• Wed. Jun 16th, 2021

As she listens to the low rumble of warplanes overhead, Ms Ouda, 22, of Gaza City tells herself she has to be strong

ByDavies

May 18, 2021
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Over the past week, Bissan Ouda’s conversations with her friends over messaging apps have been reduced to a series of blunt questions and statements.

“Are you still alive? Is there bombing around you?”

She tells them to get away from the window and not stray far from home.


As she listens to the low rumble of warplanes overhead, Ms Ouda, 22, of Gaza City tells herself she has to be strong.

She mustn’t cry in front of her loved ones. 

Even when it feels like their world is crashing down around her. Especially when it actually is.  

On Wednesday, she turned to her younger sister to tell her she loved her, just in case something happened to one of them the next day. 

“She told me to shut up and not to be dramatic,” Ms Ouda said.

The Israeli military has destroyed several high-rise buildings and central roads in Gaza. 

Since the start of last week, Hamas militants in Gaza have been firing intense rocket barrages at Israel and the Israeli military has been pounding Gaza with air strikes.  

It is the most intense fighting between Israel and the small Palestinian enclave since 2014. 

Ms Ouda has spent most of the week indoors, her ears pricked for explosions. Night raids by Israeli warplanes make it hard to sleep. 

The explosions have been getting closer.  

Only about 20 kilometres separate Ms Ouda’s apartment in Gaza City from the neighbourhood where Billy Adiv lives in Ashkelon, an Israeli port city to the north of the Gaza Strip. 

There, Ms Adiv returned home last week from her afternoon Pilates class to hear the piercing drone of sirens, a universal signal familiar to Israelis across the country, but particularly in the south.

It means a rocket is on its way from Gaza. 

“I heard clashing, like ten tonnes of metal,” Ms Adiv said.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s here.'” 

When a siren warns of an incoming rocket attack, Billy Adiv has 30 seconds to get to shelter. 

A rocket hit her neighbour’s house and carport, shattering windows and incinerating the contents of the garage. Thankfully, no-one was hurt. 

Ashkelon and nearby cities like Ashdod and Sderot have typically borne the brunt of aerial attacks from Hamas militants in Gaza because they are close to the border. 

It takes about 30 seconds for rockets launched from Gaza to reach them, leaving only a short window for locals to hurry into a shelter at home or one of many dotted on the city’s streets. 

“So we go into the shelter, we are safe.”  

Ms Adiv said she had been living on alert for more than 10 years. 

“We have done it five times since 2008,” she said.

“I can’t say that I sleep deeply at night.” 

Southern Israeli towns like Ashkelon are most at risk of rocket attacks from Gaza. 

Another neighbour, 18-year-old Dakel, was in his shelter when he heard the explosion next door. 

The shelter in his home is a cramped room on the ground floor, but it is too far from his bedroom to reach in 30 seconds.  

Out of caution, he spent each night of the past week sleeping in his living room in case he had to dash to safety. 

The heat from the impact over the fence was so intense it charred the outside wall of his house. The force of the explosion shattered his windows. 

“It’s not surprising to us,” he said, referring to the rocket.

Dakel has been staying close to his shelter in case of a rocket attack. 

In a few months, Dakel will be old enough to be drafted to the Israeli military, where he will spend at least the next three years. 

“This motivates me to make a meaningful service to the country,” he said.

The impact on the ground 

Hamas rockets are indiscriminate, so people from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and down to Israel’s south live in fear. 

But most rockets launched into Israel are intercepted by Israel’s air defence system, known as the Iron Dome, which sends salvoes of its own into the sky to detonate incoming rockets before they hit the ground. 

In Gaza, it’s a very different story.

Where Israelis rely on sirens to warn them of a rocket’s approach and household shelters to shield them from a blast, Palestinians have neither — there is no such defence against the bombardment of Israeli air strikes. 

The conflict is asymmetrical. While Palestinians and Israeli civilians have both been caught in the line of fire over the past week, they are not equally equipped to protect themselves, and after a week of fighting, they are not facing the same set of circumstances. 

Israel says Hamas has made a “grave mistake”, as the death toll from Israeli air strikes mount in Gaza.

Hospitals in Gaza, already under pressure from COVID-19, are now filling with injured people. Israeli air strikes have destroyed high-rise buildings, as well as essential infrastructure. 

The Gaza council said there was now a severe shortage of electricity, water and fuel.  

After a week of fighting, 197 Palestinians had died, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and 10 people had been killed in Israel, Israeli authorities said. 

The Israeli military says it gives warning ahead of strikes to give Palestinian civilians enough time to evacuate. 

But on the ground, Gazans say the situation is volatile and unpredictable. 

“There is no safe place in Gaza,” Ms Ouda said.

“Everything could be targeted. We don’t know if it’s going to be our turn or not.” 

‘It’s hard for them to understand’

On the weekend, Israeli air strikes hit a three-storey house on the edge of the Shati refugee camp in Gaza, killing eight children and two women.

A high-rise building housing Al Jazeera and Associated Press was destroyed in a separate raid.

The Israeli military said both the house and media building were targeted because Hamas officials were believed to be inside, but it did not provide any evidence to back up its claim. 

Bisan Shrafi, another Palestinian in Gaza City, keeps suitcases full of personal identification documents and clothes for her family, including her three-year-old and seven-year-old children, just in case she needs to flee quickly. 

Ms Shrafi lives in an apartment block close to a handful of government offices. 

Bisan Shrafi does her best to distract her young children from the violence outside. 

This week, these buildings have been the target of air strikes the Israeli military says have been aimed at senior Hamas militants. 

To fill the time, Ms Shrafi tries to keep her children busy with games and colouring. Sometimes she plays music to calm them. 

She wants to protect them from the grim reality of what’s happening outside, but there is no avoiding their questions. 

“It’s hard for them to understand what’s happening,” Ms Shrafi said.

“With simple words I try to explain to them, to soften the hard escalation outside.” 

Bisan Shrafi keeps a bag packed with identification documents and clothes in case her family has moments to evacuate. 

In spare moments, Bissan Ouda posts to her Instagram account videos plucked from across social media showing Gaza’s streets reduced to rubble and people in anguish. 

Sometimes she records her own, speaking directly to the camera, asking her viewers not to look away. She desperately wants the world outside to understand what is happening. 

“I write stories every day how people live, how Gazan kids dream,” she said. 

“We love life. We deserve life. The Sun is going to rise again, everything is going to be rebuilt again.

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