Civilians trapped in Gaza are running out of food, fuel and hope

Palestinians react following Israeli strikes, at Nasser hospital, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 7, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Palestinians react following Israeli strikes, at Nasser hospital, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 7, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Fares Akram

(Bloomberg) — In the days after 7 October, bombs started falling from the sky. Leaflets fell too, urging the 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to head south for their safety. So Reda Sahoiun left her home.

The 40-year-old charity worker packed into a taxi with her elderly mother, taking a ring, two necklaces, bracelets, blankets and some painkillers. But when they reached her friends’ house in the southern city of Khan Younis, Sahouin found it was no refuge from the explosions. “It was not safe at all there,” she recalled. “They bombed the house next to ours without warning.”

Sahouin and her mother stayed only four days before finding a lift back home again. On 24 October, just before Israeli ground troops began a ground assault of the north Gaza strip, she realised again she may have made the wrong choice.By then, escaping south had got much harder. With the Israeli military now wholly encircling the northern town of Gaza City, many are finding the journey has got harder still. Israel’s government has vowed to destroy Hamas, which the US and European Union designate a terrorist organisation and which a month ago killed more than 1,400 Israelis while taking around 240 people hostage. Their strategy has involved a bombing campaign of extraordinary ferocity, which the Hamas-run health ministry says has killed over 10,000 Palestinians and made Gaza intolerable for the living.That is a number relief organisations consider broadly accurate. At least 4,000 of the dead are children. Many are still buried under the rubble created by collapsed buildings. Children arrive at hospitals with their names scrawled on their arms to facilitate identification in case their parents don't survive. Some of the dead are buried in mass graves.

The Gaza death toll figures cannot be independently verified, and do not distinguish between civilians and active members of Hamas. Israeli officials have said Hamas inflates them. In response, authorities in Gaza have published the names of the dead alongside their ID numbers. Two-thirds of people died in the north, but the rest in places that were supposed to be safe.

The Gazans who spoke to Bloomberg said they were having to make calculations about their safety in a place where supplies of food and water are rapidly dwindling. While on 6 November the United Nations said that 451 aid trucks have been allowed to enter in the weeks since hostilities began, in the besieged enclave that relies on such donations to survive, that compares to the 500 that were making deliveries daily before the war – and not a single one has brought in fuel. Israel says Hamas hoards fuel from the civilian population.

In the wake of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s four-day trip to the Middle East, US officials told the Washington Post that Israel’s counterattack against Hamas has been excessively severe, costing too many civilian casualties and lacking a coherent endgame – but that they had been unable to exert enough influence on Israel to change its course.

For so many ordinary citizens of the Hamas-run territory, this is not their fight. But they have been caught up in it nonetheless. They described a place that, at 25 miles-long, is small enough to entrap them yet large enough that traversing its length without transport is very difficult, even for the rare person trying to move without family and belongings in tow. According to the UN, almost half of Gaza’s population are children.

Finding a way to escape Israel’s bombs became all the more risky since last week, when its military advanced west under a hail of tank shelling and airstrikes, effectively dividing the Gaza Strip in two. And with missiles targeting residential areas along its entire length, people say they have nowhere to go, and no means of getting there.

In a rare instance of diplomatic progress since the Israel-Hamas war began last month, a deal brokered by Qatar and the US had allowed foreign passport holders to start leaving through the otherwise closed Rafah border crossing last week, though in recent days this has stalled. In any case some, like Mai, who is a Palestinian with German citizenship who didn’t want to give her last name, are trapped in the north. She said she didn’t know how she would get to the southern border, after learning roads were cut off.

A few days after Mai spoke to Bloomberg, Israel said it was allowing people to leave by foot, but some are scared to make the journey after the Israeli navy gunned down vehicles on the coastal road last week. Photos from the Hamas-controlled seaside strip on Sunday showed some people walking south, their belongings piled high on donkey-pulled carts. Israel says it is targeting Hamas with such strikes.

For Gazans, the situation Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called a “total siege” has stopped time. It stopped schools, stopped businesses, stopped entrances and exits. Most cars, in the four weeks since Oct. 7, are relying on the gas they had in their tanks at that moment.

The war also stopped the accurate flow of information, in so far as it ever existed in a place where the truth has long been contested, in very different ways, by two adversarial powers: the militant group Hamas, which has been in charge since 2006, and neighbouring Israel which, with Egypt’s assistance – controls Gaza’s borders.

Israel remains in shock over the deaths of 7 October, unable to understand how the the rest of the world has moved on with apparent ease to focus on the suffering in Gaza. US envoy Blinken alluded to Israel’s ongoing trauma here at the start of his comments to reporters in Tel Aviv Friday, saying Israel must be able to defend itself and could not “tolerate the slaughter of innocents” – a reference to those who had been killed on 7 October.

Seventy-nine employees of UNRWA, the UN agency overseeing Palestinian refugees, have been killed. When that figure was at 72 Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the agency, said it was the highest number of aid workers killed in a conflict in such a short time in the history of the UN. He said some UNRWA shelters had been directly hit.

Despite the violence, some things can’t help but continue. The United Nations Population Fund, which describes Gaza’s health system as on the brink of collapse, estimates 50,000 pregnant women are caught in the current conflict, with over a tenth of those due to give birth in the next 30 days.

“I was so happy because it took me three years to get pregnant and now all I want is for my child to survive this war,” said Anwaar Munya. She decided to shelter at Gaza City’s Al-Shifa Hospital, hoping to escape the airstrikes near her home in the city’s east, and went into labor in a tent in the hospital courtyard.

Bissan al-Mabhouh, who lives in the southern town of Rafah, by the Egyptian border, said her tiny house is crammed with people, including her parents, siblings and extended family, who sought refuge there soon after the conflict began. “We ran out of cash, including all our savings,” said the 30-year old, who had recently gone back to university after starting a family. “My husband has not worked or been paid since the war began.”

Tap water in Gaza has always been undrinkable, owing to high levels of salinity and contamination. Because of her husband’s job as a salesperson for water filtration systems, al-Mabhouh’s family used to be among the lucky ones: they own equipment for purifying water at home. Yet Gaza has had no power outside of hospitals for 21 days, and their machine is no use without electricity to run it.

Al-Mabhouh said that on two occasions she’s been able to walk two kilometres with her son to get drinking water from the house of a friend who had both filtration equipment and solar panels to operate it with. They carried back 12 liters.

Before the war, residents of the southern Gaza Strip got just over 80 litres of water per person per day, compared to advised minimum of 100. Now, the World Health Organisation puts the average daily allocation in Gaza at just three litres.

Monzer Shublaq, director of the water utility for Gaza’s coastal municipalities, said there is not enough power to pump water to households, even after Israel restored some water supplies to the south Gaza Strip.

“The power plant went off after the reserve fuel ran out,” Shublaq said. He added that in the north, where there is still no municipal water, some contaminated wells that were closed in the past are being reused.

Shortly before the fuel at the station ran out, water from a desalination plant that was still functioning was being pumped to the southern city of Khan Younis, according to Shublaq, but nothing came out of residents’ taps. It was days before they learned that the pipes had been bombed, and rather than reaching homes it had been spilling out into the ground.

A Palestinian boy fills containers with water from a mobile tank in western Khan Younis, Gaza, on Oct. 31. (Photo: Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg)
A Palestinian boy fills containers with water from a mobile tank in western Khan Younis, Gaza, on Oct. 31. (Photo: Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg)

Almaza Odeh fled Gaza City with her family and is now sheltering at a UN-run school in Khan Younis with her siblings, parents, nephews and nieces. “Can you imagine waiting for up to an hour to use the toilet? And when you get in, can you imagine how filthy it is?” She said there was not enough water to clean them with. Blinken had said Friday that more must be done to protect Palestinian civilians, a shift in focus that highlighted growing American concerns about the humanitarian fallout from the war. “There is no humanitarian crisis,” and therefore no need for a humanitarian pause to the conflict with Hamas, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said two days later.

Amid the confusion about evacuation warnings, Shuaib Yousef, a resident of east Gaza City, decided not to heed them, heading west with his wife and two children and sheltering at al-Shifa hospital.

Hospitals in Gaza house not only the sick and wounded but, as sites that are presumed relatively safe, have become home to many of the internally displaced. Israel’s army says Hamas uses hospitals in a “systematic” way to hide its military activities, and on 27 October said Hamas has its military headquarters under the Shifa hospital, Gaza’s biggest medical complex.

“I thought Shifa was safe, and I think I was right,” Yousef said when reached by phone, days before a bomb hit its environs. “But life is difficult here; the hospital is full and I sleep in the yard with my family inside.”

“Things are getting worse everyday,” he said. “And we are running out of nothing.”

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.