GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Thousands of Palestinians fled the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday and sought refuge in UNRWA facilities after Israeli forces instructed them to leave their homes.
Israeli forces dropped leaflets warning residents to leave their homes before midday on Sunday "for their own safety."
Residents said they also received phone calls from Israel's military instructing them to evacuate their homes and several tank shells were fired to scare residents, witnesses said.
During the night, Samari al-Atar, who lives in the Atatra neighborhood -- one of the areas Israel said it would hit hard -- fled to an UNRWA school in Gaza City.
"It was the middle of the night, and I gathered the children, they were so afraid," said Samari al-Atar, breaking down in tears as she described how her family had left everything and fled barefoot with shooting all around.
"Last night there was so much shelling that no one could sleep, it was terrifying," said one man, who gave his name only as Farid.
He was fleeing with six family members, riding alongside them on a motorbike piled high with blankets.
"I'm going to try to go to a school, anywhere that is safe," he told AFP.
Mohammed Sultan packed his family's belongings onto a horse-drawn cart, with five children sitting among the hastily assembled items.
He walked alongside the cart, with other adult relatives, heading for a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees.
Inside the school compound, the displaced children draw on a blackboard, sketching images of war in pink and yellow chalk -- Israeli helicopters and tanks firing, and Palestinian rockets.
One boy seemed almost catatonic as he spoke in a long, monotone about fleeing his home, his eyes downcast and fixed on the floor.
Maani al-Ataar described the terror of fleeing by night, as Israeli planes circled overhead.
"People were screaming and there were old men who couldn't walk properly, the younger men had to support them," she said.
"There was no electricity, so the road was pitch black."
Robert Turner, director of UNRWA operations said thousands of displaced people were already sheltering in its schools across Gaza.
"UNRWA now has eight schools sheltering about 4,000 displaced Gazans," he told reporters.
"More are arriving by the minute. They are mostly fleeing areas in the north," he said. A spokesman said UNRWA facilities had the capacity to shelter some 35,000 people.
In 2008, dozens were killed when Israel attacked a UN facility housing Palestinians who had fled Beit Lahiya.
Meanwhile, director of the UNRWA operations in Gaza Robert Turner said Sunday that UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl and coordinator of humanitarian affairs James Rawley were denied entry to Gaza.AFP contributed to this report