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Inside Gaza’s supposed ‘safe zone’, where displaced Palestinians struggle for survival

‘We escaped death by shelling only to die alive here in al-Mawasi.’

Late 2023, Qatari Red Crescent set up tents in Al-Mawasi to shelter displaced families. Mohamed Soulaimane/TNH
Workers set up tents donated by the Qatari Red Crescent in al-Mawasi, an Israeli-designated “safe zone” in Gaza where humanitarian conditions are dire, according to forcibly displaced Palestinians who have taken refuge in the area.

At the foot of a sand dune in a coastal sliver of the Gaza Strip west of Khan Younis, 58-year-old Nahed Barbakh tightens the ropes holding the nylon sheets that cover two small, makeshift shelters where he has been living with 13 family members for the past month.

“Our life as displaced people resembles the dead,” Barbakh told The New Humanitarian. “We are breathing, but this here is torment, and we are forced to endure it because there is no other alternative.”

About one kilometre wide and 14 kilometres long, al-Mawasi is one of the shrinking areas of Gaza that Israel has designated a so-called “safe zone” during its punishing military campaign in the enclave, which has now entered its fourth month.

Consisting mostly of farmland and sand dunes, the area is largely barren and lacks basic utilities and infrastructure, including roads, water and sewage systems, and health facilities. It is also difficult for aid groups to access. There is no official count of how many people have taken refuge there, but according to estimates by relief workers, hundreds of thousands are now crowded into the inhospitable territory, struggling to survive.

An Israeli airstrike that killed 14 people – the majority of them young children – in al-Mawasi on 4 January was a grim reminder that nowhere in Gaza, including Israeli-designated safe zones, is actually safe, according to Save the Children.

This is a map of Gaza with labels and locator dots in the Rafah border crossing, Gaza City, Khan Younis, Rafah, and Deir al-Balah.

Israel began bombarding Gaza after Hamas, the Palestinian political and militant group that governs the enclave, launched an attack into southern Israel on 7 October, killing around 1,140 people, mainly civilians, according to Israel authorities, and taking around 240 hostages.

Since then, around 1.9 million Palestinians in Gaza – about 85% of the population – have been displaced from their homes, many more than once, with Israel’s military campaign laying waste to much of northern Gaza and pushing into the south. More than 23,300 Palestinians – around 70% of them women and children – have been killed, according to health authorities in Gaza, and Israel has imposed a near-total siege on the enclave, cutting off electricity and water, and blocking the entry of food, medicine, and other essential supplies. 

Israel is allowing small amounts of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and – since mid-December – the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel. But it is far from enough, and ongoing hostilities, fuel shortages, communication blackouts, and a lack of Israeli security guarantees have made it nearly impossible to deliver even limited assistance to people throughout Gaza, according to UN officials.

International experts are warning of the looming risk of famine, and the World Health Organization has raised the alarm about the near-collapse of Gaza’s health system and the rapid spread of infectious diseases. In a landmark case at the International Court of Justice, the UN’s top court, that began on 11 January, South Africa has accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza – a charge Israel denies but which is based on the scale of death and destruction in the enclave as well as rhetoric from Israeli politicians.

Watch journalist Maha Hussaini’s latest update on the situation on the ground as she continues to seek refuge in central Gaza:

In al-Mawasi, displaced people The New Humanitarian spoke to said they were experiencing the full force of the overlapping conflict, food, and health crises with little protection or support. The makeshift shacks and tents they are living in do little to shelter them from cold winter temperatures and rain; clean drinking water and food are scarce; and aid deliveries by UN agencies, international NGOs, and local civil society groups are few and far between.

“How will I be able to find the appropriate food for this child,” Hazem Abu Obeid, 37, said as he held his two-year-old son. “Where will I be able to provide winter clothing for this freezing cold?”

Abu Obeid and his wife, three children, and elderly parents had been displaced twice already before moving again, in early December, to al-Mawasi, where they now live in a shack covered with a light nylon sheet.

“Our life carries only its name. It is closer to death, torture, and hell than it is to life. We escaped death by shelling only to die alive here in al-Mawasi,” he said. 

‘We barely receive any food items or aid’

When Barbakh first fled his home in the centre of Khan Younis in mid-November along with his family members, they only carried a few kitchen items and some bed covers and sheets with them, thinking they would be able to return home in a few days. Two months later, after relocating several times in an elusive search for safety, the family is struggling to meet their most basic needs.

Pictured is Nahed Barbakh as he stands on sand and points to the sheds he had set up for himself and his 13-member family in Al-Mawasi following months of multi-displacements.
Mohamed Soulaimane/TNH
Nahed Barbakh, 58, points to the makeshift shelters he set up for his 13-member family in al-Mawasi after being displaced multiple times by Israel's military campaign.

The makeshift shelters they have built are lodged between a greenhouse on one side and a sand dune on the other – in the hope that they will provide some protection from the bitter wind and Israeli shelling. Other displaced people have built dozens of similar shelters nearby.

International, Arab, and local humanitarian organisations have provided tents to some of the displaced people in al-Mawasi. But most live in cobbled-together shelters like Barbakh’s that are spread haphazardly among the fields and in camps set up by the Qatari Red Crescent.

As he moved barefoot between his family’s two shelters, Barbakh, who suffers from five slipped discs, pressed his hands against his back to ease the chronic pain, which had been worsened by the piercing cold. He instructed his children to remove their sodden mattresses and blankets – rainwater had flooded their improvised shelters – and place them on the bushes to dry.

“I often collapse from the pain because I have no painkillers and it is difficult to seek medical check-ups or undergo surgery in these circumstances,” he told The New Humanitarian.

Close by, Barbakh’s wife was busy kneading dough in a bowl she had borrowed from her neighbours. Once done, she took the dough to other neighbours, 500 metres away, to bake it in their makeshift clay oven. Her son Mohammed, tried to light a fire with some sticks so he could prepare some tea and fava beans for breakfast. They often have the same for lunch, if there is enough for a second meal.

“We barely receive any food items or aid from UNRWA (the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees) or others. We are forced to divide two loaves of pita bread among us to sustain us for the day. Sometimes we go without bread for days,” Barbakh said. 

UNRWA runs 155 more formal shelters throughout Gaza, housing around 1.7 million displaced people, including over 1.2 million in the south. Most UNRWA aid is distributed to people in these vastly overcrowded formal shelters, but it still isn’t nearly enough to meet their needs. UNRWA also gives some aid to people outside these shelters, but most people in al-Mawasi haven’t figured out how to get onto the distribution lists.

“My family cannot find any winter clothes or enough blankets,” Barbakh said. “We hear stories of others receiving them among aid items, but we do not know who to ask for such things.”

‘It’s a miserable situation’ 

According to Saleh al-Astal, head of Al-Fajr Palestinian Youth Association, a local nonprofit providing aid in al-Mawasi, some 80,000 displaced families are currently living in the area.

“They have nothing,” al-Astal said. “Many have no shield but the trees in the farming lands; no tents, no nylons, nothing. It’s a miserable situation.”

The lack of clean water is another major challenge for displaced people throughout Gaza, including al-Mawasi. While some local residents and charities are doing what they can to help, most people who have taken shelter in the area are forced to walk long distances and wait in queues to carry back litres of water.

“I prefer the daily arduous journey by foot on an unpaved road compared to the risks of drinking unclean water. My two children were bedridden for days due to contaminated water.”

Mohamed al-Aqqad, 34, walks a kilometre every day and waits in line for two hours to finally fill a 40-litre jug from a desalination station belonging to one of the residents of northern al-Mawasi. After their children fell ill from drinking contaminated water, displaced people across al-Mawasi began flocking to the station. 

“I prefer the daily arduous journey by foot on an unpaved road compared to the risks of drinking unclean water. My two children were bedridden for days due to contaminated water,” said al-Aqqad, who was displaced with 30 members of his family from northern Khan Younis. 

Displaced children in Gaza only have access to an average of 1.5 to 2 litres of water each day, which is below the minimum three litres a day needed for survival, according to UNICEF.

Al-Astal said many people are having to rely on the dirty water flowing through al-Mawasi’s farming lands. “The water used to irrigate crops here is desalinated sewage water, but people are drinking it because they have no other choice,” he said.

Children in al-Mawasi regularly go full days without any food, which is causing malnourishment, according to al-Astal. 

Cases of diarrhoea in children have skyrocketed in al-Mawasi and elsewhere in the Gaza Strip due to the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation, according to UNICEF.

“We are experiencing all forms of torture in even the smallest details of our lives,” al-Aqqad said. “Families are waging daily battles to provide less than the minimum for their children, who are starving most days due to scarcity of food or its low quality.”

‘They barely have some bread, tea, and canned food’

Conditions throughout Gaza are dire, including in UNRWA shelters in the southern city of Rafah, which is hosting over one million displaced people, according to al-Astal. “What we are receiving from outside of Gaza and what is being distributed is very limited considering the scale of the catastrophe,” he said.

But people in al-Mawasi face particular challenges, he added.

“They are spread among the sand dunes, farms, and streets, and face shortages in the most basic necessities for human life. They are deprived of a lot of the aid that others receive in shelter centres and inner displacement areas in Rafah, taking into consideration the absence of civil society organisations in al-Mawasi,” he said. 

Al-Astal said international and regional aid organisations need to increase food deliveries into Gaza in collaboration with local civil society entities that can facilitate distribution among the displaced to stave off disaster. “We also need increased funding to support water desalination stations and solar-powered water reservoirs, community kitchens, fresh produce, and medicines in displacement areas,” he added. 

Some of the displaced people The New Humanitarian spoke to in al-Mawasi said they are able to get a bit of aid from the few thousand people – mostly Palestinian Bedouin – who lived in the area prior to the war. The local residents have been sharing the crops they grow or the power they generate using solar panels, for example. But it’s far from enough.

Many children, including al-Aqqad’s, go weeks without any protein or nutritional food, relying on the little aid their families can get their hands on, items distributed by local civil society organisations, and the limited supplies still available in stores – for those who can afford it.

“They barely have some bread, tea, and canned food, which is all processed,” al-Aqqad said. “This is why they get sick, their bodies grow weak, and their faces become thin. They do not have the energy to play like before, and have become more withdrawn.” 

This story is published in collaboration with Egab. Edited by Dahlia Kholaif and Eric Reidy.

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