Gaza Strip – When Palestinians ventured out of their homes on Tuesday, following Israel’s latest round of air raids on Gaza, they noticed an extraordinary scene near the bombed-out remains of the al-Rahma building.
Hanging in the bedroom of a partially destroyed apartment was a wedding dress, covered in dirt and punctured with shrapnel.
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As crowds grew and looked on in amazement, little did they know that the dress carried a five-year story of love, tragedy and determination.
In 2013, Fadi al-Ghazali, a 22-year-old from Gaza, met Yara al-Zoubi, a 21-year-old from the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun on Facebook, a woman who he says he immediately fell in love with.
“I knew she was my soulmate from the first moment,” Fadi told Al Jazeera.
“She has seen things the human mind cannot imagine. I had also survived all three wars on Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014. So, I understood her.”
Despite facing geographical and political obstructions, the couple were determined to meet each another.
“Our dream was to get together, a dream that everyone mocked because I live in the besieged Gaza Strip and she was living in war-torn Syria,” he said. “It was impossible.”
Within a short time, Fadi proposed to Yara, and his family in turn contacted hers to arrange their engagement.
“I asked her parents for their blessing and they welcomed me into the family with open arms.”
Everything we needed was ready; the house, the furniture, the wedding dress ... We were only waiting for my birthday to be the luckiest couple people to ever walk this earth.
Fadi spent the next five years working as a confectioner to pay for their wedding and furnish their home.
Meanwhile, after several requests, Yara was finally granted an approval by Egyptian authorities to enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing.
A territory of more than two million people, Gaza has been under a devastating Israeli-imposed blockade for the past 11 years, which has severely restricted the movement of Palestinians in and out of it.
Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the enclave in 2005 but, citing security concerns, maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.
Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza through its border.
“It took a miracle to get my fiancee out of Syria, let alone into Gaza,” Fadi said. “We achieved the impossible.”
“When she arrived at Rafah, I was so happy that I felt like I was flying, and people were amazed by our story that they celebrated us all the way to our home,” he said.
Yara’s family was unable to make it to Gaza for the wedding due to Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on freedom of movement in the occupied Palestinian Territories.
According to Fadi, Yara carried her $2,000 wedding dress all the way from Syria.
Following Yara’s arrival, the excited couple spent the next few days shopping for their wedding which was expected to be held on November 18 to coincide with Fadi’s 22nd birthday.
“Everything we needed was ready; our home, the furniture, the wedding dress … We were only waiting for my birthday to be the luckiest couple people to ever walk this earth,” he said.
The bride stayed at Fadi’s mother’s place, while the groom waited in their future home as they were both anxiously looking forward to their wedding day.
However, on Monday, Fadi’s family received a call around midnight that the adjacent building to their home was going to be targeted by Israeli air raids.
‘Israel shattered our dreams’
Fadi’s family and bride ran to seek shelter at his aunt’s house, when the al-Rahma charity’s five-storey building, next to Fadi’s home, was destroyed by missiles fired from the sky.
When the family returned to the area the next morning, they found their home in ruins.
“My fiancee and I were shocked. Our dream was shattered by an Israeli strike that raided our home and caused major destruction to it,” Fadi said.
“All of the windows were broken, our furniture and some outer walls were reduced to rubble, and the wedding dress was torn apart.
“All the money that I had been saving up for years is now gone,” he said, adding that the damage amounted to more than 5,000 Jordanian Dinars ($7,000).
According to Fadi, Yara spent the entire night crying and suffered a panic attack when she saw the devastation.
“She told me ‘all my life, I have been running away from war, but it kept following me’.”
Last year, Yara’s hometown of Khan Sheikhoun fell victim to a chemical attack that claimed the lives of at least 83 people, a third of them children.
When local residents heard Yara’s story and saw what happened to her home and dress, the entire community banded together.
A wedding planner, a hotelier, a florist, photographers, tailors and others offered their services for free.
A group of philanthropists gave them gifts to ensure their wedding would happen on time.
However, with Gaza’s future still uncertain and violence a frequent reality, the couple said they were afraid of resuming their wedding arrangements only to wake up and find it all under rubble and destruction again.