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Little Marah cries on the surgery table in a hospital in the ravaged Gaza Strip as doctors try to save her injured right ear. Despite the pain, she still hopes it's just a dream.
“I want to ask you something,” she says, struggling to speak clearly. “Is this a dream, or is this real?” The doctor responds by telling her that she is okay. But the answer isn't enough.
“I know I am alive. But is this a dream? Or is this a reality?”
Two months of relentless Israeli strikes and fighting following the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7, have killed more than 16,200 Palestinians in the coastal enclave, including over 7,000 children.
Entire neighbourhoods have been destroyed, and the heavy bombardment has reduced Gaza city, the centre of the enclave, to an “unlivable” condition.
The city's mayor Yahya Al Sarraj told The National that public areas, residential buildings, libraries, schools, shelters, parks, green areas, cultural venues, children’s centres – “everything that made people happy” have been destroyed, turning Gaza into a “wasteland”.
“It is so severe. It is unbelievable,” Mr Al Sarraj said of the Strip that covers a mere 365 square kilometres and is often compared to an open-air prison due to Israel’s control of its borders and seas.
The 65-year-old mayor, who took charge in 2019, explained that he had seen many wars in Gaza but not one “quite as deadly” as the current one.
“It is horrific what has happened to the city in just 60 days. The scale of destruction they unleashed on a city inhabited by people is beyond imagination.”
The two-month-long war has been dubbed as one of the most “destructive” wars in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the UN’s humanitarian office, at least 45 per cent of all homes have been damaged or destroyed by the Israeli attacks.
Israel’s military campaign after Hamas’ attacks, which killed about 1,200 people, has pushed the city’s 2.3 million people into a “humanitarian abyss”.
Israel cut off water and electricity to Gaza, which the UN and international aid agencies described as a “collective punishment”.
Mr Al Sarraj said the one-week truce under a Qatar-negotiated prisoner and hostage exchange deal that ended on December 1 gave the civic body the first opportunity to assess the extent of damage to Gaza city.
What they saw was “indescribable”, according to the mayor, who has lost his own home.
“Gaza does not look like a city under war. It is more like an Israeli destruction machine was unleashed on the city. There is nothing left.”
No water to drink
On November 24, when the temporary truce was announced and the guns fell silent, the first task of Gaza city's emergency response committee was to supply water to the besieged population.
“We lost almost 90 per cent of our water resources in the bombing. Water wells cannot be operated as we don’t have the fuel to run generators,” Mr Al Sarraj explained.
Overflowing sewage due to untreated waste is polluting the city and creating a health hazard for people who are already living under constant bombardment.
“The main waste water lagoon is already full. These lagoons will flood into houses unless we clear it,” he said.
With the halt of essential services and the lack of clean drinking water, the city is facing a health disaster with the fear of the imminent spread of diseases.
“It will be a catastrophe,” emphasised the mayor.
The World Health Organisation has warned that there could be more deaths in Gaza from disease than from bombs and missiles.
With the resumption of fighting, Israeli forces are pushing ahead with their ground incursion and bombardment of southern and central Gaza.
Thousands of families are once more fleeing fighting as Israel steps up its attacks on the cities of Khan Younis and Deir Al Balah.
Mr Al Sarraj said the municipality is struggling to deliver the basic services as fighting continues.
He said two solid waste dumping stations have been on fire for the past two weeks due to Israeli missiles igniting those areas.
“The fires have been raging for the past 15 days, rendering neighbourhoods uninhabitable.”
The municipality's fire fighting equipment was destroyed during the conflict, making extinguishing the blazes impossible.
“We lost around 75 medium and heavy equipment and machinery as well 12 of our employees,” he added.
'Never lived through such hardship'
With the bombardment moving from one area to another, hundreds of thousands of Gazans fled their homes and took shelter in schools and hospitals, sleeping in classrooms and X-ray rooms.
Among those is Haj Omar Al Astal, who described his life and that of his family as “hell on earth” as they left their southern hometown of Khan Younis, which was once declared a safe haven by Israeli forces but is now the target of its fiercest aggression.
The family were forcibly displaced from their homes in Satr in northern Khan Younis earlier this week. Israeli forces pelted them with leaflets warning them to evacuate before rolling their tanks into the southern part of the enclave, which had been declared a safe zone when the attack on Gaza started two months ago.
With virtually nowhere to go, more than 80 people have been pushed to Al Mawasi, a narrow agricultural and fishing strip of coastal land one kilometre wide and 14 kilometres long. “I've never lived through such hardship,” 74-year-old Mr Al Astal told The National, tears welling up in his eyes.
According to the UN humanitarian office OCHA, 1.93 million Gazans have been internally displaced – more than 81 per cent of the enclave’s population.
In the wilderness of Al Mawasi, some of the men replaced the cucumber greenhouses with four tents, and erected wooden structures covered in fabric to build a makeshift outhouse.
A mound of stones and some wood they collected as they walked away from their homes has become their kitchen. A plastic container that they filled from a nearby agricultural well is the only water they have; a little flour and some canned goods are their only food.
Ahmed Haidar, his wife, mother, and two young daughters narrowly escaped the bombardment of a neighbouring house in the centre of Khan Younis, fleeing his home just as Israeli tanks rolled in, metres away.
Residents of Gaza city have been displaced four times in the past 60 days, ultimately joining a growing number of internally-displaced people seeking refuge in Al Mawasi.
Having walked for hours, a vehicle heading their way gave them a lift to this barren part of the besieged strip. They spent the night on the street, using plastic bags they found along the way to shield themselves from the rain and dropping temperatures.
“We are in a hell that no human can endure,” Mr Haidar told The National.
Even animals are not safe
Mr Al Sarraj explained the devastating impact of the Israeli bombardment on Gaza, saying even animals in the local zoo were not spared.
“We lost more than 60 per cent of the animals; they were starved to death after caretakers were forced to abandon them.”
The animals included hyenas, wolves, foxes, donkeys, dogs, birds, and monkeys, discovered by zoo workers when they returned during the temporary truce.
“We have a lion, which is a big attraction in the zoo, and luckily, he survived, though he has not eaten anything in three weeks.”
The mayor said the zoo workers tried their best to feed the surviving animals with whatever was available.
“But where is the food and water?” he asked.
This article was written in collaboration with Egab.