Palestinians and Israelis brace for the worst from a Gaza ground assault


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SDEROT, Israel — As the Israeli military prepares for an expected ground invasion of Gaza, civilians on both sides are bracing for the worst.

In Israel, people were told to stockpile enough supplies in their bomb shelters to last three days — prompting a run on staples in supermarkets. But in Gaza, families say they are already under such heavy airstrikes, they can’t leave their homes for food, water or medicine — even if they could be found.

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“We know things will get much more difficult,” said Lubna Hamad, a mother of four from a small neighborhood near Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza. But she said she hasn’t been able to do anything to make her children safer or more comfortable.

“Preparing? We don’t have this privilege,” she said. “Even if we could dare to leave our homes, the shops aren’t open.”

The war unfolding between Israel and Hamas is already unlike any of the previous waves of conflict that have erupted in the region over the past decades. And both sides have warned of more to come. The last Israeli ground operation into Gaza, in 2014, left over 2,000 civilians dead and more than 17,000 wounded and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Hamad has been closely following the news so she has a sense of the scale of the military operation to come, but she hasn’t figured out how to talk to her children about it yet.

“When they were younger, it was easier, I could just say the sounds were fireworks,” she said, but now her two oldest are teenagers. “Honestly, I don’t know what to say.”

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Just a few miles away on the other side of the border, people in southern Israel flooded grocery stores for water, toilet paper and dry goods. The rush forced some supermarket chains to restrict how much a single person was allowed to purchase.

In Netivot, shoppers lined up to buy rechargeable battery packs, portable radios and cigarettes.

“In all the years, we’ve had so many operations, but this is different,” said Niza Aflao, the supermarket manager. Aflao said hundreds of families have left the city for areas of the country farther from Gaza and those who stayed are largely remaining indoors.

In the nearby town of Sderot, Nourit Edary was unloading supplies outside her apartment when sirens sounded, sending her to cover in a stairwell.

“The kids! Go get the kids!” she yelled, shaking. Before Saturday, she said, rocket attacks didn’t faze her, but now she feels like she’s constantly on edge. She refused to leave her home for over three days after Hamas gunmen overran the police station in her town during Saturday’s unprecedented attacks on Israel.

“I’m worried now, and I’m worried about the future,” she said, explaining that many of her relatives were called up to fight. She said she’s watched thousands of soldiers pour into southern Israel on television and in the streets outside her home.

Many of those troops are now camped out in the fields and orchards along the Gaza border. Hundreds of armored personnel carriers, artillery units and tanks are clustered along highways and beside recently retaken towns.

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Waves of rocket attacks also continue to target Israel. Hamas warned all residents of the city of Ashkelon to evacuate Tuesday evening before firing rocket barrages that set off sirens for over three hours. Israel’s missile defense system intercepted most of the munitions, but some damaged buildings and cars.

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In Gaza, Israeli airstrikes have hit thousands of targets since Saturday, destroying houses, offices and infrastructure that has forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes.

The vast majority of people in Gaza do not have basements or the kind of bomb shelters that are common in Israeli homes just over the border. Some families have crowded into community shelters at United Nations schools, but most do not have a safe place to wait out attacks.

“When people get a warning to evacuate, if they are given a warning, all they can do is find another area to move to,” said Hisham Mhanna, who works with the Red Cross in Gaza and lives in the western neighborhood of Tal al-Hawa. Mhanna recently had to pick up his family and move to a safer area, and as they drove through the city streets, he said, he saw many families wandering, dazed, in search of a place to stay.

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“Many people have already moved two or more times,” he said, often only able to bring what they can carry. Because people cannot shelter in their homes, they have packed small bags with their most important possessions: family photos, key documents, medicine.

Now, with Gaza’s borders largely shut, electricity and water cut, and so many people displaced, aid groups are warning that the conflict will exacerbate already dire humanitarian conditions in the area. Many of the shops and bakeries that have remained open in Gaza are already reporting shortages of staples like flour and eggs.

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The next phase of the conflict “is indeed expected to be long,” said Aviran Farin, an Israeli regional government spokesman in the country’s south. But Farin cautioned that all Israelis will be taken care of, especially elderly residents and those with special needs.

“There are some shortages in the stores,” but he said that was due only to supply chain disruptions caused by the security situation. “There is currently no shortage of food and water in Israel,” he said.

Outside the Alumim kibbutz, just a few miles from the border with Gaza, a group of soldiers stationed in the area rested in the shade. With most of the clearing operations complete, they were regrouping, awaiting their next orders.

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Members of an elite unit, they all had experience with smaller operations inside densely populated parts of Gaza. But none had participated in a full-scale ground invasion in the territory, and they acknowledged any such incursion would probably come with high civilian casualties.

“Believe me, no one wants this,” said one of the men. “But what are we expected to do?” he asked rhetorically. Hamas “kidnapped our people, including children!” he said, speaking on the condition that he be identified only by his rank of sergeant because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

“We have no other choice,” he said.

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