Rami Almeghari writing from the occupied Gaza Strip, Live from Palestine, 8 July 2009
Umm Naim sits with two of her children in the tent that the family has have lived in since their home was destroyed in January. (Rami Almeghari)
Mahmoud Abu al-Anzain and his wife, Umm Naim, and their three children used to live in a two-room, cement-roofed house. It wasn't a palace, but it was a home. The house was completely destroyed by Israeli army fire during last January's assault on the Gaza Strip.
Since that day, al-Anzain, 32, and his family have lived in a tent in al-Rayan refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. "As you can see, under the heat of the July sun, and with the fear of mosquitos and snakes, we have lived in this tent for six months with no one taking care of us," said al-Anzain, as he reclined on a mattress on the ground.
Al-Anzain's is one of 10 displaced families from the northern Gaza Strip living in al-Rayan refugee camp, recently erected by local nongovernmental organizations with a total of 93 tents. Other families sleep there at night, and others still come during the day, each according to its own circumstances caused by the Israeli assault. The al-Rayan refugee camp houses families from three areas in the northern Gaza Strip: Jabaliya refugee camp, Beit Lahiya and Sheikh Zayed.
"I used to live in Block 1 in the Jabaliya refugee camp, before my house was destroyed by Israeli shells," al-Anzain explained. "I don't have work, I only take compensation payment of 750 Israeli shekels monthly [$190 dollars]." This amount, provided by a Palestinian society that assists those injured during the conflict, is insufficient to rent a house and cover his family's other needs. "I am forced to stay in this tent, despite difficult conditions," said al-Anzain, serving Pepsi out of disposable cups, since he felt they could offer better hospitality to his guests than the glasses he keeps in the tent.
To make matters even more difficult, Umm Naim is about to deliver a baby, and one of the couple's children recently had to be taken to the hospital for an infection that came on top of other health complications. "What care can I provide for my new baby?" al-Anzain said. "Even dogs could not bear such a life!"
The al-Anzain's tent has two main parts: a "living room" where the family sits and sleeps, and a "bedroom" where they pile up their mattresses, blankets and clothes. Just near the living room, there is a small corner used as kitchen, with a kerosene stove, a frying pan and a pot for cooking. Opposite the living room, a "bathroom" consists of a small basin.
Umm Naim, sitting in the bedroom holding a broom, and finding little relief from the midday heat, spoke of the difficulty of caring for her children in a tent. "The place is not clean at all, there is dust everywhere inside and out," she complained. "I often can't get enough water even to wash the kitchen utensils." She expressed the constant fear that her children, her husband or herself might be bitten by a snake. "Life in this tent is unbearable," she said.
With a deep sigh, Umm Naim uttered an old Palestinian proverb: "What forces you to bear something bitter? Only that which is more bitter."
Umm Abdallah Abu Eita sat in her own tent in al-Rayan camp, where she has lived since the Israeli army destroyed her home in Block 3 of Jabaliya refugee camp. In her early sixties, she is old enough to have survived the original displacement from historic Palestine to refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere. Indeed, the erection of six new refugee camps in Gaza, each of about 100 tents, recalls the 1948 Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes in what became Israel, and sought refuge in "temporary" camps such as these. Eighty percent of the Palestinians in Gaza are refugees from the Nakba or their descendants.
Each morning, Umm Abdallah comes to the camp and spends time with a friend, Umm Khamis, whose tent is next to hers, and they cook and chat. By sunset they leave their tents and head to relatives' houses where they sleep.
Abu Nimer Hasan, 53, welcomed this reporter into his tidy tent where he spends the night along with his four children.
"My house was hit by an Israeli shell on 17 January at 3am, in Beit Lahiya residential neighborhood," Hasan said. "My two-story building was completely burned."
Hasan and his children stay in the tent because they have no place else: "I have a married son who lives with his in-laws, while my wife sleeps at her parents' house."
"This is the most difficult time I have ever gone through in my life," Hasan said. "Can you imagine? On the weekends, we all gather from the different places we are scattered in, just to see each other and talk."
Twelve people used to live in Hasan's house. "We had many things and furniture, but everything was burned," he said. The tent now contains all their belongings: a few pieces of furniture provided by local charities, and a few plates and kitchen utensils.
His face reddening, Hasan added, "Can you imagine, I have even been deprived of my own basic human right to live with my wife under one roof for the past six months."
Khaled Abu Ali, who as a member of a local higher committee in charge of services for al-Rayan camp, says it is increasingly difficult to care for the residents who enjoy little privacy or space: "Financial support has eroded considerably, but the displaced people have no choice but to be steadfast."
According to local and international estimates, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza remain displaced after the Israeli attack there. A more than two-year-long blockade has prevented building supplies from entering the territory, thus internationally-pledged reconstruction efforts have yet to even begin.
Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a lengthy report on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The report described woresning conditions six months after the Israeli attacks on the coastal territory.
"The objective of this report is to raise awareness, and to call on Israel and others to take all possible measures to reopen the crossing points so that the population of Gaza stops paying the price for this conflict," Antoine Grad, head of ICRC Gaza sub-delegation, told The Electronic Intifada. "What I can say is if the situation continues, the people of Gaza will get poorer and poorer, and more and more people will fall into poverty and misery."
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.