Screams and flying debris enveloped Umm Majed al-Rayyes as explosions hurled her from her bed in Gaza City. Groping in the dark, the 50-year-old grabbed her four children and ran as Israeli bombs struck their apartment building, shattering windows, ripping doors to splinters and blasting away concrete.
While casualties mounted in the most severe outbreak between Israel and the Gaza Strip since a 2014 war, al-Rayyes and other Palestinians in the line of fire faced an all-too-familiar question: Where should we go? "This whole territory is a tiny place. It's a prison. Everywhere you go, you're a target," al-Rayyes said on phone from a neighbour's house, where she sought refuge with her teenage sons and daughters.
In Gaza, a crowded coastal enclave of 2 million people, there are no air raid sirens or safe houses. Temporary United Nations shelters have come under attack in previous years of conflict. In the past two days, Israeli airstrikes brought down three huge towers housing important Hamas offices and some businesses.
Fighter jets also targeted without warning multiple residential buildings, located in teeming neighbourhoods where Israel alleges militants live. In all, more than 65 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Monday, including 16 children.
At a Gaza City hospital, distraught families recounted how they pulled bloodied relatives from piles of rubble. One woman said her 4-year-old grandson and pregnant daughter-in-law were killed.
"They bombed them without any warning. The house had nothing but the kids," Umm Mohammad al-Telbani cried in the hospital morgue.
The Israeli government long has accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields against retaliatory strikes; militants often launch rockets from civilian areas and set up command centres inside residential buildings.
Recalling the horror of past wars, Gaza residents say they feel nowhere is safe. They also cannot leave the narrow territory, one of the world's most densely populated places. It has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized control in 2007. Along its borders, Gaza is encircled by sensor-studded fences, concrete walls, galvanised steel barriers and the Mediterranean Sea, where Israel restricts boats from Gaza to some 16 nautical miles offshore.
"There is nowhere to run, there is nowhere to hide," said Zeyad Khattab, a 44-year-old pharmacist in Gaza City.
In any other year, Palestinians would be thronging the dusty streets of Gaza City this week ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, one of the biggest and most joyous festivals on the Muslim calendar that marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Markets would be hives of activity as shoppers stocked up on new clothes and pastries for feasts. Beachside restaurants would brim with families. Barbershops would be full of men getting fresh haircuts.
Instead, shops stood shuttered and the city's streets were eerily empty. Almost nothing moves on the roads except for ambulances and Hamas security vehicles. Bombs thunder in the distance. Plumes of black smoke billow from stricken buildings. Residents walk by rubble-strewn stores and downed power lines, surveying the latest damage to a city already riddled with scars from intense clashes.
"It's the same atmosphere of 2014," Saud Abu Ramadan, a freelance journalist in Gaza City, said, referring to the bloody 7-week war that killed over 2,000 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and inflicted widespread destruction on Gaza's infrastructure.