AL-MAWASI, Gaza Strip — Israel has designated a small slice of mostly undeveloped land along Gaza’s Mediterranean coast as a safe zone, a place where waves of people fleeing the war can find protection from airstrikes and receive humanitarian supplies for their families.
The area of al-Mawasi is a makeshift tent camp where thousands of dazed Palestinians live in squalid conditions in scattered farm fields and waterlogged dirt roads. Their numbers have swelled in recent days as people flee the Israeli military offensive in nearby areas of the southern Gaza Strip.
Israel has expanded its ground offensive in recent days, as it seeks to destroy Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza. Israel declared war on Hamas on October 7, after 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists burst through the border fence and massacred 1,200 people in southern Israel, most of them civilians slaughtered in their homes and at an outdoor music festival, many of them executed and some of them burned and raped. The terrorists abducted 240 hostages, some 140 of whom are still being held.
Roughly 20 square kilometers (8 square miles) in southwest Gaza, al-Mawasi lies at the heart of a heated debate between Israel and international humanitarian organizations over the safety of the territory’s civilians.
Israel has offered al-Mawasi as a solution for protecting people uprooted from their homes and seeking safety from the heavy fighting between its troops and Hamas gunmen.
The United Nations and relief groups say al-Mawasi is a poorly planned attempt to impose a solution for people who have been displaced, and they are dubious of the safety guarantee, as Israeli airstrikes have allegedly targeted other areas where Palestinian civilians have sheltered. The IDF has called on the Gazan civilian population to head to al-Mawasi and other “recognized shelters” in the Strip, which it says it does not target.
“How can a zone be safe in a war zone if it is only unilaterally decided by one part of the conflict?” said Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA. “It can only promote the false feeling that it will be safe.”
UNRWA and other international aid organizations do not recognize the camp and are not providing services there.
Israel said at the weekend that Hamas has fired rockets from the al-Mawasi area, using the cover of refugees there.
The area has no running water or bathrooms, assistance and international humanitarian groups are nowhere to be found, and the tents provide little protection from the coming winter’s cool, rainy weather.
“It is very cold and there are no necessities of life,” said Moneer Nabrees, who fled Gaza City with some 30 family members. He recently arrived in al-Mawasi and now lives in a nylon tent with displaced family members. “There are lines for everything, even to get drinking water,” he said.
Some don’t even have enough materials to build a tent.
“At night we were freezing,” said Saada Hothut, a mother of four from Gaza City who faced another night with little protection from the elements. “We were covering ourselves with nylon.”
Yet al-Mawasi is poised to play an increasingly important role in the protection of Gaza’s civilians, something Israel’s allies have implored it to do as it tries to eradicate Hamas.
Some three-quarters of the territory’s 2.3 million people have been displaced, in some cases multiple times, since Israel launched its war in response to Hamas’s October 7 massacres in southern Israel. More than 17,000 people in Gaza have died in the war, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry. That figure cannot be independently verified, and is believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians, and people killed as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.
According to Israeli military estimates, some 5,000 Hamas members have been killed in the Gaza Strip, in addition to more than 1,000 terrorists killed in Israel during the October 7 onslaught.
Hundreds of thousands of people relocated to southern Gaza from the north after Israeli ground troops entered the area. Now, as Israel widens its ground offensive to the south, tens of thousands of people have found themselves on the move yet again — with few safe places to go.
Israel first mentioned al-Mawasi as a humanitarian zone in late October. It’s not clear how many people Israel believes can live there, and it blames the United Nations for the poor conditions.
Col. Elad Goren, a senior official in the military body overseeing Palestinian civilian affairs, said Israel has been allowing the entry of temporary shelters and winter gear.
“At the end of the day, these are UN goods. It’s their responsibility to collect the goods and distribute it to the people,” he said.
He said Israel does not expect Gaza’s entire population to crowd into al-Mawasi and that there are an additional 150 “shelter areas,” including schools and medical clinics, that are coordinated with the UN and other organizations. But the army considers al-Mawasi a permanent safe zone. He noted that the army did not respond to a pair of Hamas rocket launches from al-Mawasi on Wednesday.
“We understand the population needs a solution of where to be. We want to encourage the population to go to this zone where assistance will be delivered,” he said.
But international aid officials have warned that Israel has done nothing to create a true safe zone. The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has repeatedly said Palestinian civilians need more protection.
A joint statement signed last month by the leaders of some of the world’s largest humanitarian groups, including the top UN agencies, Care International, Mercy Corps, and the World Health Organization, said the area could not function as a safe zone until all sides pledge to refrain from fighting there. It also demanded provisions for food and water and guarantees that people will be allowed to return home as soon as possible.
In al-Mawasi, there’s little sign that any of that is happening, at least in a way that could support hundreds of thousands of people.
“Without the right conditions, concentrating civilians in such zones in the context of active hostilities can raise the risk of attack and additional harm,” the Nov. 16 statement from the humanitarian groups said.
On Thursday, a number of international aid groups condemned Israel’s calls for displaced Palestinians to head to al-Mawasi, describing it as unfit.
“Seventy percent of the surface of that area is deserted,” said Danila Zizi, from Handicap International’s office in the Palestinian territories. “There are no services, there are no schools, there is no health services. There is nothing.”
Instead, people are fending for themselves. Many sleep in their cars or set up their own tents. Like nearly everywhere in Gaza, the aid is not enough for everyone and many are forced to buy their own food, water and firewood.
As Israel has intensified its ground operation in recent days, there has been a sharp rise in the number of displaced people heading to this coastal area. Many have fled nearby Khan Younis and other southern areas that have become front lines of the conflict. Khan Younis is a Hamas stronghold where Israel believes Hamas leaders may be hiding and hostages may be held.
Despite being declared a humanitarian zone, nothing in al-Mawasi is now given away for free and a black market has sprouted up. Many basic food items cost 13 or 14 times more than they did before Oct. 7.
With no aid shipments of food arriving, people are forced to venture out and buy whatever they can find. What remains is mostly canned items like tuna, but also rice and tomatoes that people cook over fires back at the camp.
Tents must be built from scratch, at a cost. Displaced families must purchase wood and nylon, then assemble their new home. Those who have no money hope that UNRWA and other organizations will bring aid.
Residents say that one of the most humiliating aspects of life is the lack of privacy and poor hygiene. There are no toilets, so people relieve themselves wherever they can. Some leave the camp and head to nearby hospitals to use their facilities.
The tents will provide little shelter during the coming winter months, when temperatures can dip into the single digits Celsius (mid-40s Fahrenheit).