By James Rothwell
GAZA CITY - Before the war, it was the most upscale neighbourhood in Gaza City, with vibrant shops, cafés, ice cream parlours and a view on to the Mediterranean.
Today it stands largely in ruins after ferocious Israeli bombardment, in a clear sign that no part of Gaza will be safe in the coming weeks and months of conflict.
Residents of Rimal simply could not believe it when they first heard word that the area was being targeted. While the Palestinian enclave has for 16 years been overcrowded, blockaded and gripped by humanitarian crises, middle-class Rimal was about as close as it could get to being Gaza City’s own Islington.
Karam Maher, an 18-year-old Gaza resident, told The Daily Telegraph: “We felt the evacuation order was a rumour until an Israeli police officer called my dad and told him that we must evacuate if we cared about our lives.”
Speaking from an upscale hotel near Rimal, he added: “We didn’t know where to go, finally we decided to come to this hotel.
“It’s good to finally find accommodation, but it’s bad because nothing is like home. And I can hear the explosions here too.”
He went back at one stage to see if his building was still standing. It was at that point but the same cannot be said for much of Rimal.
The massive Israeli bombing there has destroyed roads that would usually be lined with street food vendors, ripped apart apartment blocks and damaged a mosque and a university building.
When war broke out, Mr Maher said, it felt like a surreal “dream”. But now, it’s “turned to a nightmare” even for Gaza’s more affluent residents.
Past conflicts with Hamas included heavy bombardments of Gaza but ended with the group still in power. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that Israel is committed to destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities.
In a new tactic, Israel is warning civilians to evacuate whole Gaza neighbourhoods, rather than just individual buildings, then levelling large swaths in waves of airstrikes.
Israel’s tone has changed as well. In past conflicts, its military insisted on the precision of strikes in Gaza, trying to ward off criticism about civilian deaths. This time, military briefings emphasise the destruction being wreaked.
“We will not allow a reality in which Israeli children are murdered,” Yoav Gallant, the defence minister, said in a meeting with soldiers near the southern border on Tuesday. “I have removed every restriction — we will eliminate anyone who fights us, and use every measure at our disposal.”
Even with the evacuation warnings, Palestinians say some are unable to escape or have nowhere to go, and that entire families have been crushed under rubble.
Other times, strikes come with no warning at all, survivors say.
“There was no warning or anything,” said Hashem Abu Manea, 58, who lost his 15-year-old daughter, Joanna, when a strike late on Tuesday levelled his home in Gaza City. “We were sitting there as civilians, dressed like anyone else.”
The Palestinian Red Crescent said hospital generators will run out in five days. Residential buildings, unable to store as much diesel, likely will go dark sooner.
A British doctor who is volunteering at the strip’s largest hospital warned Gaza’s hospitals could collapse by the end of the week if a ceasefire or humanitarian corridor is not agreed between Hamas and Israel.
Though the US is leading talks with Israel and Egypt on securing such a corridor, it would be an immense task with two million Palestinians in Gaza – of which nearly half are under 18.
Egypt has long restricted the flow of Gazans on to its territory, even during the fiercest conflicts.
Cairo, a frequent mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, always insists the two sides resolve conflicts within their borders, saying this is the only way Palestinians can secure their right to statehood.
Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah, who is Palestinian but moved to the UK in 1988, said that Gaza’s hospitals are stretched to almost double their capacity as Israel carries out heavy air raids on the besieged enclave. They’re targeting whole neighbourhoods, sending waves of wounded to the hospital in a stream of ambulances.
At Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, which is in Gaza City and is often the central point of care in moments of crisis, there are so many wounded that only the most critical can be operated on and patients are dying waiting for care.
“Since I’ve started speaking to you”, he says – it’s been two minutes and 15 seconds since we started the call – “I have heard three airstrikes,” said Mr Abu-Sittah, speaking to The Daily Telegraph via a Whatsapp call.
“The hospital is full of people whose lives have been absolutely devastated. If there’s no let up in the bombing, or there’s no humanitarian corridor, I think the Palestinian health system is going to collapse by the end of the week.”
Makeshift bomb shelters
For those who cannot stay in hotels after fleeing airstrikes, hospitals and schools, many run by the United Nations, have also become makeshift bomb shelters with hundreds crowding corridors and classrooms.
“No place is safe in Gaza. Even UN schools were targeted. It is somehow safe here,” added Afaf Al-Najar, a 21-year-old student who also took refuge at a hotel in Gaza City.
“My best friend’s husband was killed, maybe in an airstrike, maybe shrapnel, nobody knows – she became a widow in her early 20s,” she added.
The United Nations has confirmed that four US-run schools have been damaged by Israeli bombing, while nine UN staff have been killed.
The Israeli military said it struck around 200 targets in Rimal and the southern city of Khan Yunis at the same time. The airstrikes targeted “terror hubs” used by Hamas, it said, including a weapons storage site inside a mosque and the home of a Hamas anti-tank commander.
Those airstrikes were just part of a wider assault since Saturday, in which the Israeli army says it has dropped a thousand tonnes of explosives on Gaza.
‘I lost my father... and my pregnant wife’
Speaking to reporters in the wake of an airstrike on Beit Hanoun, one Palestinian said he had lost eight family members.
“I have lost my father, my brother, my uncle, two cousins, two of my extended family, my pregnant wife and I’m the only survivor,” said Ala al-Kafarneh.
“We received a message to leave Beit Hanoun town, so we went to Beach Refugee Camp. They threatened the building we were in, so we went to find safety in the Beach Camp,” he recounted.
“But the building we were in was also threatened so we had to move to Sheikh Radwan town where we stayed in an apartment there. Suddenly, around 4am, a strike hit us and we don’t know why, we have done nothing and that’s all.”
In parallel with the bomb campaign, revenge for a massive Hamas slaughter of Israelis which left 1,200 dead, an even deeper humanitarian catastrophe is looming there according to Oxfam.
A day after Israel declared a “total siege” of the enclave, in which fuel, food and electricity supplies were cut, Gaza’s sole power station ran dry on Wednesday afternoon.
The capacity of hospitals across the entire territory is also about to collapse, with the death toll on the Palestinian side at 900.
“Can you imagine we won’t even be able to make sure our relatives and friends are OK because of power cuts and internet disconnection?” said Al-Najar, one of the students who had taken refuge in a hotel.
“Another friend was injured, his mother was killed in a missile attack. If you are lucky, you will receive a prior warning, if not it’s over. There is nowhere to hide in Gaza,” she said.
“The worst is coming, we are all dead.”