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21 JUL 2024

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Why Does Israel Target Gaza Refugee Camps?

A closer look at Israel’s airstrikes on the Jabalia Refugee Camp

refugee camp in gaza

The Basic Facts


Following the horrific surprise massacre on October 7, 2023 by the military group Hamas, Israel retaliated multiple times—by both land and sea. The Israel-Gaza region is on high-alert amid rising tensions and rising casualties on both sides. Israel has reported over 1,200 people killed in Israel and 6,900 or more injured, and Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry states at least 14,532 people have been killed in Gaza.

Israel has been clear that its war is with Hamas and not civilians, as Hamas was responsible for the October 7 attack, not Palestinian civilians. As a part of its counter-strike, Israel has been targeting a number of Palestinian refugee camps throughout the Gaza region, claiming that Hamas uses civilian areas as “human shields” to protect themselves from Israeli attacks.

Hamas using civilian areas for their operations has been independently verified by Guardian journalists and the UN.

One of the most notable targets in Israel’s attacks was the Jabalia Refugee Camp located in Gaza. Nearly 1.4 kilometers square, Jabalia is one of the largest refugee camps in Gaza, home to 116,000 registered refugees according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). 

Israel’s First Strike on the Jabalia Refugee Camp

On October 31, 2023, IDF forces dropped airstrikes on the Jabalia camp, killing approximately 195 civilians according to reports, and a letter from the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine, Riyad Mansour, states the same. But, there have been multiple amounts reported, some conflicting.

IDF officials say that the attack was part of its “wide-scale” operations against Hamas’ network of underground tunnels, hideouts and various operational areas. The IDF also stated that this airstrike killed Ibrahim Biari, among other Hamas fighters, who they believe was a major leader in the October 7 attack. A social media post from the IDF indicates they killed 50 terrorists in the accompanying ground attack.

In addition, the Israeli military claimed that Hamas-run “underground terror infrastructure” collapsed following the strike. It further stated that a number of Hamas insurgents were also killed as part of the attack. Reuters interviewed Professor Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), who stated that Reuters’ images of the attack showed “multiple sizable bomb craters.”

infographic showing data on israel refugee camp strikes in gaza

In an interview with Reuters, Bronk added that though it was difficult to classify the ammunition used by IDF forces, the craters created by the attack were, “consistent with the Israeli Air Force’s standard guided air-to-surface Joint-Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) – specifically GBU-31 2000lb or GBU-32 1000lb JDAMs.” Bronks also added that, “The primary use for the GBU-31 family of 2000lb JDAMs in U.S. service is for striking relatively deeply buried targets or for demolishing large structures.” 

IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht told CNN that Hamas terrorists were "hiding, as they do, behind civilians." 

Note, however, according to some news outlets, neither side’s statements have been independently confirmed. 

Additional Strikes on Gazan Refugee Camps 

Pressing on its offensive maneuvers, Israel launched a second attack on the camp on November 1, 2023, resulting in the death of another Hamas commander—according to Israel’s military

According to the IDF, an Israeli fighter jet “based on precise intelligence” killed the head of Hamas’ anti-tank missile unit—Muhammad A’sar.

The New York Times noted that the strike footage released by the Israeli military —in which they claim they killed A’sar—was actually footage from the October 31 attack. The military declined to comment on this discrepancy, according to the Times. 

When it comes to casualties from the blast, Reuters notes that, “There were no immediate figures from Gaza authorities on casualties from the explosion at the camp on Wednesday.”

Controversy Continues to Rage as The War In Gaza Continues 

Following the second air strike, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote on Twitter/X: "Given the high number of civilian casualties & the scale of destruction following Israeli air strikes on Jabalia refugee camp, we have serious concerns that these are disproportionate attacks that could amount to war crimes."

In a letter to the United Nations, Palestine’s Permanent Observer Mansour called the Israeli strikes (of which 11,000 have been carried out according to previous statements in the document), “...deadly attacks, deliberately and methodically perpetrated, constitute blatant war crimes for which Israel must be held accountable.”

Conversely, Israel has stated that it has warned civilians prior to its attacks. In a briefing, IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said, “We have called civilians and non-combatants to evacuate numerous times.” Conricus’ comments were in the context of the airstrike on the refugee camp. 

In addition, Pnina Sharvit Baruch, former head of the Military Advocate General’s Corps (MAG) International Law Department, insists that the IDF only attacks military targets. But, because Hamas uses civilian areas as military bases, they become “lawful targets” according to Baruch. This is according to “treaties governing the laws of armed conflict such as Additional Protocol I Geneva Conventions and customary international law,” the Times of Israel noted in an interview with her.  

Another aspect of the bombing controversy is the role of Hamas, as some have suggested they are not free from guilt when it comes to civilian casualties from the IDF attacks. In a US State Department press briefing with spokesperson Daniel Miller, a reporter brought up the issue of whether Israel’s attacks deliberately target civilians. In response, Miller noted that Hamas’ use of civilian buildings and locations as their modus operandi is problematic:

“I have not seen evidence that they’re [Israel] intentionally killing civilians. We believe that far too many civilians have been killed. But again, this goes back to the underlying problem of this entire situation, which is that Hamas has embedded itself inside civilians – inside civilian homes, inside its mosques, in schools, in churches. It is Hamas that is putting these civilians in harm’s way,” Miller said in the press briefing

“I’m surprised I don’t hear more people saying, why doesn’t Hamas lay down its arms? Why doesn’t Hamas move out of schools?” he added.

Regardless, the issue is extremely complex. 

Is Jabalia Really a Refugee Camp?

To add to the complexity of the situation, some parties view the term “refugee camp” used to describe areas including Jabalia as improper—given the United Nations’ definition. According to their website, it defines a refugee camp as, “temporary facilities built to provide immediate protection and assistance to people who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution or violence.

Further, the U.N. defines a refugee as someone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it"

These two definitions, along with the fact that Jabalia is a heavily structured area complete with apartment buildings and other permanent structures, have caused some to pause at assuming these are appropriately considered refugee camps. 

The IDF’s Lt. Col. Conricus disputes the terminology that Israel attacked a refugee camp with their strike: “There was no strike on a refugee camp – we targeted a Hamas battalion commander, a very important combatant who was leading operations against us,” he told ABC radio in an interview.

Cornicus further noted that, “It’s called a refugee camp, but these are not refugees in the sense that these are people who were just evacuated from their homes.”

“This is third, fourth and fifth generation refugees (and) we have been asking them to evacuate for more than two weeks,” he said in the same interview.

“We have established a humanitarian zone in the south and people who were probably forced to stay by Hamas terrorists to be used exactly as has happened now as human shields that is very sad and unfortunate. That is the reason for any civilian casualties here, Conricus reiterated.”



Twitter/X, Daniel Rubenstein Post, October 31, 2023

Twitter/X, Daniel Roth Post, December 4, 2023

Twitter/X, IDF Post, October 31, 2023

Twitter/X, UN Post, November 1, 2023

UNRWA, Jabalia Camp, n.d.

UNRWA, Palestine Refugees, n.d.

United Nations, Refugees, n.d.

UN Refugee Agency, Refugee Camps, n.d.

U.S. Department of State, Department Press Briefing, December 4, 2023


Brett Surbey

Brett Surbey is a corporate paralegal and freelance writer based out of Canada. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Publishers Weekly, US News and World Report, Forbes Advisor, Industry West Magazine and various academic journals. He lives with his wife and their two children in northern Alberta.


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