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In Gaza, Palestinians have no safe place from Israel’s bombs

By Yahya Abou-Ghazala

(CNN) — When Hamas fires rockets at Israel, advanced warning detectors set off alarms in targeted neighborhoods, civilians flee to an extensive network of bomb shelters, and the vaunted Iron Dome system works to intercept projectiles in the air.

But in Gaza, none of those high-tech defenses were available to protect Maisara Baroud, 47, when his apartment building was hit by Israeli airstrikes Monday night. The only thing that saved him and his family: A neighbor yelling from the street.

The neighbor received a call from Israeli military, giving him a heads up that a strike at a nearby residential building was imminent. Still, the neighbor told Baroud and the 15 other family members living in Baroud’s building – including nine children – to get out.

The first strike wrecked most of the six buildings on the block, including Baroud’s.

“My building was no longer livable – it was a skeleton of a house left,” he added. “The doors were destroyed, the building’s exterior walls were all gone, the windows shattered.”

Still, Baroud and others assumed the worst was over and headed back into the building to salvage their belongings. Minutes later, the neighbor received a follow-up call from the Israeli military that a follow-up bombing was coming, and the families fled again.

A second strike destroyed Baroud’s home, reducing his building and his art studio to rubble.

This is the reality for Palestinians living in Gaza without the protection of a robust civil defense infrastructure. With no air raid sirens or bomb shelters, the more than 2 million Palestinians living in the besieged territory – half of whom are children – rely on rare phone calls or text messages from the Israeli military to alert them of imminent strikes.

“In Gaza, we don’t have anything…you have nowhere to go, no bomb shelters, no refuge, you are in the street,” Baroud said. “If you’re lucky enough to even get an alert to tell you to get out of the house, you leave saying, ‘Thank God.’”

The lack of protection serves as a stark contrast to the civil defense systems of Israel, which has faced intense barrages of rocket fire from Hamas in recent days. Israel boasts elaborate and technologically advanced capabilities – ranging from early radar detection to the Iron Dome – meant to protect its civilians in the event of an attack.

In Gaza, the call or text alerts are far from guaranteed and – at most – give residents a few minutes to evacuate. Often, it’s just a guessing game.

The lack of civil defense has also affected international humanitarian and medical workers, who are faced with sporadic, momentary notice of Israel’s counterattacks.

A post from Doctors Without Borders on Tuesday noted how some of its team members in Gaza receive a text message in the middle of the night telling them to evacuate their homes.

“You have to wake up your children in the middle of the night and leave your house, without taking any of your belongings,” the post said.

Dr. Barbara Zind, a US-based pediatrician in Gaza on a medical mission, was speaking to CNN Tuesday about being stranded in the area when her interview was interrupted by loud bombings outside her hotel. Asked if she could seek safe shelter, she responded: “There are no bomb shelters here.”

Warning phone calls from the Israelis also are more likely to be missed in Gaza because of rolling blackouts. The territory’s only power station ran out of fuel Wednesday and stopped working, this after Israel ordered a “complete siege” and cut off access to food, fuel, water and electricity.

Israel, however, has invested heavily over the years in its civil defense systems to protect civilians from rockets and mortars fired by Hamas and other militant groups in the region. Its elaborate and technologically advanced capabilities are meant to protect its people and minimize harm in the event of a rocket attack.

Azriel Bermant, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague, says Israel is “very strong and well-organized” on the civil defense front.

“It’s about saving lives, it’s about strengthening morale, it’s about reducing pressure on the government to send in ground forces,” Bermant said. “If the government knows that the public is protected, especially in a war situation, they feel the public will support the government in what it does.”

Crucially, the Israeli Defense Forces has developed early warning systems that sound sirens whenever rockets are fired towards Israel. These warning systems are able to calculate the location where a rocket is projected to land and set off a siren in the targeted area, often giving residents advance notice to find shelter.

Civil defense capabilities are also built into the infrastructure of Israel. Israeli law requires all homes, residential buildings, and industrial building to have bomb shelters. These shelters prove crucial to protect Israelis when warning sirens go off – providing the public with safe and fortified locations to hide from incoming rockets.

Israel also possesses key active defense measures. The most notable is called the Iron Dome System. Deployed in 2011, the Iron Dome is designed to shoot down incoming projectiles. It is equipped with a radar that detects rockets and then uses a command-and-control system that quickly calculates whether an incoming projectile poses a threat or is likely to hit an unpopulated area. If the rocket does pose a threat, the Iron Dome fires missiles from the ground to destroy it in the air.

Bermant said when it comes to missile defense, “there’s no question it saves lives,” and that it also can act as a deterrent.

The system isn’t foolproof, however, and when the volume of rockets fired by Hamas comes in intense barrages, it decides which pose the greatest threat to urban areas and infrastructure and targets those. Some rockets get through.

Additionally, Israel has several public awareness campaigns that are intended to educate the public on best practices in response to air raid sirens – such as where to go, how much time one has to find cover, and what to do if there is no readily available safe site.

With far less resources, Gaza hasn’t built anything comparable to the Israeli defense systems. While Hamas has constructed a network of underground tunnels for its fighters, it hasn’t invested in civilian shelters or warning networks.

Gaza has been cut off from the rest of the world by an Israeli blockade of Gaza’s land, air and sea dating back to 2007, with tight restrictions on the movement of goods. It has been described by Human Rights Watch as the “world’s largest open-air prison.”

“The disparity is primarily because of the blockade, which has really undermined Gaza’s infrastructure,” said Tareq Baconi, board president of the Palestinian policy network Al-Shabaka. “All entry of goods, all the resources that might be used to build that kind of a system are curtailed.”

The lack of defenses has left civilians like Baroud living in fear. As he examines the ruins of his building, he said he’s left wondering why his home was hit.

“I keep asking myself why? … There’s no point in asking why.”

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