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‘If we survive’: Palestinians in Rafah on fears of an imminent Israeli invasion

‘We live in constant fear, day and night, of what our fate will be if this invasion occurs.’

FOLLOWING months of threats, an Israeli ground invasion of the southern Gazan city of Rafah appears imminent. The city – the only major population centre in the Gaza Strip yet to face a full-scale Israeli assault – is currently housing around 65% of the enclave’s population.

“We live in constant fear, day and night, of what our fate will be if this invasion occurs,” Maisaa Abu Samaan, a 35-year-old mother of six, told The New Humanitarian in a recent interview.

Abu Samaan is one of around 1.5 million Palestinians living in Rafah after being displaced from their homes by Israel’s nearly seven-month-long military campaign. Earlier in the war, Israel ordered Palestinians to head to Rafah for their safety as it bombarded and then invaded the north of the enclave, causing massive destruction and high numbers of civilian casualties.

Rafah is also a key access point for humanitarian aid entering Gaza. Aid groups have warned that an Israeli invasion would almost certainly force the Rafah and Kerem Shalom border crossings – the entry points for the vast majority of assistance that has been allowed to enter the enclave – to close.

Almost seven months into the war, however, the amount of aid entering Gaza is still well short of what is needed to provide for the basic needs of the population, all of whom have been forced to depend on handouts due to the Israeli military campaign and a near-total Israeli siege that has choked off commercial activity.

Roughly 1.1 million people are facing imminent famine in the enclave, according to recent UN-backed assessments. Aid officials believe famine is already taking place in northern Gaza, which has largely been cut off from aid.

In Rafah, almost everyone is food insecure, although crisis levels aren’t as high as in the north because much of the limited amount of aid that has been allowed to enter has been distributed in the south.

Around mid-February, for example, frozen chicken and vegetables were allowed to be brought from Egypt to be sold in markets across Rafah. People who had enough money were able to buy these – at least until supplies ran short and prices shot up again.

An Israeli invasion of Rafah could dramatically worsen the food insecurity situation in the south, the International Crisis Group warned earlier this month, pushing people there into famine as well.

The New Humanitarian recently spoke to five Palestinians in Rafah to understand the daily struggles they face to find food, where they obtain it from, and what they fear the most about a looming Israeli invasion. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: How many meals do you and your family eat per day and what do they consist of?

Qassem: We have one or two meals, at best. They mainly consist of ready-made canned food, such as beans, peas, and chickpeas. We often eat them as is, without cooking or heating them or adding anything else to them. I do not own a cylinder of cooking gas, and I do not have money to buy firewood because I am unemployed.

The New Humanitarian: Where are you able to get food from?

Qassem: I have only obtained food twice [since 7 October]. The first was a food basket from a local relief organisation, and the second was less than $50 in cash from a donor, which I used to buy some items to cover my family’s basic needs.

The New Humanitarian: Do you get food regularly?

Qassem: Not at all. Far from it. Just the support and donation I mentioned. I’ve lost at least 20 kilos, and my children have lost a lot of weight too. Their bodies have grown frail with illnesses. Malnutrition, lack of food, and the poor quality of the food we have been able to get have all impacted their health.

The New Humanitarian: Where do you live in Rafah, and what are living conditions like?

Qassem: I live in a shed made of wood and a light nylon cover that I built on the sand dunes near the border with Egypt. I borrowed money to cover the costs of erecting it after I was unable to obtain a tent from humanitarian organisations working in Rafah. I also did not have the money to buy a ready-made tent.

Living conditions here are unbearable for humans and cannot be described in words. It is a living hell in every sense of the word. The most basic human needs are absent. There’s no space, and essential items – such as food, clothing, and so on – are absent.

The New Humanitarian: What is a typical day like for you?

Qassem: My daily routine consists of escaping the shed as early in the day as possible before the children wake up. I fear that they will ask me for things that I have no money to pay for.

I may go to search for clean water. I have to walk one or two kilometres, or more, depending on where it’s available. If it is not available, we are forced to drink regular water for a day or two until we can get uncontaminated drinking water again.

Sometimes I collect firewood to use or even to sell for $2 or $3 so I can use that money to buy simple things for my family. While I am out, my children stay busy playing in the sand, and my wife tries to clean or wash some clothes with whatever water is available.

The New Humanitarian: How will Israel’s invasion of Rafah affect you?

Qassem: The Rafah invasion for me means the end. I fled with my family from the far north to the far south of Gaza in order to survive. The Israeli army is threatening to invade the area it told us to flee to. So what is expected of us? Where do we go? Do we have money to support ourselves being displaced again? Of course not.

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It would really be indescribable suffering. But for the sake of my children, I will go anywhere inside or outside the Gaza Strip. The important thing is to protect my family and save them. It is not reasonable, after all this suffering, for us to surrender to death.

The New Humanitarian: How many meals do you and your family eat per day and what do they consist of?

Baroud: We strive to eat three meals a day. Sometimes we eat less than that, but I am determined to provide enough meals most days. These meals consist of what is available in the market or what we receive from aid organisations.

Sometimes we rely on rice and sometimes on ready-made canned food. When vegetables are available in the market at reasonable prices, we buy them and cook them. More recently, we were able to buy frozen chicken from the market. We did that only a couple of times.

The New Humanitarian: Where are you able to get food from?

Baroud: I get food mainly from the market. Obviously, not everything we want to eat we actually manage to get. Most goods are scarce most of the time.

Recently, certain ingredients have become more abundant than before, but most items are unavailable or are sold at very high prices. The second source of food is local and international humanitarian organisations supporting the displaced. These organisations often provide canned goods.

The New Humanitarian: Do you get food regularly?

Baroud: It is not possible to obtain food on a regular basis. We get it intermittently, depending on what is available in the market and according to our financial abilities. In the worst-case scenario, we rely on a small amount of aid. But the aid is not regularly available at all.

The New Humanitarian: Where do you live in Rafah, and what are living conditions like?

Baroud: I was able to rent an apartment that I was able to find only because I was displaced very early on in the war after our five-storey house in Gaza City was bombed and destroyed. Since then, finding an apartment, a room, or any place inside a building in Rafah to rent has become very difficult.

Like all other displaced people, we suffer from power outages, a shortage of drinking water, and water for other domestic needs. We live with several families crowded into the same apartment. These conditions are difficult compared to how we lived before the war.

The New Humanitarian: What is a typical day like for you?

Baroud: We spend the bulk of our time trying to provide for our basic needs: food, supplies, water, and the like. We have to move around on foot or in animal-drawn carts because cars aren’t available or they are too expensive.

We wait in long lines to get anything we need – bread, water, cooking gas, and so on. Because Rafah has become so overcrowded, moving around within it, even on foot, is difficult. You have to weave through the masses of people, who are everywhere.

Other than that, I devote what is left of the day to my artwork and drawings, which I can work on until the early hours of dawn. This is a life calling and goal that I cannot do without, regardless of the circumstances of war.

The New Humanitarian: How would an Israeli invasion of Rafah affect you?

Baroud: At the very least, we would have to flee somewhere less suitable than where we are living now. We’d have to give up the place we have been living for months, which is a decent place compared to the tents so many people have to live in.

An invasion would also put our lives in danger. We do not know where we would go and whether the place we would have to flee to would be safe. The invasion could kill us and our family. It would be a great catastrophe, beyond expectations.

Rafah is a refuge for everyone, despite being bombed throughout the war. It has become a refuge for all of us. If the invasion happens, we will lose everything we have grown accustomed to, such as sources of water, food, and life’s other requirements.

I cannot imagine this invasion happening. We’d experience much more suffering, and a harsh life would await us – that is, if we survive.

The New Humanitarian: How many meals do you and your family eat per day and what do they consist of?

Abu Samaan: There is no specific number. We eat what is available. Sometimes it is three meals a day. Other times it is just one or two, depending on the aid we receive. This may be canned goods, or sometimes food cooked in a nearby soup kitchen that provides mujaddara [a dish of rice, lentils, and fried onions], beans, rice, and the like. There’s rarely any chicken. So it depends on what is available and what we manage to get after surviving the long queues.

The New Humanitarian: Where are you able to get food from?

Abu Samaan: We received flour from the UNRWA [the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees] only twice, and there is a local organisation that has provided us with two food baskets since we were displaced in early November. This, of course, was not enough to last one month. I also obtained two mattresses and two blankets from aid groups.

Food, in general, is sometimes scarce and other times available, but it is always unhealthy and seldomly appetising, especially after eating the same canned food for several months.

When we were first displaced, we didn’t have any bread. That was before flour became more available. We used to be given one loaf of bread per day, and sometimes we prepared pasta or rice because there was no bread. However, currently, bread is available, thank God.

The New Humanitarian: Do you get food regularly?

Abu Samaan: There is no regularity in obtaining food. We are able to get it intermittently, and it’s not always guaranteed. In a number of instances, we had to throw away the food that we got from the communal kitchen because it wasn’t clean or cooked well. We’ve also received some ready-made food aid from outside Gaza and, in some cases, we had to throw that in the garbage as well because it had gone bad.

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When it comes to food, the challenges are multifold: There’s not enough, it’s poorly cooked, and sometimes it’s spoiled. This has led to our health deteriorating, especially among the children.

The New Humanitarian: Where do you live in Rafah, and what are living conditions like?

Abu Samaan: I live in a tent, where we sleep and live our daily life. There is a smaller shed next door that serves as a bathroom. Living conditions are worse than bad. There is no general or personal hygiene, and the clothes and blankets we need are not available. There is also a severe shortage of clean drinking water. Our health is deteriorating dramatically.

Life in a tent is like living in a grave above the ground. The torture of it leads one to wish for death, to be relieved.

The New Humanitarian: What is a typical day like for you?

Abu Samaan: Our day begins with sunrise since we go to bed early because there is no electricity. We begin by trying to clean the place, to some extent, and by preparing tea – that is, if and when firewood and sugar are available at a reasonable price. The price of a kilo of sugar reached $20 and stayed that way for more than a few weeks before it came down. But it’s still at a price that we cannot afford. So we resort to using whatever aid is available.

Then, I ask my sons to fetch clean water for drinking, and I wash a few items of clothing and utensils. We wait until noon. If my sons are able to get any prepared food from the soup kitchen, we eat that, along with any other canned food, to help relieve our hunger. If we do not get cooked food, we rely fully on canned food.

Every other day we make bread by manually kneading the dough, cutting it, and rolling it into loaves. We take the dough to a nearby clay oven to bake it, for a fee. We are forced to make bread day after day because there is no refrigerator to store it, and it goes bad quickly inside the tent since the temperature has risen.

The New Humanitarian: How will Israel’s invasion of Rafah affect you?

Abu Samaan: It will be an even greater disaster than the first disaster that displaced us at the beginning of the war. We found a place to flee to in Rafah following the first disaster, and now no one knows what might happen and where we will go.

It is certain that thousands will be killed, and we may be among those killed as a result of the Israeli invasion and bombing. An invasion of Rafah means an invasion of the entire Gaza Strip.

We live in constant fear, day and night, of what our fate will be if this invasion occurs.

The New Humanitarian: How many meals do you and your family eat per day and what do they consist of?

Faliona: At the beginning of the displacement, we used to eat one meal a day. Now, we eat two meals because flour has become more available. In the beginning, our one meal consisted of tinned foods, such as beans and legumes, mainly, and rice and lentils, in addition to bread. When frozen chicken became available a month ago, we started eating it once every two weeks. But it quickly became unaffordable and scarce in the markets.

The New Humanitarian: Where are you able to get food from?

Faliona: I buy it with my own money from the market, but in small quantities due to the high prices, especially of vegetables. I also received a basket of vegetables from relief organisations once.

The New Humanitarian: Do you get food regularly?

Faliona: Of course not. There is no regularity, whether in obtaining food through aid or even by purchasing it from the market because the prices are outrageously high. I also have a hard time withdrawing my pension due to the lack of liquidity in the banks. Most ATMs are closed, except for a handful. Also, the Palestinian Authority is only disbursing around 60% to 70% of our pensions due to the financial crisis it is facing.

The New Humanitarian: Where do you live in Rafah, and what are living conditions like?

Faliona: Where would I be living? A palace? I live in a tent on the sand dunes west of Rafah. The tent is too small. I can’t even stand up straight inside it, and it has turned into a convection oven with the rising temperatures. Living in it is inhumane. Even animals wouldn’t tolerate or survive this. But do we have another choice?

Life here makes us lose our sense of humanity due to its harshness and the extent of the torment that we experience at every moment and in every detail of our lives.

The New Humanitarian: What is a typical day like for you?

Faliona: Our daily routine is that of humans in the old ages. We wake up in the morning to search for water. Sometimes it is offered for free, paid for by local or international donations, and delivered in tanks or barrels on animal-drawn carts. When that is not available, we buy water by the gallon.

We set out in search of firewood, leaves, and nylon to use in cooking. Given the extreme scarcity of gas, we use that only for cooking in emergencies, when all other alternatives have run out. The day is spent searching for aid distribution points, asking about them, and registering for them. But more often than not, that is useless.

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Of course, the daily routine also involves helping my wife with the housework, because there is no washing machine, no kitchen, and no ready-made bread, and we are forced to do all of this manually and with primitive means.

The New Humanitarian: How will Israel’s invasion of Rafah affect you?

Faliona: It’ll mean starting the struggle, torment, and suffering of being displaced all over again. We’ll have to figure out how to live in a new place that we know nothing about. We’ll once again need to figure out sources for clean water, firewood, and other essentials – something we’ve done five times already after being displaced five times within Gaza.

What if we are pushed outside of Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula [in Egypt], or via the water passage they said they are setting up? And, of course, if we don’t flee in time, we’ll be wiped out. This is a war that is not sparring anyone.

The New Humanitarian: How many meals do you and your family eat per day and what do they consist of?

Hassan: The number of meals we have every day has varied throughout the war. At the beginning, bread was a dream. We used to heavily ration it, often mixing it with rice, to satisfy our hunger. Gradually, with the availability of flour through relief agencies, especially UNRWA, bread is now available all the time.

In the first weeks of displacement, we had one meal per day – occasionally two meals every other day – depending on the availability of food items. Gradually, we started eating two or three meals, but the problem is not the number; the problem is the quality.

The content of the meals is unhealthy because they consist of canned food filled with unhealthy preservatives, and we rarely are able to get vegetables. Lately, sometimes frozen chickens are available, but we only buy them if the prices are affordable.

The New Humanitarian: Where are you able to get food from?

Hassan: At first, we only got food through aid because there were no goods in the market. So we relied on relief aid to get by. But as the number of displaced people from the centre of Gaza and Khan Younis increased in Rafah, the availability of aid decreased significantly. We were only able to obtain small amounts of food, which forced us to buy food from the market. We can only buy a small amount of food, though, because prices are high and we don’t have a regular or sufficient income.

The New Humanitarian: Do you get food regularly?

Hassan: Meals are never regular because the availability of aid is irregular. We do not know a fixed time or place for its distribution. We have registered with many agencies, but few of them respond. As for purchasing, when money is available, we buy food. Otherwise, we are forced to eat anything we can get, regardless of the quantity or quality.

The New Humanitarian: Where do you live in Rafah, and what are living conditions like?

Hassan: I live close to the Egyptian border in a tent with all seven of my family members. Life in the tent cannot be described as living conditions but rather as conditions of the dead.

In the winter, we suffered from the cold. When the temperatures began to rise, we started to suffer from extreme heat, and we wished for winter to return because the cold turned out to be much easier to tolerate than the heat.

There’s also the sand, the lack of hygiene. We have to crowd together to sit or sleep. There’s no kitchen, and the bathroom is made out of two pieces of cloth and nylon.

You can’t call these living conditions. These are conditions inside of a grave. We are dead but breathing while alive. We have fled from death and Israeli bombing to the slow, daily death of a miserable life.

The New Humanitarian: What is a typical day like for you?

Hassan: All of us displaced people have the same daily routine. We spend our time chasing after the necessities of life, such as water, firewood, and food. We go to various organisations in the hope of obtaining them.

As for my profession as a fisherman, it is almost dead. The amount of fish being caught is very limited, and most fishermen are afraid to enter the sea because they fear being targeted by the Israeli navy.

Our daily routine consists of lighting a wood fire, standing in lines to get water, and sometimes standing in front of bakeries, if we do not find wood for the nearby clay oven. We have to walk everywhere by foot because of the high price of taxis, if there are any, or we have to ride slow, animal-drawn carts and navigate severe overcrowding on the roads.

The New Humanitarian: How will Israel’s invasion of Rafah affect you?

Hassan: It’ll be a more confirmed death – either by Israeli missiles or by even worse living circumstances. Already, we’re literally on the brink. We can’t be buried further into an abyss. There’s just nowhere left to go.

This piece was published in collaboration with Egab. Edited by Dahlia Kholaif and Eric Reidy.


The New Humanitarian puts quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. Find out more at www.thenewhumanitarian.org.