'We prefer to die at home': Defiant Gaza residents return north despite danger

A closed border and constant air strikes mean the south is just as dangerous as Gaza city, say Palestinians

The aftermath of an Israeli air strike in the central Gaza Strip. Some Palestinians are now returning to their homes in the north of the enclave. AFP
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Palestinians who fled Gaza city with promises of safety in the south say they are returning home amid a massive Israeli bombardment in recent days.

More than 40 per cent of the population of 2.3 million have moved towards the south - but air strikes and a closed border give them little hope of safety.

"I came back to my house in Gaza because if I want to die, let me die in my home," Um Asad Al Shamali, 40, told The National.

"Danger is everywhere. The Israeli shelling doesn't differentiate between areas."

Nothing is safe, everything is targeted
Nedaa Khader

Bombs have fallen on the southern city of Khan Younis and on the Rafah border town, where tens of thousands have fled.

Mona Ismael is likewise displaced. She was visiting Gaza to attend her brother's wedding. Instead of celebrating the occasion, she had to flee her home in the Alnasser neighbourhood in western Gaza city after the Israeli army warned people to leave the area and head south of the Gaza river.

She fled to Khan Younis city in southern Gaza, but soon "did not feel comfortable where I was, there were around 50 people inside a small house", Mona, 52, told The National.

In just five days, the Israeli air force said it had conducted 6,000 air strikes on the densely populated coastal enclave, ordering people to move south from Gaza city, where most Gazans live.

Nearly 3,800 Palestinians have died in the assault, launched on the evening of October 7 after a surprise Hamas attack in southern Israel killed about 1,300 people, mostly civilians but including about 300 security forces.

Experts fear a looming Israeli ground invasion could cause a sharp rise in deaths after the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to "crush and destroy" Hamas.

"The owners of the house where I was with my family tried to do their best to make us comfortable but the water and power cuts made this impossible," Mona said.

Now she wants to return home, she said.

Many now have nowhere to go in one of the world's most densely populated areas.

Essential services such as water, electricity and even supplies of food have rapidly crumbled, or been cut off as Israel intensified a 16-year blockade of the enclave.

Gaza Strip's water supply dries up as Israeli blockade takes its toll

Gaza Strip's water supply dries up as Israeli blockade takes its toll

Mona, whose sister is disabled, said they couldn't wash or clean themselves for days.

"My sister has special needs, which make it hard to adjust with any situation."

Meanwhile, Nedaa Khader, 43, fled to Nussirat camp in the south. She wants to go back home to Gaza but is afraid the roads are not safe.

"Yesterday the Israeli warplanes targeted the bakery shop we used to buy the bread from. Nothing is safe, everything is targeted." she told The National.

Nedaa lost her house in Gaza city after Israeli planes bombed the tower block where she lived.

"I don't know where to go if I come back to Gaza. I lost my house but I can stay with my family, which will be better," Nedaa added.

Dangerous roads

Despite the unsafe roads, Ms Al Shamali decided to risk everything to go back to her home.

"My husband was driving so fast. I was praying all the time to reach our home safely," she said.

On Wednesday, the UN’s humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths called for a “desperately needed” humanitarian ceasefire that would “go a long way to easing the epic human suffering”.

A massive blast at Al Ahli Arab Hospital on Tuesday night killed at least 471 people. Israeli has denied it was behind the strike.

The attack was condemned internationally and described by Mai Al Kaila, the Palestinian Authority's Health Minister, as a massacre.

Updated: October 20, 2023, 8:14 AM