Deir el-Balah, Gaza Strip – Ayman Harb, a father of three children, stuck it out with his family in the Gaza City neighbourhood of Shujayea for more than a month of the war, even as Israeli bombs and tanks destroyed the besieged enclave’s largest urban centre.
Last week, just before a four-day humanitarian pause came into effect, he decided the family had to flee. One of his sons has cerebral palsy and requires an oxygen tank, and the Israeli soldiers threatened to shoot Harb if he did not throw away the oxygen.
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Now in central Gaza, Harb has but one dream — for the truce to turn into a full-fledged ceasefire that allows him and his family to return home.
On Monday evening as the four-day truce was coming to an end, Qatar, which has played a central role in mediating talks that enabled the pause in fighting, announced that the halt in the war had been extended by another two days.
For families across Gaza, that brief respite also serves to underscore the suffering and humiliation of the enclave’s 2.3 million people, who have been under attack since October 7. Palestinians are calling for a permanent ceasefire, stressing that their priority is to return to their homes even if they were destroyed in the heavy bombardment over the past month and a half.
The truce, which began on Friday, has seen the release of Israeli civilian captives held by Hamas in exchange for the release of Palestinian women and children imprisoned by Israel.
It has quietened the skies over the Gaza Strip from the incessant sound of Israeli drones and warplanes. But it has done little to ease the collective trauma of the people of Gaza. According to the United Nations, 1.6 million people have been displaced from their homes, many forced to flee to the south of the strip. Some families who have tried to return to the north during the truce have been fired upon by Israeli snipers.
Others have been forced to live in what they describe as “shame”.
“I’ve been here staying in a tent on the grounds of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital for a week, right next to the ambulances,” 41-year-old Harb said. “We are about 20 people in one tent, but I had to send my wife and my other two children to stay with a relative after the rain soaked our tent this morning.”
“Yes, the bombings have stopped, but we need a truce that will return us to our homes,” he added. “Otherwise, there is no point in one. I’d rather go back to my home and die there than stay here in a tent living in shame and being forced to rely on people for the basic necessities of life.”
Harb said his family never had to beg before in their lives. Now they are desperate for medicine, food and water.
“We don’t want war. We just want to live in our homes with our dignity intact,” his 20-year-old cousin Badr said.
Imm Shadi al-Taher, a 63-year-old mother of 10, was displaced from her home in Tall az-Zaatar in Gaza City three weeks ago.
She has also been staying with 25 members of her family in one tent on the hospital grounds.
“We had our pride and dignity, but look at the state we are in now, this destitution and the fact that no one is looking to help us or is thinking of us,” she said.
She acknowledged the “huge relief” of not hearing the sound of drones, warplanes or artillery shelling, noting that her grandchildren are more relaxed, but she cannot bear to stay away from her home, which was destroyed.
“I’m willing to live in a tent but on the ruins of my home, where I don’t need to ask anyone for help,” she said. “I want to go back to bury my siblings who are still under the rubble of their own destroyed homes.”
According to the Gaza media government office, at least 6,800 people are missing and presumed dead under the rubble. This is in addition to the 14,854 Palestinians killed since October 7, the majority of them women and children.
For Noor Saadeh, a 23-year-old mother of two who was displaced from her home in Gaza City a month ago, the truce is not enough.
“What’s the point of a truce if we cannot go back to our homes?” she asked. “My son keeps telling me he misses his friends at nursery school. We want our old life back.”
She is worried about the onset of winter since she and her family fled while it was still warm and have no way to go back to their home.
“I had to ask people for appropriate clothes for the children at the very least,” she said. “We didn’t think we would be here for this long.”