Catastrophic damage after second Israeli airstrike hits Gaza refugee camp

Israeli strikes targeting Hamas commanders and the militant group’s infrastructure in the densely populated Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza have left catastrophic damage and killed a large number of people, according to eyewitnesses and medics in the enclave.

The devastation wrought by the strike triggered fresh outcry over spiraling civilian casualties as Gazans awoke to another communications blackout Wednesday morning. Survivors and eyewitnesses spoke of apocalyptic scenes in the aftermath of Tuesday’s strike, which tore a massive crater through the middle of the crowded camp.

“I was waiting in line to buy bread when suddenly and without any prior warning seven to eight missiles fell,” an eyewitness, Mohammad Ibrahim, told CNN.

“There were seven to eight huge holes in the ground, full of killed people, body parts all over the place,” he said. “It felt like the end of the world.”

According to a statement by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the initial airstrike killed several Hamas members, including Ibrahim Biari, whom it described as one of the Hamas commanders responsible for the October 7 attack on Israel, which left than 1,400 people dead and hundreds taken hostage.

The IDF claimed the Central Jabalya Battalion had taken control of civilian buildings and said collapsed tunnels were partly responsible for the scale of destruction caused by Tuesday’s strike.

Hamas has claimed to have built hundreds of kilometers of tunnels underneath Gaza, which it has used to smuggle goods from Egypt and launch attacks into Israel.

Hamas however strongly denied the presence of one of its leaders in the refugee camp. Hazem Qassem, a spokesman for the militant group, accused Israel of attempting to justify what he described as a “heinous crime against safe civilians, children, and women in Jabalya camp.”

A second IDF strike also hit the Falluja neighborhood of the same refugee camp on Wednesday. The massive blast destroyed several buildings, with video from the site showing a deep crater and people digging through the rubble searching for bodies.

Palestinians search for casualties at the site of an Israeli strike on Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, October 31. - Anas al-Shareef/Reuters
Palestinians search for casualties at the site of an Israeli strike on Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, October 31. - Anas al-Shareef/Reuters

The Civil Defense in Hamas-run Gaza described it as the “second massacre” in two days. The airstrike killed at least 80 people and injured hundreds more, according to Dr. Atef Al Kahlout, the director of Gaza’s Indonesian hospital. He told CNN more bodies were being dug out of the rubble, and the majority of casualties were women and children.

The IDF said the Wednesday attack targeted a Hamas command and control complex and “eliminated” Hamas terrorists.

The United Nations Human Rights Office has said that the attacks on Jabalya, which is Gaza’s largest refugee camp, “could amount to war crimes” given “the high number of civilian casualties and the scale of destruction,” it wrote on social media.

Israel’s weeks long bombardment of Gaza has killed at least 8,700 people, according to figures released by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, drawn from sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave. Women, children and the elderly make up more than 70% of those killed, the ministry said on Monday.

The strikes continue amid increasingly urgent calls for ceasefire by the UN and aid organizations, and despite a UN General Assembly resolution backed by over 100 countries calling for a “sustained humanitarian truce.

Seventy United Nations aid workers have also been killed, according to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Juliette Touma, the agency’s communications director, told CNN’s Becky Anderson that one colleague was killed at home “with his wife and eight children when his UN car, clearly marked as UN, was parked outside of his house.”

In New York, a United Nations human rights official said he was leaving his job amid what he called a “textbook case of genocide” of Palestinians in Gaza. Craig Mokhiber, director of the UN’s New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, wrote in his departure letter that he believes the US, UK and much of Europe is “complicit” in the bloodshed in Gaza, and that after witnessing what happened in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Rohingya civilians in Myanmar, the UN has repeatedly failed to stop genocide.

‘Horrific scene’

Eyewitness Mohammad Al Aswad described a “horrific scene” in the aftermath of the strike on Tuesday, telling CNN that he ran to the refugee camp to check on family after hearing the missiles land.

“Children were carrying other injured children and running, with grey dust filling the air. Bodies were hanging on the rubble, many of them unrecognized. Some were bleeding and others were burnt,” Al Aswad told CNN by telephone.

People in the area were hysterical, he added. “I saw women screaming and confused. They didn’t know whether to cry for losing their children or run and look for them, especially since many children were playing in the neighborhood.”

Images from the scene showed a huge crater among rubble and damaged buildings. Palestinians and rescue workers are seen attempting to find victims, some using their hands to scoop the detritus away.

Casualty figures from the airstrike are not yet clear and the communications blackout in the Strip has made it difficult to establish the full extent of the toll. Officials in Hamas-run Gaza, as well as medics who treated the casualties, say the attack caused “hundreds” of deaths and injuries.

Jabalya is a densely populated refugee camp established shortly after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from territory that encompassed the newly established State of Israel, and later denied return.

The camp is a crowded built-up area with houses, shops and apartment buildings jammed up against one another, the roads between them in many areas barely wide enough for a car to pass.

Speaking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht accused Hamas of “hiding, as they do, behind civilians.” Reminded that there are many innocent civilians in the camp, Hecht responded, “This is the tragedy of war” and urged civilians to move south.

Southern Gaza has also seen lethal airstrikes, and aid organizations have repeatedly warned that there is no safe place in the isolated enclave.

On Wednesday, two Palestinian telecoms firms announced internet and communication network disruptions in Gaza. Paltel said there was a “complete interruption of all communications and internet services in the Gaza Strip,” while mobile phone services from the communications company Jawwal were also down, according to a company statement.

‘A scene no one can imagine’

At the Indonesian hospital, the nearest major medical facility to Jabalya, videos showed a long line of bodies lying on the floor of the hospital as well as large numbers of wounded people, including children, as doctors rushed to treat their injuries.

Many of the injured could be seen receiving treatment on the floor because of the hospital’s overcrowded conditions. Hospital head Dr. Atef al-Kalhout estimated that scores had been killed in the blast.

“What you see is a scene no one can imagine: injured martyrs, charred bodies in the hundreds,” said another doctor, Mohammad al Rann. “All we can do is keep taking them in. Most of the injuries are from explosives and head injuries and amputations.”

Mohammed Hawajreh, a nurse with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) at Al Shifa hospital in Gaza, said that some of the wounded also arrived at that hospital. “Young children arrived at the hospital with deep wounds and severe burns. They came without their families. Many were screaming and asking for their parents. I stayed with them until we could find a place, as the hospital was full with patients,” Hawajreh said in a statement.

According to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Interior in Gaza, twenty homes were “completely destroyed” in the bombing.

‘Blatant disregard for human life’

Jabalya, like other refugee camps in the Strip, is crowded with homes, shops, and apartment buildings, where many roads between them are barely wide enough for a car to pass.

Many Palestinian refugees settled in the camp in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, after fleeing villages in what became the state of Israel, according to UNRWA.

Jabalya is the largest refugee camp in Gaza, says UNRWA, and is spread out across 1.4 square kilometers. It has long grappled with overcrowding. It is also among the poorest areas in the enclave and home to busy open-air markets.

Shortly after the blast, Israeli human rights organization B’tselem condemned Israel’s weeks-long aerial bombardment of Gaza, saying “the scale of killing Israel has and continues to wreak on Gaza is horrifying,” in a statement released Tuesday.

“More than 8,000 people have been killed so far, more than half of them women and children. Entire buildings have collapsed with occupants still inside. Whole families have been wiped out in an instant. This criminal harm to civilians is intolerable and the obvious needs to be stated again and again – not everything is allowed in war, including war on Hamas,” it said.

Palestinians search for casualties at the site of Israeli strikes in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, October 31, 2023. - Anas al-Shareef/Reuters
Palestinians search for casualties at the site of Israeli strikes in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, October 31, 2023. - Anas al-Shareef/Reuters

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the strike as a “massacre,” referencing “chilling documented scenes” of children and women. “It has its bones, in a large-scale massacre carried out in full view of the world and under the pretext of self-defense,” the statement added.

Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan and Egypt have also condemned the strike, with Egypt accusing Israel of breaking international law with what it said was the “inhuman” targeting of a residential area. “Egypt considered this as a new flagrant violation by the Israeli forces against the provisions of international law and international humanitarian law,” the ministry said.

“I am sorry to those innocent men, women and children in Jabalia Refugee Camp that the world could not protect you,” Humza Yousaf, the head of the Scottish government, posted on the platform X.

“This blatant disregard for human life must be condemned unequivocally,” Yousaf added. “Do not let any more children die. We need an immediate ceasefire, nothing less.”

When pressed multiple times throughout a White House briefing on the Jabalya strike and on whether Israel is doing enough to protect Palestinian civilians, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US has “indications they are trying.”

Civilians have been killed to the tune of many thousands … We recognize that, we observe that, and we’re not accepting of any single civilian death in Gaza.”

He added that “it is n ot the goal of Israeli forces to go out and deliberately take innocent civilian life.”

Riyad Mansour, the head of the Palestinian Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations, told CNN on Tuesday that the Israeli strike on Jabalya refugee camp was a war crime and should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“Those who are responsible for giving the orders for that crime should hear something from Mr. (Karim A. A.) Khan from the ICC (International Criminal Court),” he said in reference to the ICC prosecutor. “And if he has the courage, and I hope he does, we appreciate the fact that he came to Rafah crossing, and he made a statement there. But it would be also nice to issue a warrant of arrest for those who are responsible for such crimes.”

Ground operation continues

The IDF on Wednesday announced the death of another soldier, bringing the total number of Israeli soldiers to have died since the start of the ground incursion to 16. Of that figure, 15 were killed inside Gaza.

Details on how the soldiers were killed have not been released but seven were part of the Givati brigade and two were members of the armored corps.

The Israeli military claimed it killed “approximately 50 Hamas terrorists” during ground operations in the northern Gaza Strip Tuesday. It comes after Israel said over the weekend it had entered a “second stage” of its war against Hamas following weeks of strikes on Gaza.

In a statement Tuesday evening, the IDF said that troops from its Givati Brigade also operated in western Jablaya and were targeting a Hamas commander in the area. The area of operation included “firing positions, terror tunnels used by terror operatives as a passageway to the coast, and a large stock of weapons,” the statement added.

The IDF said “soldiers killed a number of terrorists in the course of combat” in addition to targeted strikes by the Israeli Air Force. In addition to seizing weapons and military equipment, the IDF claimed to have located intelligence documents as well.

This story is developing and is being updated.

CNN’s Richard Allen Greene, Amir Tal, Manveena Suri, Caitlin Hu, Ibrahim Dahman, Kevin Flower, Hamdi Alkhshali, Zeena Saifi, Chris Liakos, Melissa Bell, Nada Bashir, Kyle Blaine and Tamar Michaelis contributed to this report. Journalist Asmaa Khalil also contributed to this report.

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