Middle East

A small chapel in Gaza City offers sanctuary to Palestinians, as Israeli strikes wipe out entire families in the north

By Khader Al Za’anoun, Abeer Salman and Sana Noor Haq, CNN

CNN  — 

A small, curly-haired boy walks wearily through the chapel of St. Philip, in Gaza City, northern Gaza, as Israeli drones whir overhead.

Smashed concrete and blown-up buildings surround the luminous white walls and pink, stained-glass windows of the church, which has been turned into a makeshift emergency ward for Palestinians wounded in Israel’s military offensive.

Mohammed Taysser Sadallah Al-Zarik, an amputee, is one of those patients. “I call all the world to help me get out (of Gaza) to get an artificial limb for my leg,” he told CNN on Tuesday. “I can’t stay like this anymore.”

Al-Zarik, 22, says he was injured in an attack on the Al-Zaytoun neighborhood of Gaza City, which also killed his cousin. His disability was compounded when doctors found a tumor and had to remove another part of his leg, according to his father, Abu Mohammed Al-Zarik.

“I hope they get him out of here for treatment, there is no treatment here,” Abu Mohammed Al-Zarik added. “There is nothing left here.”

In recent weeks, the Israeli military ramped up aerial attacks on parts of central and northern Gaza. Entire families have been erased and displacement shelters flattened. Hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians who once found refuge in hospitals are now on the run again – as medical facilities across the enclave are crushed by bombardment or besieged. Further south, in Rafah, some civilians are rushing northwards ahead of an anticipated Israeli ground offensive. Several Palestinians told CNN there is no peace to be found among the rubble.

“I call on all authorities and the world to look at my son and have mercy on him,” the elder Al-Zarik pleaded. “The young man is only 22 years old … He just started his life.”

Israel launched its military offensive after the Hamas-led October 7 attacks in southern Israel, which killed about 1,200 people. Israeli attacks on Gaza have since killed at least 29,313 Palestinians and injured another 69,333 people, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza.

‘Paralyzed’ health care system

The arched walls of St. Philip accommodate several displaced patients, including young children. Doctors calmly tend to the wounded, as tens of civilians sit on multicolored blankets covering sparse bed frames.

“We saw stuff that no one has ever seen, and no one can even imagine,” Salah Abu Issa, a doctor who volunteers at the chapel, told CNN. “This hall now is filled with injured people.

“The whole healthcare sector has been paralyzed in Gaza, most hospitals are not functioning.”

Israel’s bombardment and severe restrictions on aid entering the strip have diminished critical food, fuel, water and medical supplies, decimated the health care system and exposed the entire population of more than 2.2 million people to mass displacement and deadly disease.

St Philip's Chapel, in Gaza City, pictured on October 18, was converted into a makeshift emergency ward for Palestinians injured by Israel's military offensive in the enclave.

As of February 14, only 11 out of 36 hospitals in Gaza are partially functioning, while three are at minimum functionality, according to the humanitarian organization Medical Aid for Palestinians.

On Tuesday, the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) said its Al-Amal Hospital came under direct assaults. Israeli forces also targeted the hospital’s third floor and burned two rooms, while members of the PRCS team and a delegation from the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees were inside the hospital’s courtyard. Two eyewitnesses at the hospital told CNN “they did not see any militants in the hospital.”

Medical workers treat wounded survivors in St. Philip, in northern Gaza, on February 13. One doctor told CNN that Israel's military campaign has "paralyzed" the health care system in Gaza.

Hospitals are protected civilian objects under international humanitarian law. It is illegal, with few exceptions, to attack medical facilities, or to otherwise prevent them from providing care. A hospital can only lose its protected status if it is used by an armed group for acts that are considered “harmful to the enemy.”

But, even then, patients and doctors inside are still protected by the principle of proportionality. A warning must be given, and time for safe evacuation, before carrying out an attack.

The IDF claims Hamas operates out of hospitals, calling it a violation of “the strict prohibition under international law against using medical facilities as shields for military operations.” Hamas denies using hospitals as cover. CNN cannot independently verify either claim.

The Israeli military insists it has been “liaising with the hospital directors and medical staff, on the phone and on the ground, to ensure that the hospitals can remain operational and accessible.”

Doctors say they are struggling to treat patients.

“Even with the lack of medicines and equipment, we are trying our best to provide the best medical services,” added Abu Issa, the doctor in St. Philip. “The situation is really bad and painful.”

‘Our children have been injured, amputated and martyred’

Around the corner from the chapel, a young child carrying a teddy bear walks among streams of displaced Palestinians forced to evacuate from northern Gaza.

Some traveled on bicycles, or carts pulled by horses or donkeys, while others carried scant belongings on foot.

“We are fleeing from one place to another … we have been displaced over 100 times,” Ahmed, a civilian who fled shelling in Gaza City, told CNN on Tuesday. “We miraculously were able to escape. We even had to leave wearing our flip-flops.”

The Israeli army launched artillery, rocket fire and airstrikes in the Al-Zaytoun neighborhood, southeast of Gaza City, on Tuesday, unleashing destruction and causing casualties. The IDF said on Wednesday and Thursday it used airstrikes and fighter jets “targeting terrorists” in the neighborhood.

Thousands of Palestinians were being forced to evacuate from several neighborhoods, seeking refuge toward the west of Gaza City, especially around Al-Shifa Hospital.

Pictures circulating on social media on Tuesday showed a flyer issued by the IDF ordering civilians to evacuate the Al-Zaytoun and Turkoman neighborhoods on the southern edge of Gaza City, telling them to go to the recommended “humanitarian zones” through Salah Eddin Street. CNN previously reported that some Palestinian civilians who followed evacuation orders were later killed by Israeli strikes.

Another civilian, Abu Tareq, who was wrapped in a grey fleece and hat, told CNN he hopes “someone good-hearted would stop the war against us.”

“The whole area has been displaced because of the intensity of the shelling during the night,” said the elderly Palestinian. “We were not able to sleep all night long. This is on top of all the struggles that we are facing … Our houses have been destroyed. Our children have been injured, amputated and martyred. Where can we go?

“We are exhausted.”

Palestinians are ‘defenseless’

A prominent doctor and his daughter, a human rights lawyer, as well as an international football referee were among at least 118 Palestinians killed in the 24 hours to Wednesday morning, according to a statement by the Ministry of Health in Gaza on Wednesday.

Some of those casualties were concentrated in central Gaza, where even survivors could not mourn the deceased. At least six people were killed in an apparent airstrike on a car full of people traveling to the funeral of relatives killed in another strike just hours earlier.

They were killed in the third of three apparent airstrikes in Deir al-Balah overnight, after one that killed at least 20 people in a residential building belonging to the Khattab family, and another that killed at least 15 people in a building belonging to the Baghdadi family. The six people killed in the car were relatives of the Khattab family on their way to funerals.

DEIR AL-BALAH, GAZA - DECEMBER 04: Palestinians perform funeral prayer at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital for those who lost their lives during Israeli attacks on the Nuseirat refugee camp in Deir al-Balah, Gaza on December 04, 2023. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Then on Tuesday, at least 15 people were killed in air strikes on Nuseirat refugee camp, according to Palestinian health officials at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital. Aid workers and survivors of the air strike descended on the hospital in Deir al-Balah, where relatives cried out as injured Palestinians lay on the blood-stained floor.

CNN footage from inside Al-Aqsa hospital showed an elderly woman falling to her knees beside a stretcher carrying a limp, wounded child. He wore a purple Spider-Man t-shirt. “All of them, all eight of them have gone,” she said. The video then shows the woman looking at another injured person, asking, “Ibrahim. Where is Ibrahim?”

CNN’s Eyad Kourdi, Ibrahim Dahman, Hamdi Alkhshali, Mohammed al-Sawalhi and Richard Allen Greene contributed reporting.

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