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The nightmare of Gaza | Israel-Palestine conflict

The nightmare of Gaza | Israel-Palestine conflict

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I had my first nightmare about Gaza six weeks after the end of my first deployment with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in February. I dreamed I was in the OCHA guesthouse: the walls were crumbling before my eyes from constant explosions. The smoke from the blasts was filling my throat as I shouted into my laptop microphone during a coordination meeting. We all went about our business as if nothing was happening.

When I woke up, I felt as if smoke was still suffocating me. I felt powerless, angry and guilty for leaving Gaza. There have been many more nightmares since then, but none has come even close to the harrowing reality that people in Gaza are living in.

Since October 7, more than 38,000 people have been killed in Gaza and more than 87,000 wounded, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health. Many have suffered life-altering injuries. Some 1.9 million people – or 90 percent of the population – have been displaced; many have had to move multiple times, as there is no safe place in Gaza.

Using the term “living conditions” to describe the dreadful circumstances Palestinians in Gaza face seems absurd. People are not “living”, they are barely surviving. Many are forced to reside in crammed shelters in ever-shrinking spaces where they are allowed to seek refuge. I have seen tents where as many as five families are staying together under sheets of plastic or ripped blankets propped up by a rickety frame.

The vast majority of people in Gaza lack the very basics of life, including food, water, medicine and hygiene supplies. Digging latrine pits near one’s tent has become increasingly common to avoid having to search and wait for communal latrines that are now extremely rare.

With the healthcare system decimated, diseases, including Hepatitis A, have reached unprecedented levels. The few remaining hospitals, only partially functional, are receiving trauma patients on a daily basis. Every hospital I visited was overwhelmed with wounded people, many of them children, with horrific injuries, including missing limbs.

When I came back for my second deployment in April, the scale of destruction appeared to have doubled since the last time I was there. I found a virtually levelled Khan Younis and more mountains of rubble in the north. The bombardment was relentless.

I was relieved to learn that my friends in Gaza were all OK, though all of them seemed to have aged beyond their years and some had moved several more times since February.

Khaled, my closest friend in Gaza and a brilliant chef, visited as soon as I told him I was back. I have known him for over a decade, and he has always been astonishingly strong and resilient, despite living through multiple wars, repeated displacement and the loss of loved ones.

During this war, Khaled has been displaced seven times so far. But like most people in Gaza, he refuses to feel sorry for himself. “I want to be the chef of Gaza,” he told me. “To make sure no one goes hungry.”

He was well on his way to achieving this dream, having set up a community kitchen in Khan Younis that fed thousands of people every day when an Israeli bomb wiped it out in April. I had just returned from a mission in north Gaza when Khaled texted me about what happened and sent me a video of the area that had been hit. A little girl, heavily bleeding and covered in debris and dust, was being carried away to an ambulance. It was an unconscionable scene that had become all too common in Gaza.

In early May, Khaled’s first-born baby girl, named Aileen, celebrated her first birthday under the deafening cacophony of bombs and drones. I asked Khaled if Aileen was scared of the explosions. He laughed. “She has no idea what is happening,” he replied. Lucky, little girl!

Children make up half the population in Gaza. Since October 7, thousands of them have been killed, and thousands of others injured. Many more will carry the physical and mental scars of conflict with them forever.

In al-Mawasi, where conditions in shelters are deplorable, I met little Sama while she was looking for drinkable water for her family. The search for water – just like the search for food – is a Herculean task. There is simply not enough.

At least half of Gaza’s water and sanitation facilities have been damaged or destroyed during the conflict and crippling fuel shortages have put most wells out of operation. People must walk multiple kilometres to reach a distribution point and wait countless hours under the scorching sun to fill a container with drinkable water.

Food is scarce as aid entering Gaza has been reduced to a trickle. Whatever does make it through is distributed amid extreme insecurity. That is if it is distributed at all. All too often, aid convoy movements are impeded or denied altogether.

Sama’s mother, Reem, and grandparents had been killed in an Israeli air strike, leaving her father Mahmoud to care for Sama and her baby brother alone.

When I met Mahmoud, he was carrying baby Hassan in one arm, cradling his tiny body as if to shield him from harm. He held their few belongings in the other, with Sama walking a few steps ahead, carrying a jerrycan.

Newly displaced from Rafah, they had been searching for a place to stay in al-Mawasi for hours, under the scorching sun. Turned away from two shelters because there was simply no space left, they continued onward. Where would they sleep tonight? Would they sleep at all? Would there be anything to eat? What would tomorrow bring? Would there be a tomorrow? No one seemed to know.

After the Israeli military issued new evacuation orders in the south in May, the route that runs through the middle of most of the Gaza Strip – Salah al-Din Street – became a sea of people on the move. They travelled in cars, on donkey carts or simply on foot. In just a week, the streets of Rafah emptied, just as quickly as they had filled up during the early weeks of the war, after the first evacuation orders pushed people south.

I left Gaza at the end of May, full of anguish and crippling guilt. Since then, I have been obsessively checking my phone, fearing the worst every time my texts to Gaza do not go through.

Today, Gaza’s fate, and that of its people, is more uncertain than ever. Yet aid workers are still working against all odds, day after day, amid impossible conditions. And when the second tick in my WhatsApp message finally appears, my dear friend Khaled reassures me that his work will continue, too. “I will be fine,” he says. “And I will feed people. We will build our country after the war ends.”

His words remind me of the dream I had: All around us, Gaza is burning. But we keep going – because it’s the only choice we have.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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