Gaza, uninhabitable: ‘They are killing us even without bombing us’

Hungry and sick, more than a million Palestinians are displaced in the southern city of Rafah, where finding food and water is a daily struggle

Palestinian children line up to collect drinking water in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 4, 2024.
Palestinian children line up to collect drinking water in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 4, 2024.SALEH SALEM (REUTERS)

“It seems they want to send us to the Egyptian Sinai. I have also read that there are Israeli ministers who want to exterminate all of us, or who want to turn Gaza into a huge car park. I don’t know what’s going to come next.” Salah Ahmed sighs in anguish on the other end of the phone. Since October 7, the 41-year-old father and his three children, aged between eight and 15, have had to move house three times to save their lives after their home in Gaza City was bombed. Now they are in Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, where according to the United Nations there are more than a million people, in a region where about 250,000 previously lived. And every day more families are arriving as they flee bombings in areas further north.

“Everything is crowded, there is not a square meter without people. It is unimaginable. And the number of displaced people continues to grow,” Samir Zaqut, from the Palestinian NGO Al Mezan, explains by phone from Rafah, before his story is interrupted by a very loud bang. “They are bombing something nearby,” he explains, with little surprise. “People in Rafah no longer have a place to sleep and end up spending the night on the street, covered in plastic, not even in tents. People are sick and very weak. They are killing us, even without bombing us. It is awful. And we don’t have any option,” he adds. As the head of U.N. humanitarian operations, Martin Griffiths, denounced on Friday, Gaza has become “simply uninhabitable,” “a place of death and despair,” where people “are witnessing daily threats to their very existence — while the world watches on.” It is difficult to find anyone in Gaza who has not been forced to leave their home at least once in the last three months.

According to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, 1.9 million people, that is, 85% of the population of Gaza, have been forcibly displaced. Rafah, facing the Egyptian border and the sea, is the last place they can flee to. The town has been saved for now from the massive bombings, but the living conditions of so many people in such a small place are difficult to imagine: an overcrowded city flooded with tents and makeshift shelters, with hungry and sick people and children barefoot despite the cold and rain, where it is difficult to get food and clean water, and fear of the future is further dampening spirits.

“No one knows what comes next. The Israelis want to displace all or almost all Gazans, but I’m not sure they can do either. Maybe that is why there is hope for negotiation,” says Zaqut.

Since October 7 — when Israeli began bombing Gaza following the Hamas attack which killed 1,200 Israelis — more than 22,000 Palestinians have died violently, and at least 7,000 are under the rubble, according to figures from the Gaza Ministry of Health. controlled by the Islamist movement. Seventy percent of the victims are women and children.

Displaced Palestinians shelter in a tent camp in Rafah, on January 3, 2024.
Displaced Palestinians shelter in a tent camp in Rafah, on January 3, 2024.IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA (REUTERS)


Najwa, who does not want to give her full name, left her home in central Gaza 15 days ago and settled in Rafah, with her husband and three children, in the home of her son-in-law’s family. “I don’t even know how I am, to be honest. It’s as if all my feelings are frozen. My priority is to survive today and I don’t think about anything else, only in that we get through the day and stay alive,” she explains via WhatsApp.

The family, crammed into a small apartment, struggles every day to find food and water. “We found only some basic things: there is no fruit, the only vegetables for sale are tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants, there are no biscuits or coffee for sale and meat is practically impossible to find and pay for,” says Najwa.

Zaqut adds that each small act of daily life takes hours and requires a supreme effort. “Nothing works. You have to make bread because it is difficult to find a bakery, but flour costs six or seven times more, like all basic foods. And when you get it, it turns out that there is no gas either, so you have to make a fire. But, there is no water either, and we have to walk an hour to get a gallon, because there are no vehicles nor space to drive on many streets in Rafah,” he explains.

Despite everything, they are both aware that their families are privileged, because they have a roof over their heads and minimal hygiene. “There are a lot of people outside and there are no tents or blankets for everyone. People are hungry and cold in Rafah,” says Najwa. “And no one knows what is coming next. They are pushing us to the limit. Maybe they will throw us into the Sinai afterward. Everyone is waiting, no one knows anything, we only hear horrible rumors,” she says.

While in October and November the majority of Gazans interviewed insisted that they wanted to stay in Gaza and return home as soon as possible, as occurred in the previous offensives, this message has changed as the bombings intensified. “I want someone to get me out of here. Do you think people want to stay in the middle of all this destruction and after having lost so much?” asks Najwa.

Furthermore, a huge part of the people crammed into Rafah no longer have anywhere to return to. “We lived in the United Kingdom because my wife had a scholarship to do a doctorate, but a year ago we wanted to return to Gaza. It is the land of our fathers and ours. But now we no longer have a house and I just hope that Rafah is not massively attacked and this ends. My little eight-year-old son can’t even go to the bathroom alone and barely sleeps. I just want them to see their mother again, but the hardest thing is that I can’t do anything for them,” explains Ahmed. The war surprised his wife in Europe, alone and pregnant with their fourth child, while she was arranging the documents to finish her doctorate remotely in Gaza.

“Perhaps when the Israeli army thinks it has finished in our areas, they will order us to return to our destroyed homes. I don’t even know what state mine is in,” explains Talal, a primary school teacher in the Jabalia refugee camp who is currently displaced in Rafah, asking that his full name not be given.

Inability to save lives

“Even if the situation remains [the same], Rafah is no longer viable. It is like an immense camp where the situation is impossible to describe and imagine. If we don’t manage to stop this, other social norms for survival are going to start breaking down, and it’s going to be devastating, because people can’t move anymore, because they are at the border. An immediate and sustained ceasefire is needed,” Nicholas Papachrysostomou, emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), who spent five weeks in the south of the Gaza Strip between November and December, stresses in an interview with this newspaper. Papachrysostomou recalled, for example, that he witnessed the looting of an NGO truck by a group of Gazans, who apologized for their actions, but explained that they were very starving.

“It is very difficult to understand the magnitude, severity and continuity of the attacks that the population of Gaza is experiencing. It is also surprising that the entire international community has been observing this for three months and is watching it as a movie happening before our eyes, and we are not able to achieve a ceasefire,” he adds.

In mid-December, MSF managed to reopen the Al Shaboura clinic in Rafah, where it provides primary care thanks to local and expatriate staff, and was able to bring 50 tons of medical supplies into the Gaza Strip. “In one week we saw 1,500 patients. What were these people doing before? Where, for example, did the children with diarrhea that we treated go?” asks Papachrysostomou. According to UNICEF, cases of diarrhea in children under five years of age increased worryingly in Gaza in mid-December, when some 3,200 new cases were recorded per day, compared to the 2,000 per month that were identified before this spike. “Child health in the Gaza Strip is fast deteriorating,” the U.N. agency warned.

The MSF emergency coordinator also explained that there is currently no post-operative service in Gaza to provide treatment or manage pain, due to lack of staff and resources, and that his clinic is receiving patients with “very complicated” medical conditions, such as serious infections in wounds and burns that can lead to death. In addition, due to overcrowding, lack of hygiene and correct nutrition, and the cold, one out of every two patients received at this medical center currently suffers from acute respiratory infections, according to Papachrysostomou. The WHO reported that of Gaza’s 36 hospitals, only 13 are partially functioning, with some offering very few services. Those that are still operational lack everything: personnel, beds, anesthesia, antibiotics, fuel and water.

“I cannot forget the faces of my colleagues from Gaza. Livid before the tragedy and saddened by the material inability to save more lives. Gaza is a black hole, we cannot talk about a humanitarian response, but rather a trickle of aid in an ocean of enormous needs,” insists Papachrysostomou. “What I experienced during the five weeks I spent in Gaza is punishment for people who do not talk about politics and who have nothing to do with Hamas,” he concludes.

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