As drinking water is running out, Gaza looks wearily to the sea

Gazans make what use they can of seawater as essential supplies dwindle

Lina Jaradat

As drinking water is running out, Gaza looks wearily to the sea

On the beach, west of the city of Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, sits Um Hassan, alongside her new neighbours.

They are washing their children’s clothes, using seawater, having been forced to flee Gaza city amid continuous shelling. Now they have found sanctuary around schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

The Israeli army ordered Gazans to get out of the northern half of the Strip in a series of warnings which began a week into the war, and soon became more like threats and intimidation. Some 1.3m Palestinians were told to head south, with the north declared as a military zone ahead of an extensive ground invasion.

Families took heed. It was not the first time war hit many of the people who moved south. Some had lost their homes – and even family members – in previous conflicts with Israel. Once again, they were worried about their safety, particularly of women and children.

This time, there were fears that the airstrikes and the subsequent ground campaign would be worse, provoked by the 7 October attacks on Israel by the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing.

Read more: 'Nuke Gaza': The 'Madman' nuclear rhetoric is back again

Um Hassan, who is in her forties, told Al Majalla that she, her six children and her husband left after they lost water and electricity supplies, amid indiscriminate shelling around their home from Israeli tanks.

"We sought a safer area with essential amenities such as electricity and water—crucial necessities we promptly need in our daily lives, particularly water,” she said.

We sought a safer area with essential amenities such as electricity and water—crucial necessities we promptly need in our daily lives, particularly water.

Influx goes on as bombs continue to fall

Ever since, the influx of displaced families at the UNRWA shelter on the street by the sea has increased daily. Israeli bombing has escalated and the flow of essential aid and fuel into the Strip has been cut off, or remained inadequate, since the war's third day.

It means Um Hassan – and many more like her – face worsening conditions as the scarcity of essentials has deepened.

"We used to bathe, cook, eat, and wash clothes," she says. But now, water supplies to the shelters have been discontinued and there are persistent power cuts. The dwindling supplies of fuel have been allocated ambulances, civil defence vehicles, and hospital generators.

Displaced people have no choice but to use what funds they have to purchase water from vendors who peddle it on carts pulled by donkeys in the streets. But with no work and many people around their new homes, the displaced come up with inventive ways of meeting their needs at a time when uncertainty is high and war looks likely to be persistent.

Um Hasan and her neighbours visit the seashore every day at sunrise with their children.

"We rise early, carry our children and some clothes and utensils. We let the children wash their bodies in the sea and bring us some water that we use for washing dirty clothes and cooking utensils," she says.

They also use sand to rub their utensils clean. Sawsan al-Ghara, aged 39, told Al Majalla: "We do not have a choice. Everything we do and everything we use has been thrust upon us by the occupation, which has severed the lifeline even in the areas it claimed to be safe."

Israeli soldiers operate in Gaza alongside the Mediterranean on November 17, 2023

Al-Ghara sits on the beach alongside her peers. All of them are wearing prayer dresses, which have become a kind of unofficial uniform of assorted colours among Gazan women during times of war and Israeli airstrikes.

They wear them over their other clothes as they spread out on the beach to go about their daily household tasks. Their work goes on in front of a shelter primarily designed as an elementary school for children. It was never intended to accommodate such large numbers of Gazans, or to serve as spaces for washing, cooking, and sleeping.

Read more: Overstretched hospitals are no longer spared in Gaza war

Cooking under the gaze of battleships

Several nautical miles out to sea from where the displaced women and children gather, there are Israeli-Hamas battleships ready to fire shells at any time, just as there are off Gaza's northern coast.

And as the displaced people of the Deir al-Balah camp look out to sea, they do so with memories of their former lives inland.

Mahmoud Al-Aqra, a 34-year-old resident, previously owned a catering business specialising in Eastern cuisine. He is accustomed to preparing substantial quantities of rice, poultry, and meat every day for wedding and funeral orders alongside individual customers.

Now, as war rages on the Strip, he is still preparing rice, but often without meat or poultry, but with whatever is available, often onions and chickpeas. He distributes it for free to displaced people, with funding from Palestinians living abroad.

A Palestinian girl looks out a window of a damaged building at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on November 17, 2023

He says: "Some people contacted me and requested that I prepare quantities of rice meals; they supply all the essential ingredients, including rice, chickpeas, onions, and spices, while I contribute the large cooking utensils, which I already possess."

Due to restrictions on gas entering Gaza, Al-Aqra is cooking using wood gathered by his younger brothers. He points out that this makes more work: "The fire results in black soot on the pots, necessitating more extensive cleaning."

And so he too goes down to the sea to clean his large-scale cookware, with the help of relatives and neighbours. Using the sea for this takes more physical strength and effort. But it means he is ready the following day to prepare meals for the displaced individuals in the shelters, who need at least one a day to survive.

Gaza's shoreline has always been busy, but before the war, its 45-kilometre span along the Mediterranean was the main means of leisure and escape for the Strip's 2.3 million inhabitants.

Now, it has become another place of confinement for a people long-accustomed to being deprived of their freedom of movement and other human rights, mainly due to the Israeli blockade imposed since 2007, when Hamas assumed control of Gaza by force.

The fire results in black soot on the pots, necessitating more extensive cleaning.

Childhood under the shadow of war

Even during these times of war, still children play, creating scenes that make it look like they are unaware of the turmoil around them. But these younger displaced people have felt the effects of conflict. 

Anas Tawtah is an 11-year-old boy displaced from the Shuja'iyya neighborhood in the east of Gaza City to Deir al-Balah in central Gaza. He stands with other children, paddling in the sea, but his words are more revealing than his innocent actions.

Soldiers of Israel's army move on the border with Gaza, November 16, 2023

 "I'm not very happy; I love the sea, and I love swimming, but it's been a long time since I saw our house or my room," he says.

"I miss studying, reading school books, and seeing my friends who used to go to school with me."

Anas did not use grown-up words like anxiety and grief. But he did express the sheer unending doubt that so many children – and adults alike – must deal with every day over what might have happened the homes and communities they have had to leave behind.

"Even upon our return, will we find electricity and water? I miss bathing at home," he said.

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