Life in Gaza: ‘We wake up to terrifying sonic booms and try to sleep while Israelis are shelling’

Last week, the United Nations warned that a blockade on the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel and Egypt was making Gaza ‘uninhabitable’. The following is a personal account of what life is like for one resident, Sally Idwedar, in Gaza City

I was thinking about how I would start to write about life in Gaza – how I would lay the words out with eloquence – when suddenly an explosion boomed close by and those thoughts fled my mind.

I didn’t know the source; maybe it was internal training or perhaps another air strike. Movement and horns stopped on the street below, a brief pause to make sure it wasn’t anyone close that was hit, then movement resumed. My heart is still pounding and my mind racing and, like every other woman in Gaza, I say a quick prayer of thanks that my family is near and safe and hope no one was hurt.

My husband lights a cigarette in the next room while reports come in that it was an “internal” explosion from training. Either way I guess it doesn’t really matter, it is just enough to remind us nothing in Gaza is ever normal.

I like to stand out on my balcony in the wee hours of the morning just before the call to prayer. Everything is so silent and still and the stars above are so close you can touch them. It is easy to forget in those few minutes where I am, so easy to forget the challenges that plague our daily life.

The UN issued a report last week saying Gaza is becoming uninhabitable and the humanitarian conditions are deteriorating – sadly that is true. 

We wake up to terrifying sonic booms and try to sleep while the Israeli navy is shelling. Simple things like daily running water and a full day of electricity have now become luxuries. Nearly four weeks ago the sole power generator in Gaza stopped working due to lack of fuel. We had become used to the eight hours of electricity we were allotted but now we are down to four to six hours at a time and lengthy 12-14 hour blackouts.

At any given moment at least one-third of Gaza will be in the dark. During the long days of summer it is much easier to cope but now the days are much shorter and it seems most of our time is spent in the dark. Students study by candlelight and women cook by flashlight. Men gather on the balconies to smoke and talk politics – the only light that can be seen are the small red dots of their glowing cigarettes.

Some families are able to afford a converter than runs on a car battery and can power a few small items. The cost for the unit is about 700 shekels (£120) and the batteries cost another 700 shekels. This might not seem like much but even that is out of reach for a majority of families especially now the unemployment rate is nearly 40 per cent. Stores, restaurants and larger apartment buildings often use gas generators. These days, however, it is nearly impossible to get fuel and queues are very long with some people waiting 24 hours just for a few litres.

Drivers are feeling the shortage and finding a taxi is impossible at times. Yet everyone knows how hard it is and we try to help each other as much as possible. People pile as many in as can fit in a car, sometimes sitting on laps, just to make sure others can get to their homes. It is not uncommon to see three or even four people squeezed into the front seat of a taxi going from Gaza City to the refugee camps in the middle of Gaza. Some cars are now running on a mixture of cooking oils and the smell of falafel and French fries trails after them. Cooking gas supply runs low every winter but this year it is the worst shortage in a long time. An average family goes through one 12kg gas cylinder a month and it costs 65 shekels. It takes more than a month to get a refill. Neighbours are helping each other and women rotate cooking duties to save gas-cooking large meals for multiple families at one time.

Others less fortunate are resorting to cooking over open fires outside, burning paper and cardboard as fuel. I am constantly worried what will happen when the cold and wet weather arrives next month.  Rubbish collection has nearly stopped in the densely populated city. Swarms of flies, wild cats and dogs hover around the rubbish piles. In an attempt to help alleviate the situation, donkey carts have now been deployed to collect what they can. So far it is not making a dent. 

Two weeks ago the sewage pumping stations stopped working in many areas – they simply did not have the fuel to work. Raw sewage leaks into the streets. Fathers carry their children to get to school and most cars won’t venture into it. The sludge reeks and brings mosquitoes in swarms.

There is fear it will end up in the water supply as well. The Al-Shati refugee camp, also known as Beach camp, has reported foul smelling and discoloured water this week and many have fallen ill with stomach maladies already. My area has been lucky so far, no sewage in the streets but unfortunately we don’t have any water at all.

As I write this we are beginning the fourth day with dry taps. With the erratic electricity schedule the water pumping station is rarely working when my building has electricity so even when there is water in the lines there is no way to get it up to the flats. Before the fuel crisis we only received water from the municipal lines three or four times a week, now it is half of that if we are lucky. We fill old bottles when we do have water.

This is life in Gaza now: a constant struggle to find the bare necessities. Gaza life is about always being prepared for the worst case scenario because normally that is what happens. It has been a year since the last major Israeli aggression here and we are trying to pick up the pieces. Constructions materials are now refused entry so repairs have ground to a halt.

Our life lines – the tunnels from Egypt – have been severed. Without them we don’t have a consistent flow of food, medicine and fuel. The border with Israel is often closed and only half of the needed trucks of aid are allowed in when it is open. The items on the market shelves are withering away and prices are getting higher and higher.

Sometimes I think someone has hit the pause button on life but then I see all that we have survived and realise we continue on just as before: couples get married, babies are born and children go to school. We laugh with our friends, we love each other and, most importantly, we live.

Sally Idwedar is a blogger and resident of Gaza City. She was born in New York and her family is originally from Yibna, Palestine.

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