Right of Return: Three words around which the dignity and narrative of the Palestinians is wrapped and woven.
By the time Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ drew to a close last summer, approximately 2,251 Palestinians were dead.
But the human toll of the conflict was not only calculated in the hospital wards and morgues. Around 18,000 houses had been destroyed, leaving, according to UN calculations, more than 108,000 Gazans homeless.
Some of these took shelter in UNRWA schools; others returned to the ruins of their former homes to live among what remained.
Approximately $5.4bn of international aid was pledged to rebuild, but for most Gazans reconstruction remains a distant and elusive dream.
We followed three families as they attempted to rebuild their lives among the rubble: the Abu Ouda family in the ruins of their former home in Beit Hanoun; the Alsabagh family in a UNRWA school in the Al Shati camp; and the Al-Anjar family in a donated container in Khuza’a.
The Abu Ouda Family: ‘Our lives collapsed under Israeli bombardment’
Rubble lines the streets of Beit Hanoun, a town in northern Gaza that is located just 6km from the Israeli town of Sderot. Among the rubble is what remains of the home of Shady Abu Ouda: a roofless room where laundry hangs between two barely standing walls and some chairs have been placed in the centre.
Shady is a married father of six. His youngest child, Mohammed, is just six months old.
We no longer have walls to protect us from the cold and rain
“We live in this house with six of my brothers,” he explains. “Four of them have families. It is a family house that my father built in order to get us all together.”
“Within a few days, our life collapsed under Israeli bombardment,” he adds.
When the shelling of his neighbourhood began, Shady and his family took refuge in a UNRWA school. During the first ceasefire, he returned home to find his house half destroyed.
“We had an area of 200m² before the war,” Shady explains. “We are now in a room of 20m², which before was reserved for the chickens.”
“But despite the cold and the lack of space, we prefer to come here rather than to stay in the UN school. Over there, the conditions are worse: it’s too crowded, it’s dirty and there isn’t any privacy.”
Shady’s wife kneels on the floor as she makes flat bread in a small oven. Her six-month-old son sleeps behind her.In the remains of another room, the other children do their homework.Two of the children attend morning sessions at the UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun; two others go in the afternoon.
“My [13-year-old] daughter Nour has lived through three wars in the last six years,” says Shady.”Since this summer, she has had nightmares at night like many other children in Gaza.”
“Our children have to go through other consequences of war,” he adds. “There is a drinking water quota of 1,500 litres per week for a street of 60 inhabitants; it’s not enough. Electricity is limited to six hours a day and the oil is too expensive to run generators. Fortunately, we have enough to eat thanks to humanitarian distribution, but we fear the winter as we no longer have walls to protect us from the cold and rain.”
“Hamas has given us $2,000 because we lost our house, but this money is not enough to rebuild.”
“I’m a construction worker but there is no work because the material doesn’t arrive. We heard the promises at the conference in Cairo but as long as we don’t see that money in our hands, we don’t believe in it.”
Without any work, Shady follows the same daily routine as so many others.
“We sleep, we eat, we drink tea and we sleep again,” he says. “At every hour of the day, you’ll find us here. This situation is hopeless.”
The Alsabagh Family: ‘The children have nightmares and wake up screaming’
The Al-Anjar Family: ‘The smell was horrible because the bodies were left in the sun for days’
Further south, near the Egyptian border, lies the village of Khuza’a. Human Rights Watch has claimed that war crimes were committed here when the Israeli army stopped residents from escaping the bombing and used some as human shields. Twenty-three-year-old Sabrina Al-Anjar survived the ground invasion.
Now people here call me the one who lives with the martyrs
“We took refuge in Khan Younes School when the Israeli army distributed leaflets stating that it was a military area with orders to evacuate,” she explains.
“But my older brother and I wanted to stay here. When the bombing started, my brother took me to my aunt [who had] an underground shelter. He went to take refuge elsewhere with friends. During the first ceasefire in Khuza’a, I searched and I found his lifeless body.”
“For two days, the Israeli soldiers prevented anyone from passing, including ambulances. When we got out of the shelter, the smell was horrible because the bodies were left in the sun for days. On the way, I saw young men being shot when they just wanted to flee Khuza’a. Now people here call me ‘the one who lives with the martyrs’.”
Sabrina’s mother, Feda Hamdan Al-Anjar, did not want to stay in a UNRWA school, so when the truce was announced, she returned to the spot where her home had been and pitched a tent.
“I could not stay in the school; it was unsanitary,” she explains. “When I returned home, I had lost everything: my clothes, my furniture, my washing machine and even my goats and sheep that helped me to earn money.”
In September, the NGO Human Appeal UK donated 100 containers to people who had lost their homes. Each one is equipped with a small bathroom, two bedrooms and a small kitchen. Fifty were distributed in Khuza’a, and Feda was one of the recipients.
As she drains the water from her morning shower, Feda feels lucky. Just a few yards away, one man’s container has been flooded. The water comes from the road but also from the sewage outlet for his toilet.
“When the containers were installed, we noticed that the place was lower than the road,” Feda explains. “It was evident that, with the first rains, we will be flooded. We asked for UN sandbags but we still haven’t received anything so I asked my sons to bring some.”
The container is just big enough for Feda and her three daughters. One of her sons lives in a tent among the rubble of their old house; another rents an apartment in Khan Younis.