Together in one room: Besieged Gazans seek refuge with family as shelter from Israeli aggression

 A Palestinian family eats breakfast on the last day of the holy month of Ramadan inside a temporary tent in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip.
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The people of Gaza have just lived through the fifth brutal Israeli military assault in just 13 years.

The recurring Israeli attacks and massacres, the stark absence of options or opportunities in the besieged enclave, and the lack of basic services all take a devastating toll on the psychological wellbeing of the entire population.

During Israel's bombardments, families will seek what sense of comfort and safety they can by gathering in one room, usually that of a grandparent or parent.

"For his children and grandchildren, his room represents safety, a space they can try to forget the all-consuming anxiety brought by the bombardment"

Seeking a sense of safety

Fuad Masri (70) lives in the al-Maqusi region, west of Gaza City, with his 19 descendants.

They spent most of Israel's latest three-day attack in his room. For his children and grandchildren, his room represents safety, a space they can try to forget the all-consuming anxiety brought by the bombardment, and to quell their fears with the blast of each explosion.

With every sudden blast Fuad's grandaughters Sama (7) and Nada (9) rush into his arms, clinging to him even tighter whenever the sounds of the explosions are loud.

Fuad says staying in one room during Israel's assaults is a familiar scenario to Palestinians in general, and Gazans in particular: "This isn't new. In the days of the curfews in the seventies, eighties and the start of the nineties, we used to live like this, when the Israeli occupiers would fire tear gas at the fedayeen".

"The burning smoke from tear gas would fill the rooms overlooking the streets - they would be firing into them non-stop thinking the fedayeen were hiding in the alleyways and streets of Jabalia camp, where I was living in the first Intifada, and flying bullets would be hitting doors, or penetrating through the walls into inner rooms. Many times, people were killed or injured, therefore we preferred, in the end, to stay all together in one room".

In Israel's three-week assault on Gaza between 27 December 2008 - 18 January 2009 (Operation Cast Lead), Alaa Radi's family would gather in a single room in her late grandmother's house, in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in Gaza City.

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The house was old, before being renovated in 2018, and more than 30 people lived in it. During the three-week onslaught, everyone gathered in one large room which was her grandmother's living quarters.

Reliving the horror

Like all Gazans, Alaa (35) is no stranger to Israel's brutal violence. She lost eight members of her family during a previous assault – they were all killed together in one room.

Palestinians hold placards with messages and pictures of children killed in the latest Israeli attack on Gaza [Yousef Masoud/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty]

She relived the one-room experience for the fifth time during Israel's last attack, but this time in the Sheikh Ajlein district, close to the Gazan coast, which was one of the areas targeted.

"Many details are the same when we are in the one room, in particular the screaming, the terror and anxiety, the constant trembling…even the random laughter for no reason at times, because we sometimes need little things to blot out the reality, to flee what is happening. Maybe some of us will play cards on one side of the room, because we are human beings – we are not made to live continuous tragedy. With each Israeli bombardment our bonds with each other grow stronger".

"Arab Zaqout, a young Gazan wrote on his facebook page, that his mother said to him during the last attack: "Let's stay in one room, so if we are hit no one will have to mourn the other""

She says one of the hardest things is the feeling of desperate anticipation for news of a ceasefire, especially among the children. Her little sister Lamia was 10 during the first Israeli assault, and as she grew older and the attacks repeated, she would become extremely agitated while waiting for news of a ceasefire. She has an anxious character, which impacts everyone around her. She is now 23, but she has lived through five of Israel's military operations. Every time, she spends the duration of the assault in one room with her family.

Some Gazans say staying in one room is better for everyone: if disaster hits, it hits everyone, not just one member of the family. Arab Zaqout, a young Gazan wrote on his Facebook page, that his mother said to him during the last attack: "Let's stay in one room, so if we are hit no one will have to mourn the other".

Zainab al-Qulaq (22) survived an Israeli massacre in which 22 members of her family were killed, when their home on Al-Wehda street, Gaza City was bombed in 16 May 2021. During Israel's latest attack, Zaineb posted details of her agonising memories. She had been the sole survivor; her mother and three brothers were all killed.

"I was with them in that room, we were crammed together, the room was full of people, but all of them died, everyone except me, sadly except me, the room was filled with martyrs, the smell of the house was martyrs…my heart still bleeds since the assault of May 2021 until now".

In recent years, some Gazans have attended guidance sessions from a number of civil society foundations which aim to teach them ways to handle times of war. These sessions talk about safety and wellbeing and include recommendations that families don't gather in one place during bombardments in order to reduce the risks.

Amal Radwan (40) from the Al-Shuja'iyya neighbourhood says the educational courses have helped her and others from the neighbourhood a lot, especially in dealing with injuries that require emergency treatment. Al-Shuja'iyya was the site of an Israeli massacre during Israel's devastating assault in the summer of 2014.

"We know that there is no safe place. Even if there were civilian shelters in Gaza, Israel would bomb them"

However, she remarks on the infeasibility of splitting families who reside in the same building, pointing out that Gaza isn't like other parts of Palestine: "We don't have shelters like them, and our children are scared and want to stay with us".

"My children won't sleep in their room during the bombings, explosions shake the windows and the sky will suddenly be lit up red. My children Samer (14) and Radwa (15) remember the Israeli massacre in 2014, and as far as they're concerned the arms of their mum, dad and siblings are the only safe place. We are completely hemmed in".

Memories of massacre

Al-Sha'out camp in Rafah city was the site of a massacre on 6 August 2022, when Israeli warplanes bombed the old houses of the camp. Seven people were killed, and dozens injured.

The massacre reminded Ahmad Kishta (34) of Israel's Black Friday massacre which took place on 1 August 2014, in which dozens were killed. During the latest assault, Ahmad was near the camp, and hurried to the area where his sister lives with her children. He found them in the street, the children in the arms of their mother, hysterical and waiting for someone to come and take them to a safe place. Their father was killed in Israel's bombardment of Gaza last year.

Ahmad lost several members of his family, including children, in the Black Friday massacre. They had all sheltered in a single room, and Israel carried out a two-hour long bombardment during the afternoon. He will never forget seeing the lifeless body of a mother embracing her children carried out from underneath the rubble of a collapsed building, an experience which left him deeply traumatised for years.

He says: "We know that there is no safe place. Even if there were civilian shelters in Gaza, Israel would bomb them, their excuse would be "the shelters contain military targets"…Gazans need a sense of safety. A single room becomes a universe, a place we want to imagine is safe, in moments of war, but at the same time, we know we could die in that same room".

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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