Those stuck in Gaza spend the ceasefire checking if loved ones are alive: ‘We don’t think about the future’

Palestinians in Gaza learn their loved ones have been found under the rubble as a ceasefire is extended for another day

Maira Butt
Thursday 30 November 2023 19:34 GMT
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'There is nothing left': Hardship for Gazans continues despite truce

Hamza Ibrahim is 22-years-old and spends his days digging through the rubble with his bare hands, looking for the bodies of dead neighbours.

It’s not the future he envisioned for himself, a freshly qualified English teacher and an aspiring writer who hopes to travel the world one day, but it’s the reality he’s now living.

It’s one of the more sombre elements of the Israel and Hamas ceasefire which came into effect on Friday 24 November and was extended for another day with the help of international pressure.

As trickles of humanitarian aid are let through, Palestinians in Gaza are finding some respite among the bombing. But the break is also spent checking if loved ones are alive and if their houses are still standing.

Families cook using wood and fire as they struggle to live among the rubble

Drinking water is rare to come by and Hamza spends hours searching for water every day, usually at hospitals or mosques where aid is received.

“It takes two hours to walk there and back to the place,” he told The Independent. “Then it’s an hour to stand in line. There’s about 50 of us in the house now, including around 20 children. Our families and friends who’ve escaped from the north of Gaza are staying with us.

“Most days we gather two or three barrels of water, and that runs out quickly between the 50 of us.”

Palestinians buy water and cook food by burning wood due to lack of cooking oil and gas

As the bombings have ceased temporarily, his family and friends have taken to the sea to take showers and wash dishes.

But for Hamza, who says he is sensitive with a “nice heart” it’s the excavation which is most difficult.

Hamza Ibrahim, 22, when he graduated after completing his degree in English last year

“My heart can’t handle it,” he says. “I go with my neighbours while there is a pause, to look for bodies. We use our hands, sometimes we use shovels. But I can’t touch them. As soon as I see a hand or a foot sticking out - sometimes blown apart from each other- I call the others. I cover my eyes straight away with my hands- I can’t take it.”

Yesterday, he found out that his best friend had been killed in an Israeli air strike. Mohammed Hamo, a popular and jovial classmate, and one of Hamza’s best friends had died over two weeks ago.

But with communications in Gaza down since the outbreak of the conflict, the news only reached Hamza during the ceasefire on Wednesday.

“He was my bestest friend, “ he said. “I loved him more than a friend, more than a brother.”

For Younes Elhallaq, who also knew Mohammed Hamo, the ceasefire is welcome.

Younes Elhallaq (left) and Mohammed Hamo (right) before the war

“We need peace, we don’t need any more killing or destruction,” he told The Independent. “We’ve been asking for this for 75 years.

“We’re happy about the ceasefire, but it’s also been miserable. We’ve found out our friends have been killed. One of my friends Khalid, has had to leave the country as he found out he had leukemia and there were no medicines here.”

Younes has found that meeting his friends for the first time in weeks has been rejuvenating.

“The greatest thing, the greatest thing that makes me happy, is being able to see my friends.”

However, he says that it is difficult to see the future past a ceasefire.

“As Palestinians, we don’t think about the future alot,” he said. “Everything we love has been destroyed, our universities, our homes, our shops.

“But we will go back. We will rebuild. Even if we have to go back and live in tents in the rubble, we are going to live in our neighbourhoods, because this is our land.”

He believes a permanent ceasefire depends on the international community and not on individual governments.

“Palestinians feel like international law is a lie,” he said. “We aren’t asking you to build a castle for us in your lands, we just want to stay in ours, in peace.

“Even in World War II, the Red Cross could get to people - so many people have died here, because aid and medical help has not been able to get to them.”

The Palestine Red Crescent Society (the International Red Cross in Palestine) told The Independent that the situation emerging during the ceasefire, was “dire”.

Palestinian children sit by the fire next to the rubble of a house, in Khan Younis

“There are two hundred trucks going in a day,” Nebal Farsakh, a spokeswoman for the PRCS said. “Before the war, there were five hundred going on - it’s nowhere near enough to help the two million people who need medical aid, fuel, water, food and other supplies.”

The PRCS added that one of the major issues during the truce was people going back to visit their homes in the north of Gaza to see if they had been destroyed.

“As they’ve been going back, they have been attacked by Israeli forces,” it said.

The Israeli Defence Forces have warned Gazans not to return to the north.

In a statement, the IDF said: “As the temporary tactical pause continues, we remind the civilians of Gaza—do not go north. Northern Gaza is still considered a war zone. For your own safety, stay in southern Gaza.”

The PRCS adds: “Another issue is the communication difficulties, we have almost lost complete connection with our paramedics in the north and are depending on VHF waves.

“People don’t know if relatives are alive or dead. We have worked with people who have found out that their family were killed days ago.”

Anadolu documents vast destruction in buildings built by Turkiye for poor residents in Gaza

The PRCS are focusing their aid efforts in the north of Gaza where they say the most vulnerable have been left behind, including the elderly and those with disabilities and special needs who have been unable to make the grueling journey to the south. Families have stayed behind with them to provide support.

Tensions in the West Bank remain fraught as Israeli military and security services amp up monitoring during the war which they say is to locate Hamas operatives.

David Cameron warned Israel over increasing violence in the West Bank in one of his first interviews as foreign secretary last week.

Meanwhile, Hamza hopes that one day when the war is over, with a permanent ceasefire, he will be able to fulfill his dreams of study and travel.

“I really hope to fulfill my dreams,” he said. “I really want to travel, I’ve never left this country since I was born as we’ve been under blockade. When you feel captive, you want to see open spaces, open water, other cultures. I hope when this is all over, I can do that.”

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