Shehda Abo Zreq, a 71-year-old, is now living in the cramped corridors of a government school in Rafah, the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip. The former center of learning was hastily converted into a shelter, and Shehda’s extended family — 42 of them so far — has gathered here after being displaced from their homes across Gaza. The family has been camping out together under the relentless drone of Israeli planes and the terrifying cacophony of relentless bombs.
That is, until Friday.
That morning, Nov. 24, 2023, dawned with a nearly forgotten quiet as Israel and Hamas initiated a truce at 7 a.m., which included a prisoner exchange. Hamas released 50 prisoners in exchange for 150 Palestinians from Israeli prisons, focusing on women and underage children. This humanitarian pause, initially set for four days, was extended by an additional two days with the agreement for more hostages to be released, promising residents a total of six days of relative calm. It is currently set to end on Thursday morning, Nov. 30.
A Symphony of Uncertainty
For Shehda and his kin, the truce is a mere interlude in the symphony of uncertainty that defines life in Gaza. “Even if it is a humanitarian truce, it does not mean a permanent ceasefire,” Shehda expresses, his voice tinged with a pearl of wisdom wrought by years of surviving conflict. “There is no safety at this time.” His words resonate within the walls of their temporary refuge, a place too similar to recent sites of tragedies like the al-Fakhoura School massacre in Jabalia, where Israel bombed a UN school that was home to thousands of displaced civilians on Nov. 18.
Shehda’s family is among the many who have found themselves in a government school, a shelter not recognized by the United Nations. The UNRWA facilities, according to the organization’s Gaza Spokesperson Inas Hamdan, are currently housing approximately 1.1 million displaced people across 156 locations in the Gaza Strip. However, with UNRWA facilities overwhelmed and overcrowded, countless others, like Shehda, have had to seek refuge in alternative spaces such as governmental schools, universities, and even public parks. These places, lacking UN support, are deprived of basic necessities, further exacerbating the plight of the displaced.
It is a grim reminder that safety is a transient, elusive concept in Gaza.
Shehda’s story is not just his own but echoes the experiences of countless others in Gaza. Displaced from their homes, families like his find themselves confined within spaces too small, too ill-equipped to handle the surge of humanity seeking shelter. “We fled from the panic under the bombing with only the clothes we were wearing,” he recalls of his escape on Oct. 8, 2023, painting a picture of their flight amidst the chaos. This “humanitarian” ceasefire, has highlighted the ongoing plight of Gaza’s residents.
The conditions in the shelter are dire. Water is scarce, food is barely enough to quench the gnawing hunger of the children, and diseases spread unimpeded in the cramped school. Shehda, with the weariness of his age weighing heavily upon him, shares a personal ordeal: “In the past 50 days, I have only showered twice.” During the ceasefire a government water truck refilled the water tanks at the school, so Shehada had access to a 2-liter bucket of water to shower. The water, though, is not fit for drinking. His struggle for basic hygiene is a stark indicator of the deprivations they face daily. The World Health Organization has warned that more people in Gaza could die from diseases than from the bombings in the face of the dire lack of access to water, hygiene, medicine, and food.
As he navigates the days of the truce, Shehda grapples with a reality where the drone of Israeli surveillance planes has temporarily ceased, yet the shadow of their threat looms large.
Beyond the physical hardships lies a deeper, more poignant aspect of their suffering. Shehda mourns not just for the present but for the lost past and an uncertain future. “I was a principal in several schools during my life,” he says, hinting at a life once filled with purpose and dignity, now reduced to a fight for survival. The truce has denied him even the solace of visiting his lands, his olive and orange groves in Beit Lahia — symbols of a life that once was. The reality of his razed homeland, which he has viewed through the impersonal footage of military videos, is a bitter pill to swallow.
A Paradoxical Truce
For the people of Gaza, the truce is a paradox — a promise of peace that simultaneously underscores their vulnerability. Shehda’s skepticism is well-founded. The memories of previous massacres, the ongoing displacement, and the constant threat of violence underscore a life lived on the edge. “How can we trust this humanitarian pause,” he questions, “that does not allow us to even catch our breath or collect our memories and the remains of our children from under the rubble?”
Despite the truce, for Shehda and many others, the feeling of being trapped persists — geographically confined to an area unsuitable for the swelling numbers of the displaced, emotionally confined to a state of perpetual fear and loss. “We are still dying slowly,” Shehda laments, his words echoing the weariness of a community long accustomed to grief and uncertainty. “And we might be killed after this pause ends.”
As he navigates the days of the truce, Shehda grapples with a reality where the drone of Israeli surveillance planes has temporarily ceased, yet the shadow of their threat looms large. He reflects on a life spent in the throes of intifadas, wars, various rounds of conflicts, and a 16-year blockade — a testament to the endless conflict inflicted on the Palestinian spirits known for their resistance. But even this resilience has its limits. The truce, rather than offering a reprieve, serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of their existence.
Shehda’s story, a blend of personal tragedy and collective endurance, offers a window into the lives of those in Gaza who continue to face each day with a mixture of hope and resignation. As the world watches and the days of the truce unfold, the people of Gaza, like Shehda, cling to their resilience, navigating the complexities of a life overshadowed by conflict — yet ever hopeful for a dawn of lasting peace.