Trying to Keep His Family Safe in Rafah

More than a million Palestinians are currently sheltering in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza that has become a refuge of last resort within the territory. This week, Israel has announced plans to send ground troops into Rafah, raising fears about civilian casualties. The news has prompted warnings from the Biden Administration: the National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said such an operation would be a “disaster,” and said the White House “would not support it.” On Thursday night, President Biden also stated that the Israeli response to the October 7th attacks had been “over the top.”

On Friday, I spoke by phone with Yousef Hammash, who has been an aid worker with the Norwegian Refugee Council, a humanitarian agency, for the past three years. Hammash is Palestinian, and is from the Jabalia camp in Gaza; he and his family—including two children—are currently in Rafah after fleeing their home and spending the last several months travelling from place to place in Gaza amid Israel’s bombardment. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Where were you living on October 7th, and what has happened to your family since then?

When I woke up to this nightmare, I was in my house in the northern part of Gaza, where I was living with my parents and my sisters next to me. Because we were in the far north, we decided to go to the Jabalia camp, to my grandparents’ house. I was expecting a huge amount of violence after what we woke up to. So we spent a few days there, until the twelfth of October, and went to Khan Younis in the south, where I was hosted by some relatives. It was overcrowded because so many people had fled from the northern part to Khan Younis. And then we were forced to flee again, to Rafah.

What is causing these decisions? Is it Israeli evacuation orders?

These are the toughest decisions you can make in your entire life. It’s not just that you are moving. It’s a hard decision. But what we’re looking for is safety; we’re trying to protect our families and our children. So there are instructions that are provided by the Israelis, but, even despite that, I cannot trust them. There is no safe place in Gaza. We have been forced to flee south and told it would be safe, but then the bombing didn’t stop. We witnessed this several times. We are pushed to make these decisions, but, when we flee from one place to another, we basically move under fire. What we are looking for is a sense of safety. Rafah is supposed to be a humanitarian zone and a safe area, but the bombing hasn’t stopped. There have been so many bombings since we came here. There is no safe place in Gaza.

When did you arrive in Rafah?

Unfortunately I stopped calculating days. Every day is similar. So I don’t remember. But a month ago, at least.

What caused the decision to go to Rafah?

There was an announcement from the Israeli Army that Khan Younis was going to be next after they finished the military operation in the north, in Gaza City. But I decided to flee before the Israelis announced the operation in Khan Younis.

Who are you travelling with?

My mother, my four sisters and their families, and my wife and two children. I am responsible for all of them. I am the decision-maker. Since the beginning of the war, I agreed with my sisters and their husbands that, for me to feel comfortable, I wanted my family around me. Communication and phone calls are hard. I feel responsible for my sisters. I am the only man for my family in Gaza. My father passed away a few days before the war, so that has added responsibility on me.

How old are your children?

Eliaa is five years old. Ahmed is two and a half.

What sorts of questions do they ask you, and what do you say to them, if you feel comfortable sharing that?

It’s not the first experience for my children. My daughter Eliaa was three during the war in 2021, and, at the time, I was able to convince her that the bombs were fireworks. Now that she is five, it’s harder. Now my children understand the meaning of war and the meaning of drones and air strikes. I have run out of justifications. You cannot adapt to this situation, but they are getting normalized to this. But, with every air strike near us, I have to make sure they are safe and try to give them the feeling of safety. Sometimes even I don’t have that feeling to give to my children. Even as adults, mentally, I don’t think we are stable enough to keep up, so imagine what it’s like for children.

Is it true that your sister is giving birth?

Currently, I am at the hospital and, hopefully, she will give birth. I’m waiting outside. There is only one hospital for delivery and birth in Gaza, and it is very crowded. And there’s only so much I can do. I am sitting in the street, waiting, because I cannot do anything. I didn’t want to keep hearing her screaming, or I might lose control of my emotions. Before the war, Rafah didn’t have a main hospital. It had small hospitals with a couple of operation rooms. We were always demanding a main hospital. We’re paying the consequences for that now. It is overcrowded and the staff is overwhelmed, given the amount of patients. My sister is my sister. I might lose control at any moment, so that’s why I’m out in the sun.

What is the status of food and medication?

Medication in general is a huge challenge. We’re missing ninety per cent of the types of medicine we need. But, in terms of food, all the food we get is canned, and the prices are unaffordable for the vast majority of people because the price has been inflated. No one is getting a salary. There are only one or two A.T.M.s in all of Rafah. Even if you have the money, you might not have cash.

Can you describe how you and your family get food?

There is a daily mission that provides water and food. Unfortunately, when I go to buy food for the house, I don’t go with a wish list. It’s whatever I find. It depends on what they have. For example, when you look for a specific thing, it takes days. My children kept asking for eggs, so I was trying to find them, but it took me a week to do that, and, when I did, they cost a lot.

Where are you living right now?

Because I came here early, I was one of the lucky people who got a house. But most don’t have that option. Thousands are living in makeshift shelters, and Rafah doesn’t have the capacity in terms of infrastructure, health, work, or drinkable water. [Prior to the war, Rafah’s population was a quarter of a million people. It has now more than quadrupled in size.] Imagine almost the entire population stuffed in the smallest city, without any kind of preparedness, with families who have been forced to flee without anything. For families here, they are just trying to find anything to cover their heads. We are going through a harsh winter. We had huge storms and rain. What families—and especially children—are going through is totally unacceptable; we cannot cope with it. We don’t have the ability to be in such situations. In a few seconds, we lost our home and shelter. I met some people in the street who had just arrived by walking. A man and his wife and children. They were standing in the street and didn’t know where to go, or what to do, or where they were going to sleep. That is the situation for thousands of families. Many families are using the sidewalk as shelter and looking for anything to cover their heads.

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