Staying warm in Gaza: A battle for survival

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip share the challenges brought on by the cold, rainy season, and how they are surviving.


Esraa Kamal al-Jamalan was nearly eight months pregnant when she, her husband and their five-year-old son were forced to flee their northern Gaza neighbourhood of Sheikh Radwan after it was bombed by Israel in late October. They walked more than three kilometres (1.86 miles) to al-Shifa Hospital, where many people were sheltering, taking with them only a few lightweight T-shirts and trousers as they expected to soon return home.

Two months later, 28-year-old Esraa and her family are living in one of the hundreds of makeshift tents in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza with no means of protecting her newborn from the harsh winter — cold temperatures combined with rains. “When it first started raining here, I hadn’t given birth yet. Me and my husband were trying to find shelter from the rain, as the water kept seeping through here and there in the tent,” Esraa said, sitting with her daughter in her lap, her skin pale and yellow. “We’ve been through rough days. We have never seen something like this before.”

Esraa al-Jamalan gave birth to her daughter on November 24 and now lives in a makeshift tent in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza [AbdelHakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Being unhoused in rough weather conditions and without warm clothing and blankets, the couple are struggling to keep their newborn daughter warm inside their tent. They cannot take her outside either, close to the fires that people are burning for warmth as the smoke gives her breathing difficulties.

“The other day, she kept coughing [from wood smoke] until she turned blue. We were terrified she could have died,” Esraa explained, her voice shaking. “I am worried the most about my daughter. She hasn't even gotten vaccinated yet.”

As Israel’s assault on Gaza enters its 12th week, Al Jazeera spoke to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip about the challenges brought on by the arrival of winter for the nearly two million people internally displaced in the enclave.

‘We cuddle tightly at night because there is no source of warmth’


Winters in Gaza typically last from December to March, with average low temperatures dropping to eight degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit) in January. Heavy rains and chilly winds can make winters even harder to survive for people in tents or those stranded outdoors without a roof over their heads.

In mid-December, heavy rains accompanied by strong winds tore flimsy tents apart and drenched the clothes and blankets of people sheltering under temporary covers.

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Many people from northern Gaza were forced out of their homes after Israel launched a war following an attack by Hamas in early October. The weather was then still warm so people fled wearing lightweight summer clothing. With at least 60 percent of residential units now destroyed or damaged, people barred from returning to their neighbourhoods in the north, and humanitarian aid barely trickling into the Gaza Strip, displaced Palestinians have virtually no means of obtaining warmer clothing.

Saleem al-Jamalan, Esraa’s husband who is also 28, said the cold prevents them from moving around. “As you know, we weren’t able to take any clothes with us, not even our personal documents,” he explained. “It is freezing cold at night. We cuddle tightly at night because there is no source of warmth.”

Heavy rains and chilly winds in Gaza can make winters unbearable, especially for people stranded in makeshift plastic tents [AbdelHakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Esraa gave birth to their baby girl at a nearby hospital on November 24, and received stitches without any painkillers. “I begged her [the doctor] to give me a little painkiller,” she said, adding that it hurt a lot.

When Saleem held the baby, he removed his only jacket to wrap around their newborn. A man at the hospital, noticing what Saleem had done, gave them an item of baby clothing.

“She has been wearing it since birth. Even when she throws up, I just wipe it off because I cannot take it off to wash it since the weather is cold,” Esraa said in a low voice.

“I didn’t expect my daughter would be born in a situation like this,” Saleem said with frustration. “Back at our house, we had a baby bag ready for her. We were so happy and prepared for her birth. I don’t know what happened to us, to everybody. May God help us all.”

Interactive_StayingWarm_Gaza_Impact of starvation and cold

For an average person, risk factors for several health conditions increase when malnourished and/or exposed to the cold for long periods of time. For children in Gaza, who make up nearly half of the population, these risks are exacerbated. Mental health and effectiveness of the heart, lungs, and digestive system are particularly affected by hypothermia and malnutrition.

No clothing or food

Shadia Araqan was displaced from the Shujayea neighbourhood east of Gaza City. Her family was among the many who fled south on foot under the Israeli army’s watch.

“My husband had his ID in one hand and a white flag in the other. I also had my ID in my hand. My children had their backpacks. We kept walking until we reached the so-called safe path,” the 42-year-old mother of four recounted. “We passed by the Israeli tanks, and as soon as we passed, the shooting started right at feet’s length. I started to pray to God to save my family.”

She was terrified. Then a tank fired. The fragments from the round almost hit them, she recalls.

Shadia says her family escaped with just one day’s worth of food, water and money.

They now live in a plastic tent which “is freezing,” she said.

Shadia and Ibrahim warming up around burning firewood with their four children [AbdelHakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

She has also since been able to buy some used clothing for her children. “I bought them some second-hand winter clothes and we lit some wood fires to warm up,” Shadia explained. “Unfortunately, I only managed to buy one piece of clothing for each one of them.”

Amid the continuing siege and war, prices for basic necessities like winter clothing and food have skyrocketed in Gaza, making it very difficult for displaced and now unemployed people to afford these items.

With fuel rarely available and little access to electric or gas heaters, people in Gaza are resorting to cutting down trees for firewood for warmth and to heat water for cooking and bathing.

They have been forced to cut down olive trees, which take a long time to grow and are a major source of food and oil in the Palestinian territories.

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Trees being cut to be used as firewood in Gaza [Photos courtesy of Mohammed Ziara]

Displaced Palestinians have also struggled to find adequate food, and hunger makes it harder for the human body to stay warm.

Esraa’s husband Saleem worked as a construction worker and bicycle mechanic, but has not been able to find jobs since the war started.

“My husband is not working now. He doesn’t have a single shekel. We've been living on the distributions [from aid organisations]. Sometimes they give us rice or a coupon,” Esraa said.

Saleem al-Jamalan using firewood outside his tent to cook eggplant [AbdelHakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

When Al Jazeera met Esraa and Saleem, they hadn’t eaten all day as food assistance is not regular. Saleem was cooking eggplant that he said he got from his mother, but had not been able to find bread to eat it with.

“My wife is malnourished and she cannot breastfeed our daughter,” Saleem said. “Even if we want to prepare a bottle of milk, there’s no healthy way to warm the milk. If we want to boil some water for the baby, we have to light plastic and paper which is not safe.”

Cough and cold a ‘death sentence’ for children

The nearly two million people internally displaced in Gaza are mostly sheltering in overcrowded spaces with very limited access to clean water and sanitation, resulting in a sharp increase in the spread of diseases.

“Seasonal diseases like flu and common cold are more common than usual, because of the crowding. Even the [hospital] staff have more frequent infection of the common cold or seasonal viruses,” said Dr Mohammed S Ziara, 36, a doctor working at the European Hospital in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. Dr Ziara originally worked at al-Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza, but came south in November after the enclave’s largest medical facility was ordered to evacuate.

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Mohammed S Ziara, top right, with his colleagues at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza before the war started [Photo courtesy of Mohammed Ziara]

Dr Ziara said that painkillers or over-the-counter medications for cold and flu are not currently available due to the continuing blockade and war, and that overburdened hospitals can only treat severely injured people or those with chronic illnesses.

“Most of the medical issues and medical diseases here are not taken care of. The medical system is all already collapsed. It was already on its knees before the war with the siege and the lack of medications,” he added.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has noted an increase in infectious diseases, including acute respiratory infections, scabies, jaundice and diarrhoea. In the south, reported cases of acute jaundice syndrome could be a sign of looming hepatitis.

“What might be a cough or a cold for you or I is a death sentence for children who are already suffering from malnutrition and stress,” Dr Margaret Harris, spokesperson for the WHO, told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story in November.

Lack of sanitation

Sanitation services have ceased operation and sewage flows in the streets, raising concerns of a surge in gastrointestinal and infectious diseases. And with existing shelters housing many more people than their capacity, toilets are in short supply.

“In order to use the restroom we have to stand in a long line at the hospital. It takes about an hour to get through the queue,” explained Ibrahim Arafat, Shadia’s husband, a banker from Al Quds Bank in Gaza City.

“Mud from the street gets dragged into the restroom, and everybody of all ages uses the same bathroom — children and adults. As for women, they have to walk through the flooded sewage water to reach their restroom,” he elaborated. “It is indescribable.”

Arafat encourages his family to not queue up outside the toilets for ablution in order to avoid standing in the cold and being exposed to germs.

“Yesterday, I wanted some warm water for ablution so my wife went to the hospital and used the electric stove to warm the water. I haven’t had a shower in a month,” Arafat said, clapping his hands in frustration.

Shadia Araqan, left, Ibrahim Arafat and their four children [AbdelHakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

'The worst of winter has not arrived'

Palestinians flee their homes in Bureji refugee camp after Israeli order

Fifty-year-old Ghadeer Harb lives in a tent in Deir el-Balah with 11 of her family members — including her husband, three children, and four grandchildren. Unable to afford enough blankets or clothes, the family sleeps closely together at night for warmth. For food, they rely on humanitarian aid but don’t always receive it.

“They [aid organisations] do distribute some things sometimes, but there’s a lot of people. We have to get humiliated to get anything we need. It is hard for me to beg for anything,” said Harb.

Ghadeer Harb and her family have been living in a tent for more than a month after being displaced from their home in Gaza City [AbdelHakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

“We are moving fast to get winter essentials to people in Gaza. However, the aid allowed in does not match the immense needs of the population,” a UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) spokesperson told Al Jazeera. “Let us emphasise that the biggest challenge is due to the intensity of bombardment in the south. It is extremely difficult to transport aid or deliver aid under a sky full of air strikes and during bombardments.”

UNRWA Director Thomas White said that the agency is tasked with distributing wheat flour to about two million people, but it has been unable to do so due to a shortage of supplies. As of December 20, UNRWA said it has distributed flour to more than 125,000 families living outside its shelters in southern Gaza.

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“We have not been able to bring in enough food for two million people,” said White. “And secondly, all of the commercial providers of food [like shops] - essentially, their stocks ran out within the first few weeks [of the war] and they have not been able to restock their food.”

People who have cash have little use for their money as there is hardly anything to buy in the market.

When aid becomes available, people queue up outside UNRWA distribution centres across Gaza where they are registered and are handed vouchers to pick up their wheat flour.

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According to White, the worst of the thunderstorms and cold temperatures are yet to hit, raising fears of further hardship for Palestinians in Gaza.

“The conditions are desperate right now and people are living in absolutely miserable conditions and they are cold. But I would say the worst of winter has not arrived. We have not seen a big drop in temperatures yet. And we haven't seen a big storm off the Mediterranean,” said White.

“When we get a big storm off the Mediterranean, I think a lot of the shelters will not survive the storm. And then there will be hundreds of thousands of people living on the streets, cold, wet and hungry.”

Source: Al Jazeera