's camps — has been a strategic focal point in wars over the years due to its geography and value in Hamas's view, according to some political scientists.

The camp lies in the northern end of the Gaza Strip, just south of the border with Israel. It is extremely crowded, with more than 116,000 people living in an area less than 1.5 square kilometres in size.

"It provides some of the best places for fighters to hide or missile placements and for building up infrastructure precisely because it's so dense," said Janice Stein, a professor of conflict management at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

WATCH | Why Israel is targeting Gaza's largest refugee camp:

Why is Israel targeting this Gaza refugee camp? | About That

17 hours ago

Duration 10:37

Featured VideoThe Jabalia refugee camp made headlines when it was bombed again and again in the war between Israel and Hamas. One of the most densely populated areas in Gaza, it is home to more than 100,000 displaced Palestinians. Andrew Chang explains the refugee camp's complicated history and why this is not the first conflict in which Jabalia has been targeted.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said Hamas "uses the people of Gaza as human shields by embedding itself among them in schools, mosques and hospitals." Israel has asserted Jabalia is a particular stronghold, with militant operations hiding behind the civilian population.

"Israel is not at war with the civilians in Gaza. Israel is at war with Hamas," Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a video posted by the IDF on social media.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a news conference this week "the IDF does everything to avoid harming noncombatants" as it seeks to destroy Hamas,but "most wars" have unintended civilian casualties.

The nation has urged civilians in Gaza to evacuate south for their safety, although the United Nations and other international allies say it was financially and logistically impossible for hundreds of thousands of people to move.

Calls for humanitarian pause

After the aerial bombings of the Jabalia refugee camp this week — in which Israel said it targeted and killed two senior Hamas commanders — the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said there was concern Israel's strikes were "disproportionate attacks that could amount to war crimes."

"If Israel is embarking on a strategy of self defence protecting itself, or it has to follow international law [and] ​​International law and self defence prohibits indiscriminate bombing," said Navi Pillay, chair of the UN Human Rights Council's Commission of Inquiry on Israel Palestine.

"You cannot cry fire into a crowd when you are seeking to nail one individual."

WATCH | The UN says airstrikes on a refugee camp could amount to war crimes:

Israeli airstrike on Gaza refugee camp could be a war crime, UN says

2 days ago

Duration 3:17

Featured VideoWARNING: This story contains distressing images | Israel has confirmed its airstrike on the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza killed a top Hamas commander and destroyed militant tunnels. The United Nations says airstrikes on a refugee camp could amount to war crimes.

Netanyahu has rejected calls for a humanitarian pause in the conflict, telling U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday that the nation is "going full steam ahead'' unless the hostages held by Hamas are released.

More than 200 people are still being held captive by Hamas, three weeks after the militants' deadly attack last month.

As the war stretches toward its second month, Braun, the Toronto professor of international relations, said officials need to answer for how the camps ended up as targets.

"The use of Palestinians as shields, the cynical way that Hamas is using them, is not something new," said Braun, who is also an associate of the Davis Center of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

"If we really feel badly for the people in these camps, then we have to look at the entire picture. And we have to ask those questions — how did Hamas get away with it?"

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