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Heba al-Haddad, right, and her family displaced from Gaza City, stand in a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, southern Gaza, on March 29, 2024.

Heba al-Haddad, right, and her family displaced from Gaza City, stand in a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, southern Gaza, on March 29, 2024. (Fatima Shbair/AP)

CAIRO — It wasn’t lack of food that pushed Heba al-Haddad and her family to leave their home in Gaza City. They had a source of clean water and could live off boiled peas. It wasn’t the incessant shelling. They felt the stairways would protect them even in a direct hit on their building.

Even watching soldiers force neighbors from their homes — some in their underwear, some apparently pulled away for detention — didn’t convince al-Haddad to leave Rimal, once Gaza City’s most upscale neighborhood but now a hellscape of destroyed buildings and rubble-filled streets.

It took a unit of 14 Israeli soldiers storming her apartment to force her out. They ordered al-Haddad, her husband and his elderly parents — one half-blind and the other in a wheelchair — their two teenage sons and seven other family members to leave in the middle of the night on March 21.

The soldiers handed them glow sticks with strict instructions: Walk south with a woman in front holding a stick so soldiers at checkpoints don’t shoot you. Later, she learned the troops set fire to the house after they left.

“I can’t describe the terror of leaving the house, and we know that outside is a war zone,” al-Haddad told The Associated Press. She spoke from Rafah, at the far southern end of the Gaza Strip after a harrowing 10-hour walk out of the north along the main coastal road, now an obstacle course of craters and debris lined with tanks and snipers.

Witnesses say Israeli troops conducted building-by-building expulsions of residents in nearby neighborhoods during the military’s two-week raid on Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, which triggered furious fighting across the area. Israeli troops ended their assault on Shifa early Monday, saying they had rooted out Hamas militants grouped inside to direct attacks, a claim that could not be independently confirmed.

In many cases, the troops destroyed or set fire to buildings after clearing them of residents, according to witnesses and the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, which follows the conflict through researchers on the ground.

Al-Haddad said she saw troops blow up or set fire to nearby buildings after expelling those inside. A Euro-Med researcher said in a voice message shared with the AP that when he was released from detention by Israeli soldiers in the Shifa hospital, he walked out into fire spreading from buildings surrounding the hospital.

Asked about the reports, the Israeli military said there are no specific procedures for evacuations, only that it “depends on the situation” and if there is an “operational threat.” The Israeli military didn’t respond to questions about burning homes, instead saying its troops carry out “demolitions of Hamas infrastructure and other military targets using approved and appropriate means.” It said it could not comment on the specific case of al-Haddad’s family.

Throughout its nearly six-month offensive in Gaza, the Israeli military has largely relied on announcing evacuation orders for large areas through leaflets, text messages or loudspeakers, urging people to leave before ground assaults.

The past weeks’ campaign of evacuations in Gaza City has been more aggressive and direct, Euro-Med director Ramy Abdu said: Troops went door to door to expel people or sent detained Palestinians to tell residents to leave. The monitor estimates some 7,000 people were forced from neighborhoods around Shifa, where fighting left wide-scale destruction.

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel killed some 1,200 people. Israel’s assault has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, more than 13,000 of them children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, and driven some 80% of its 2.3 million people from their homes.

Al-Haddad, a pharmacist, and her husband, Raed al-Tabaa, an accountant and university professor, had been determined to stay in Gaza City even as Israel’s ground offensive flattened large swaths of northern Gaza.

They fled their home after it took a direct hit in November and moved into the building where her brother-in-law lived less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from Shifa Hospital.

After the raid on Shifa began March 19, al-Haddad said the family heard people screaming or calling for help at her building’s entrance. Her family huddled in stairways or the middle of the apartment for cover from gunfire outside as tanks rolled down their street.

On the night of March 20, al-Haddad sent a voice message to family members who had already fled south, saying tanks were at their doorstep.

“We are OK because we are alive, but we are very shaken up,” she whispered. “I don’t know what to say. We are deprived of any humanity anyone can imagine.”

Then it was her family’s turn. At 2:30 a.m., the family was awakened by an explosion as troops blasted open their building’s entrance. Hearing them coming up the stairs, the family opened their apartment door to avoid another explosion. The troops searched the apartment and checked if anyone was on military wanted lists. Then they ordered the family out.

In a mix of broken English and Arabic, the family pleaded to be allowed to stay or at least to wait until morning, saying the journey was impossible for the elderly in-laws, al-Haddad said.

The soldiers said that “by daylight, the whole building could be blown up,” she said. “They said, ‘You will leave. We will stay.’”

The soldiers showed them the route to follow on Google Maps and told them how to walk: A woman carrying a glow stick must lead the group, with another woman at the back, and the men, children and elderly in the middle. They said to wave the glow sticks when approaching a checkpoint in the dark so the soldiers would not be suspicious and would know they have been checked.

They were allowed to take a bicycle to carry a few bags and a wheelchair for al-Haddad’s mother-in-law. But it proved impossible to push the wheelchair down the roads littered with belongings people could no longer carry.

Her in-laws, in their 80s and 70s, were forced to walk some of the distance, falling numerous times as soldiers shouted at them to keep moving, she said. At 2 p.m., they reached an Israeli checkpoint, where soldiers had them pass one-by-one through a metal gate and look into a security camera, clearly collecting information on everyone going through, al-Haddad said.

Now in Rafah, they are crowded into a house with her brothers, their wives and their children — more than 15 people, sleeping five to a room.

Al-Haddad said they were thinking of where to go if Israeli troops attack Rafah, where more than 1.2 million have crowded. They’re gathering money to buy a way out of Gaza — “to save my children’s future,” she said.

“This is a trip like no other. We have started our displacement journey,” al-Haddad said.

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