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Israel-Palestine: Displaced, hungry and abandoned - One Palestinian woman's Gaza odyssey

Palestinians who fled their homes in the north of Gaza continue to be attacked by the Israeli air force
A woman reacts as she stands in a heavily damaged house following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern of Gaza Strip on 19 October 2023 (AFP)

When Israel ordered more than a million residents to evacuate northern Gaza to the south on 13 October, Alaa’s family decided not to leave their house, as they were terrified that it would be a second Nakba and they would never be allowed to return.

But relentless bombing eventually forced their hand and they left the area, seeking somewhere safer.

The family first went to the home of Alaa’s grandmother in the middle of Gaza City, but only stayed there for two nights, then left after an adjoining house was destroyed in an attack.

With mobile networks cut off, they left without informing relatives, and tried to reach the home of a relative in the south.

After hours wandering the empty streets of central Gaza, they found a taxi willing to take them to the south, as Israeli warplanes circled above, looking for their next target.

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The taxi could only take them as far as the Deir al-Balah camp, 30 minutes from their destination, Rafah.

“We waited for many hours. The street was bombed. We were surrounded by massive destruction, dry blood, and relentless bursts of bullets,” said Alaa, who is 28.

“Unfortunately, we did not find a taxi [on to Rafah]. So, we had to stay that night on the street, under a mosque.”

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“The next morning, we found a taxi, but the driver took advantage of our situation, charging 300 shekels [$78], which is 10 times the normal fare, but we had to agree.”

Alaa and her family arrived at her aunt’s house in Rafah, but there they encountered miserable living conditions. 

The family had limited access to drinkable water and had to beg a vendor to sell some to them. 

Meals were prepared as fast as possible to conserve portable gas, as there was no electricity.

Under the rubble

Any hope that moving to the south would keep them out of Israel’s firing line was dashed on 17 October, just two days after they arrived at the aunt’s apartment.

Alaa and 25 members of her extended family were woken by the sound of an explosion, followed by the rumble of rubble falling in on them.

'My bed ended up on the street. I could not find my glasses and I could not see anything. I was bleeding from my head and nose, and vomiting blood'

- Alaa describes an Israeli air strike

Despite evicting Palestinians from the north towards the south, Israel has not spared the southern half of Gaza from air strikes.

“They bombed the house next to us without warning,” Alaa recalled.

“The roof fell on us. A big stone fell on my head. My father, my mother and I were screaming and shouting to call neighbours to rescue us.

“My bed ended up on the street. I could not find my glasses and I could not see anything. I was bleeding from my head and nose, and vomiting blood.

“I was searching for my family. Because the stairs had collapsed, the rescue workers pulled me from the balcony rubble, a few metres above the ground.” 

Alaa said she doesn't know how many people died in total, except that it was “many”.

She credits her own survival to the fact she happened to be sleeping next to a wall that overlooked the street, making it easier for rescuers to locate her.

“I was screaming and crying in the ambulance, desperately trying to find my family. Later, I found them in the European Hospital in Khan Younis; all of them were injured lightly, except my 23-year-old sister, whose pelvis was broken,” Alaa said.
“She still can’t walk and will need treatment for a long time.” 

The hospital is Alaa and her family’s new place of refuge.

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“My mother and I sleep on the ground beneath my sister's bed in a patient's room.

“My father and brothers sleep in the yard. Hundreds, including people with disabilities, always queue for the toilets. 

“There are always arguments about whose turn it is to go to the toilet, so I always use it at night. 

“Taking a shower is a luxury now. When the tap water gets warm, I fill an empty bottle of water and pour it over myself. The last time I took a shower was four days ago.”

But even at the hospital, the conditions are no better than in the places from where the family have fled. Water is not drinkable and contaminated with salt, grocery stores are empty and even access to bread is intermittent.

And given Israel’s persistent targeting of hospitals, their current refuge offers them little sense of security.

“Children and women always scream when they hear the bombs. Everyone runs towards corridors to avoid the shrapnel or shards from shattered windows,” she said.

The threat of death at any moment exists besides the need to deal with existing traumas. Alaa’s sister suffers from recurrent nightmares, and wakes up in a panic, thinking she is covered in rubble.

“No one cares about our needs,” Alaa said.

“It’s unbearable. I am sick of these living conditions. It’s a nightmare.”

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