Palestinians in Gaza seeking refuge from war find their world is shrinking. They say nowhere is safe

By Isaac M November 24, 2023

Gaza has always been a small, crowded space with hardly any exits. Now the world for Palestinians there has shrunk to the size of whatever refuge they can find.

The strip is 25 miles (40 kilometers) long by some 7 miles (11 kilometers) wide. More than a month into the war, Israeli troops are spread throughout the northern third. More than 2 million people are now crammed into what’s left.

Since mid-October, The Associated Press has followed four people trying to survive and communicate from that diminished world, using voice messages, video clips and the rare phone call. The sounds of explosions and drones pierce some of the nearly 80 recordings.

Israel says it is dismantling Hamas, the group that unleashed a surprise attack on Oct. 7 that killed around 1,200 people in Israel. Weeks of Israeli bombardment have killed more than 13,000 Palestinians, 70% of them women and children.

While most civilians could flee the combat zone in other wars like Ukraine, Palestinians in Gaza have no escape.

HOSEIN OWDA, U.N. WORKER

The Owdas spent two years and most of their savings to build a new apartment. Moving day was scheduled for Oct. 7.

That morning, Hosein Owda woke up to the sound of a barrage of rockets out of Gaza. His first thought was the move would have to be postponed.

His world fell apart with dizzying speed. The apartment was gone in one airstrike and one of his best friends killed in another.

A week into the war, some 15 family members crammed into two cars. Owda became one of thousands of newly displaced sheltering at a center in Khan Younis run by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, that employs him.

There are 24 bathrooms for over 22,000 displaced, and no beds, mattresses or running water. Numbers in the shelter swelled. Tents cropped up. “If you want to take a shower, this is a faraway dream.”

Then on Oct. 29, Owda learned an Israeli strike had hit Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza City. Ten members of his family were killed.

Finding bodies was barely possible. Proper burials were out of the question. There was no time for grief.

“We breathe, but other than that we have lost all other signs of life.”

ASAAD ALAADIN, WRITER

Asaad Alaadin left his home near the border with Israel In the first days of the war.

A 33-year-old writer, Alaadin contributed to various publications, covering the arts and Gaza’s social and political dynamics. Now he was documenting the war.

When he was reunited with his extended family, the decision was to head south. And they would split up because, his mother said, if something happens “someone survives and keeps going.” They set out early Oct. 13.

His father went to central Gaza; one sister stayed in Gaza City. He, his mother and a sister headed to Rafah, the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. But their hosts asked him to leave. They feared Alaadin’s filming put them in danger.

When he moved in with his in-laws in Rafah, near the Egyptian border, they, too, asked him to stop working.

By Day 10, he and the in-laws were in a small apartment, focusing on finding water and securing fuel for the generator that keeps their phones charged. He fasted from sunrise to sunset, saving on food and building his resolve.

Communication blackouts shut out everything beyond the walls of his in-laws’ house.

When the internet came back 36 hours after the first Israeli-imposed blackout on Oct. 27, it was “like the return of the soul to the body.” He broke down in tears when he reached his family.

Communication “is more important than food and drink.”

SALEM ELRAYYES, JOURNALIST

Salem Elrayyes woke up to the screams of his 13-year-old daughter at the sound of outgoing rockets on Oct. 7. He hugged her and reached for his phone.

Elrayyes is an expert on Gaza’s urban landscape and how its growing population adapts to being hemmed in by the sea, Israel and Egypt, by building vertically: apartment towers are the answer to the Strip’s shrinking land.

From the rooftops of those towers, Elrayyes reported on events over the fence. Palestinian militants controlled several Israeli communities, including villages and towns of the ancestors of current residents of Gaza before Israel’s creation in 1948.

Could the territory be growing just a bit? Elrayyes wondered. When Israeli retaliation came, the opposite happened.

Deaths and displacement spiraled. Roads were blocked by rubble. Ambulances and journalists were unable to move.

Elrayyes and his wife evacuated from their apartment. She and the children went to temporary shelters in Khan Younis; his parents to central Gaza. He camped out at a hospital in Khan Younis, where he documented nearby bombings and the deluge of killed and wounded. He slept in his car.

Every day, he drove to see his kids and took another trip to Gaza City to check on their apartment. His last visit was Nov. 1.

The shrinking space began to fray Elrayyes’ nerves. “Not only the physical space is tightening. My private space is eroding.”

AYAH AL-WAKEEL, LAWYER

Ayah al-Wakeel was among those who refused to leave. The Gaza City lawyer campaigning for women’s rights is used to uphill battles in a conservative society.

“We will not leave, and we won’t give them what they want,” she said in a recording.

But on Oct. 19, in a series of frantic pre-dawn texts, she explained what changed her family’s mind.

Her neighborhood was surrounded by what she called a “ring of fire,” describing successive airstrikes in one block. The barrage seemed designed to drive out anyone who dared stay, she said. She and her neighbors pulled her partially paralyzed father to safety.

Bombs seemed to be chasing them. Twice, her father asked them to leave him to die.

The family gathered at Shifa Hospital, where Israel claims Hamas built an underground headquarters. They evacuated to another hospital a few days later. A third evacuation to a third hospital followed.

On Nov. 4, she said they returned to Shifa hospital. She dreamed of a tall glass of water. Filthy bathrooms have kept her on two sips a day.

“I want to collapse but I really don’t have the energy for that.”

On Nov. 7, she said neither Shifa nor going south seem safe. She texted a friend: “I miss you, my love.”

She has not been heard from since.

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