For years, Mohammad Matar worked to build pipelines that carried water across the Gaza Strip, from northern Beit Lahia to southern Rafah. Today he barely has access to water himself.
Mr. Matar, a 35-year-old civil engineer, was reached by telephone Thursday evening in Gaza City, where he and his family remained even as Israeli ground forces continued their relentless attack on Hamas.
In a city increasingly cut off from the rest of the world, Mr. Matar described days full of despair and fear.
“I’ve watched a lot of horror movies, but I’ve never watched a horror movie like this,” he said. “I am sure that what you see on television is not even 5% of what we experience. »
Mr. Matar says his family, like many others in Gaza, faces food shortages. They haven’t eaten vegetables in almost eight days and he can’t remember the last time he ate chicken or meat. Most days, his family prepares instant noodles over charcoal, and although a can usually lasts a week, he rations so that each one lasts up to 20 days.
“We are trying to hold on to what we have until the situation changes – until this sad story is over,” Mr Matar said.
The Israeli army has for weeks ordered residents of northern Gaza to leave for protection, and warned that those who fail to do so “may be considered members of a terrorist organization.” Over the past week, as Israel began imposing daily pauses in fighting, an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 residents have fled south on foot, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency that comes in aid of the Palestinians.
Videos published on social networks by the Israeli Defense Forces show families, some with their hands raised, on a main thoroughfare as Israeli soldiers watch over them from behind military vehicles.
But after fleeing, they remain vulnerable, according to Juliette Touma, UNRWA communications director. “This assumption that the south is safe is false,” she said in an interview, calling the Israeli order a “forced displacement” that had sent crowds of people marching south, “dehydrated, exhausted and fearful.”
“There is no safe place in Gaza,” Ms. Touma said.
Due to limited communications and disruptions in aid supplies, Touma said it was impossible to estimate how many people remained in Gaza City, adding that the north had become “the most dangerous area of the planet “.
As Israeli troops engaged in street fighting with Hamas and their relentless attacks engulfed more of the city, Mr. Matar and his family stayed.
“This is our destiny,” he said. “But we hope that God will change the situation.”
For 10 years, Mr. Matar worked on water infrastructure projects for Saqqa and Khoudary Contracting, a Palestinian construction company based in the West Bank. He said his projects, including the construction of water reservoirs and the distribution systems attached to them, were now destroyed and estimated that it would take months, if not a year, to restore water to the strip. Gaza when the fighting ends.
For now, he said: “You are privileged if you can find water to wash your hands or face. »
On Friday, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, said that Israel’s siege of Gaza – which limits access to food, water, medicine and fuel for the enclave’s two million residents – had the potential to produce a “much greater catastrophe ”, including starvation.
There is no fuel to operate Gaza’s underground pumps. And since there are no bottles of water in the stores either, Mr. Matar relies on the reserves of his neighbors.
“I just take a bunch of buckets and ask them to fill them with water for me,” he said. “We don’t even know if this water is safe or not.”
Beyond the fear of thirst and hunger, Mr. Matar is especially worried about the physical safety of his wife and his two daughters, aged 3 and 8, who cling to his side in the middle of the stream of explosions. He tries to distract them with games and laughter, if only temporarily.
“When she hears the missiles in her sleep, my 3-year-old daughter jumps,” Mr. Matar said. “She asked me, ‘Why is this happening?’ But what can I say?
Mr. Matar himself has trouble falling asleep these days, not knowing if he will wake up the next morning.
“I sit and pray with my wife all the time,” he said. “What is happening is more than abnormal.” He added: “I want this article to reach the people who have the power to stop this war. »
Abeer Pamuk contributed reporting from San Francisco.