Israel Designates a Safe Zone in Gaza. Palestinians and Aid Groups Say it Offers Little Relief

MUWASI, Gaza Strip (AP) -- 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 reality? The area of Muwasi 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 an Israeli military offensive in nearby areas of the southern Gaza Strip.

Roughly 20 square kilometers (8 square miles) in southwest Gaza, Muwasi 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 Muwasi as a solution for protecting people uprooted from their homes and seeking safety from the heavy fighting between its troops and Hamas militants. The United Nations and relief groups say Muwasi is a poorly planned attempt to impose a solution for people who have been displaced and offers no guarantee of safety in a territory where people have faced the dangers of continued airstrikes in other areas where the army ordered them to go.

"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 U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA. "It can only promote the false feeling that it will be safe."

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 Muwasi 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."

UNRWA and other international aid organizations do not recognize the camp and are not providing services there.

Yet Muwasi 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' Oct. 7 cross-border attack that left some 1,200 dead. More than 17,000 people in Gaza have died in the war, according to the territory's Health Ministry, which does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.

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 Muwasi 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 U.N. 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 Muwasi and that there are an additional 150 "shelter areas," including schools and medical clinics, that are coordinated with the U.N. and other organizations. But the army considers Muwasi a permanent safe zone. He noted that the army did not respond to a pair of Hamas rocket launches from Muwasi 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. Even the United States, Israel's closest ally, has repeatedly said Palestinian civilians need more protection.

A joint statement signed by the leaders of some of the world's largest humanitarian groups, including the top U.N. 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.

"Without the right conditions, concentrating civilians in such zones in the context of active hostilities can raise the risk of attack and additional harm," said the Nov. 16 statement.

In Muwasi, there's little sign that any of that is happening, at least in a way that could support hundreds of thousands of people.

On Thursday, a number of international aid groups condemned Israel's calls for displaced Palestinians to head to Muwasi, 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.

Despite being declared a humanitarian zone, nothing in Muwasi 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).

Tent camps will also revive memories of the Palestinians' greatest trauma -- the mass uprooting they call the "nakba" or catastrophe -- when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948.

For now, the people living in Muwasi are simply trying to get by.