Gaza’s displaced: “We escaped death to face another death”
By: Mohammed Suliman
Published Saturday, August 2, 2014
Five days into the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, Om al-Abd received a call from the Israeli forces demanding that she and her family leave their house. The 49-year-old mother of nine was reluctant to leave. She did not know what to do, and she had nowhere to go.
Gaza – “If we had stayed,” she told Al-Akhbar, “they would have destroyed the house over our heads, and if we left, we would sacrifice our dignity.”
Om al-Abd Ghaben was living in a three-story house in the north east of Gaza City. Her husband was fatally shot by Israeli forces during the early days of the 2008-09 Cast Lead Operation as he was tending to his land near his house.
Today she stays with her children and grandchildren, a total of 21 individuals, crammed into one classroom in a UN-run school in Jabaliya camp, north of Gaza.
“We knew what we’d be facing if we decided to leave. We are stripped of our dignity here, we are humiliated every passing second. But what option did we have? Die under the rubble of our destroyed houses?” Om al-Abd asked bitterly, surrounded by her grandchildren.
From the classroom, there stands a long line of people as far as the eye can see. This particular queue is to gain access to the bathrooms. Currently, there are 3,300 people who have sought shelter in this specific school. It has only four small toilets.
Food supplies and access to bedding have been extremely scarce. The 21-member family share 10 blankets and mattresses between them, forcing them to sleep in shifts. They have been living off canned tuna for the last three weeks.
“We came here and endured all this suffering and humiliation because we thought that despite everything, in the end we’d be safe here,” Om al-Abed said.
”A possible war crime”
However, she was proved wrong. In the early morning hours of Wednesday, July 30, several shells fired by Israeli artillery hit Jabaliya Primary School for Girls, known as Abu Hussein School, where Om al-Abed and her family were staying. At least 20 people were killed, four of whom are children. Dozens more were injured.
“There was bombing around the school. We heard shells as they fell and exploded. It was completely chaotic. People were crying and screaming for their lives as bombs hit houses adjacent to the school,” Om al-Abed recounted, describing in detail the horrors of the shelling on that morning.
“Then, four shells landed in the school. We saw huge fires, and we heard people moaning and crying. We hugged our children and tried to calm them. Ten minutes later, ambulances came and we saw burned bodies.”
“It was then we realized we had escaped death to face another death.”
The school was run by the UN and was turned into a designated shelter following the massive displacement of residents in northern Gaza. The UN stated that it had “communicated [the precise location of the school] to the Israeli army 17 times to ensure its protection; the last being at ten-to-nine last night, just hours before the bombing.”
Israel has on several occasions attacked UNRWA schools in Gaza, which had been turned into makeshift shelters to host internally displaced people. According to Amnesty International, this was the sixth such attack on a UN-run school since the start of Israel’s military operation on July 8. Amnesty International condemned the attack on Jabaliya Primary School for Girls describing it as “a possible war crime.”
“I couldn’t stop myself from crying”
As Israeli artillery shells started to hit his house, Hussein al-Zaanin fled his three-story home in Beit Hanoun, in north of the Gaza Strip. Hussein lived with his parents, his four brothers and their families. When Hussein left his house, he thought it would only be a short while before the bombing stopped and he could return to the comfort of his home. During a temporary truce, 49-year-old Hussein returned to Beit Hanoun, but he was unable to find his house. He found heaps and heaps of rubble instead.
When Hussein returned to his home to take his belongings, he could see only destruction. Hussein, who was born and raised in Beit Hanoun and has lived there all his life, said he could no longer recognize the place, the houses, the shops or the streets.
“This wasn’t the Beit Hanoun I know. I couldn’t stop myself from crying,” he told Al-Akhbar.
“I started collecting clothes and random items buried under the rubble. My brothers and sisters and their children were all crying. This is where all of our extended family lived for years and years. We felt as if we lost a beloved member of our family.”
Israel’s heavy bombardment of civilians houses located in border areas in the east and north of Gaza has forced thousands of families to flee. According to the UNRWA commissioner in Gaza, there are 220,000 displaced people seeking shelter at UN-run schools, and the number is increasing at an accelerated pace every day. In addition to the displaced people registered at UNRWA schools, tens of thousands of displaced in Gaza have sought temporary shelter with host families.
Sixty-two-year-old Hamdi Naim from Beit Hanoun suffered tremendous losses. He lost his five-story house, a factory and three cars. Some 50 members of Hamdi’s family are now displaced with nowhere to go, forced to seek shelter at an UNRWA school in Gaza.
“Israel destroyed everything. There’s nothing left for us. Even after the bombing ceases, there isn’t a single place we can go to,” Hamdi told Al-Akhbar, while rolling a cigarette outside the classroom where his family are staying.
In another corner of the school-turned-shelter, 13-year-old Ali Salman shares the same mattress with his younger sister. They used to each take a half of the mattress, but they have now decided to take turns; one day Ali takes the mattress for himself, the following day his sister does.
“I hate tuna, and I’ve been eating only bread for two weeks. I have to queue and wait for hours in order to use the toilet. I haven’t been able to take a shower in days. Animals live better than us,” Ali told Al-Akhbar.
For Ali, who is desperate to return to his home, the end of this war is already too far away. He asks his parents when they will be able to return.
“Tomorrow,” they tell him.
“I don’t know when tomorrow will come,” Ali says.
Follow Mohammed Suliman on Twitter | @imPalestine