‘All bakeries are closed. Sometimes we have barley that we moisten and eat. My husband bought a bag of flour for about 300 shekels. It was wet, but he bought it anyway. We eat bread with tea or bread with zaatar.’ These are the words of Darim Zeyad (46), mother of four children. Her family is in a house in Gaza City with nineteen other relatives. The bag of flour costs the equivalent of 75 euros. But now they can move forward.
Zeyad is one of many Palestinians still in the north. Despite the continued bombings, the destruction, the fear of death and the shortages. Weeks ago the first orders came from Israel: ‘Go south, you will be safe there.’ Residents received phone calls with recorded messages from the Israeli army, and leaflets with the same message fluttered from the sky. But Zeyad stayed. And with her many others.
“We got a call from the Israeli army telling us to leave the hospital,” said Aid Sabbah, head of nurses at Kamal al-Adwan hospital in northern Gaza. ‘I refuse to go. I have taken an oath to continue to care for my patients no matter what the circumstances.” Zeyad: ‘My husband and children are afraid that we will not survive the journey.’
Left and returned
Foreign journalists are still not allowed into the Gaza Strip, except for a few who are allowed to watch under the supervision of the army and thus receive snippets of information controlled by Israel. Contacts are mainly possible with local journalists who have an e-SIM card in their phone; This allows them to access the Internet via an Israeli network. Via via could de Volkskrant so speaking to a few families who still reside in the north.
“My family left about three weeks ago,” says Abeer Ayyoub. She is a journalist and the only one of her nine brothers and sisters to live abroad in Istanbul. She tells how her family initially went south – and why they then moved north again. ‘They ended up in a packed house, without any privacy. It was cold, the men had to sleep outside in the courtyard. There was a major shortage of basic foodstuffs. They hoped that in Gaza City, where it is now less crowded, they might be able to find food a little easier.’
In addition, she says, there was also heavy bombing in the south. ‘It is not safe there, as Israel claims. So they went back home.”
And now? ‘Now my family home is full of refugees from everywhere. If my family decides to leave again, they will have to take forty people with them. There is no house in the south where such a large group of people can stay. The man in the south with whom they were staying earlier says that his house is completely full of new refugees.’
‘We have a country’
‘I refuse to leave my hometown, even if Israel continues to insist. Not only as a doctor, but also as a Palestinian citizen,” says nurse Sabbah. ‘I don’t want to experience what happened to my ancestors 75 years ago. We have a country and deserve a future just like other peoples.’ His ancestors were among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were expelled or fled when the state of Israel was founded in 1948 – what Palestinians call the Nakba (“catastrophe”). That’s how his family ended up in Gaza. Whether Sabbah is still in the north is unknown. Since his message last Thursday, no contact has been possible.
The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) in Ramallah says that there are still many hundreds of thousands of people in the north: at least 800 thousand, as was estimated on November 11, partly based on data from telephone providers. That is about two-thirds of the inhabitants. Ola Awad, head of the PCBS: ‘Of course there have been new developments since then, which have caused more people to flee, but we can safely assume that the vast majority are still there. Remember that Gaza is one of the most densely populated parts of the earth. People have almost nowhere else to go.’
How do all those people survive in a war zone? Ayyoub says her family still has enough food for a week. ‘But the more refugees come, the tighter it becomes. They eat pasta and rice. Sometimes with canned beans or corn, if available. They cook with bottled gas, all evacuees brought their gas bottles with them. They charge the phones with their rich neighbor’s solar panels.’
Fear of leaving
Darim Zeyad: ‘Once every four days we fill our jerry can at a water tank that drives through the neighborhood, but that is not actually drinking water. The children want to eat eggs, but they have become very expensive, if you can still find them. I don’t see them with us anymore.’ Most people stay very close to home and go outside as little as possible. They are afraid of being shot at.
“Today we also heard tanks,” she says. ‘If there are bombings, we flee to the corridor. We are safe from the shards of glass there. The children want to go to bed early so that it will get light again soon. My fear is that I will wake up at night and see that everyone around me is dead.’
It seems almost impossible to live like this. But the fear of leaving, to a place that is neither safe nor unknown, is greater. And that is partly due to the route they have to take. It runs along a notorious road about which countless stories have circulated: Salah al-Din Street. Those stories are through de Volkskrant cannot be verified.
Zeyad: ‘We have heard that the Israelis kill boys in front of their mother and that the mother has to flee further. I don’t want to take that risk with my family.’ Videos show shots being fired near the road and people ducking away. It is also said that men and women are separated at a checkpoint that Israel has set up there. The men disappear for several hours of interrogation and are said to be beaten – some are allowed to continue, others are not.
Abeer Ayyoub: ‘Many people have been arrested, shot at, searched, stripped to their underwear and killed. So that’s also why my family doesn’t want to go south again.’