“Wake up, we’re going,” whispered René, a French archeologist, to our surgeon. The whisper woke me up too. This was it: the call we had been waiting for. All of us would soon be up, ready to head to the Rafah checkpoint.
That was in the early hours of November 1, 2023. We were about to escape the forty-by-ten-kilometres trap that the war had turned Gaza into, relieved for ourselves and anxious for those we were leaving behind. One month after Hamas’s biggest attack on Israel, the closest thing Palestinians had to a sovereign territory was disappearing, air strikes annihilating the physical space that once existed.
A month earlier, I had gone to Gaza as a communications manager for Doctors without Borders (MSF) in order to arrange interviews with the patients the medical humanitarian organization had been treating. The patients had been shot in the legs while protesting the blockade that has sealed the enclave off from the rest of the world since 2007. Those were recurring demonstrations ostensibly against increased visits by Jewish groups in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, but they soon served as a general outlet for frustrations with the blockade of Gaza, in a manner reminiscent of the Great March of Return of 2018/19.
Despite the demonstrations, we hadn’t expected total war. On the early morning of October 7, we woke up to the roaring, whooshing sound of hundreds of rockets being sent continuously toward the north. Matthias, our experienced head of mission, immediately recognized these rocket launches for what they were: an unprecedented show of force by Hamas which, until then, had avoided full confrontation with Israel as it consolidated its power within Gaza.
I had been working from Jerusalem since early 2023, and previously as a journalist in the Palestinian Territories, and had witnessed several skirmishes and escalations between Hamas and Israel. Those interactions resembled more of a carefully coordinated dance in which adversaries test each other and voice grievances while attempting to avoid escalations. When a Palestinian prisoner died in an Israeli jail, or when settlers stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, salvoes of rockets would be sent from Gaza. The Israeli air force would then strike the enclave. At best, Israel would leave it at that; at worst, there would be an escalation lasting a few days. The normalization of this back and forth exemplifies the untenable situation Gaza has found itself in for years while the Israeli government hoped to maintain the status quo. It was a status quo in which Gazans were all but imprisoned between the Mediterranean Sea, Israel, and Egypt.
On October 7, the number of rockets launched by Hamas suggested an entirely new kind of event. In the safe room of the MSF house in Gaza City where the entire team had retreated, we braced for the Israeli response as we learned, via text and from the news, of the horrific attack Hamas had launched against Israel.
In the days that followed, we hunkered down as strikes from Israeli forces gradually increased in frequency and strength, day and night. Windows were opened lest blasts from strikes shattered them; iron shutters were closed to keep pieces of cement from nearby buildings hurtling in. We felt the earth and walls tremble with each bomb. The idea that Israeli forces would avoid striking foreigners was of limited relief: when the mosque right behind our house was hit, a large piece of cement was thrown into our nearby office, damaging its wall. From a window on the second floor, we could see the crowd around Al-Shifa hospital’s morgue growing bigger and more chaotic every day. Within a week, it would run out of space for bodies.
On October 10, we learned from our leadership that we had been allowed to move to the compound of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) office in Gaza City, a safer place at that time and just a ten-minute drive from where we were. This was the first of many moves as we sought safety amid the constant strikes, evacuating one makeshift camp after another. Ours was an enviable situation: we had the resources and logistics to ensure water and food came to us, and we had relatively reliable information on the latest developments. Still, even as privileged foreigners, our situation highlighted the crisis unfolding: no one was safe anywhere in Gaza.
The first stories came from the people once removed—Palestinian colleagues who could text or call and tell us about the first casualties they witnessed in their communities as buildings crumbled under bombs. In the early days of the war, a strike near Al-Awda hospital caused oxygen tanks to blow up, killing one young nurse along the way who had worked with friends and colleagues until the day before the war started. Here, an MSF counsellor lost her house to a strike. There, an MSF driver and trained emergency medical technician lost more than twenty members of his extended family in one single strike. Another MSF driver lost both his parents in a single strike.
The UNDP days had a semblance of normality. Medical staff strove to organize work in a diminished version of the structure we had known until then. Shifts were organized at the hospitals and clinics where MSF operated, for those who wanted to work despite the hardships of their personal lives, the overcrowded hospitals forcing surgeons to work on the ground, and the shortages that would leave emergency doctors treating burn victims with anti-inflammatory drugs. We slept in a basement for safety from the strikes, on mattresses, sharing space with other staff of international NGOs and the families of UN staff, roughly 200 people in total.
In those early days of the war, shortages were looming but were not at their worst, so few cuts had to be made in resource consumption at first. While hospitals had to space out personnel rotation to save fuel from being used for transportation, we had to avoid using only energy-hungry kettles and electric stoves, and we charged phones during the day rather than at night to save power as it came from the solar panels on the roof. As shelf-stable, no-cooking-required sources of protein, tuna and Spam were embraced as staples of the daily diet until we left the enclave.
There were many Gazan families in the compound. Those who had time to spare found activities to kill time: chalk drawings in the courtyard for children, hookah and coffee for adults, and lots of sitting on the front steps of the buildings, looking out for air strikes and watching columns of billowing smoke rise in the distance. When the bombing came so near that the earth shook too hard, all would go back inside while the explosions passed.
A crucial part of my work was to gather stories from MSF patients and staff in order to bring to the world news of what was happening. But the state of complete siege that Gaza found itself in made for unprecedented restrictions on the movement of information in and out of Gaza. Even in the most drastic war contexts, reporters find a way to enter and report on what they see. Gaza was sealed on all sides, and nearly all the information had to come from those already inside, such as the local youth who turned reporters of war overnight.
In the early hours of October 13, news came that all those in the densely populated area that encompasses Gaza City, as well as those in the Jabalia refugee camp, Beit Lahia, and more, were to evacuate south of Wadi Gaza, a river that serves as the border separating the north from the middle area. Incomprehension came first, then denial. Many Gazans decided not to abandon the north, either by choice or because of social pressure not to leave the north to Israeli forces, who, everyone assumed, would launch a ground invasion.
As we drove, in a convoy dozens of cars long, through the streets of Gaza City, every building around us bore scars of nearby strikes: be it broken windows, holes in walls, or shutters hanging by a thread. But so strong and constant had been the strikes of the past few days that I had assumed we would see nothing but rubble on our way out. Places such as the Jabalia refugee camp did face such a fate, although we saw the videos of the destruction only later on. We drove on behind the UN cars on the seaside road, sometimes taking detours further inland when a bomb had destroyed the pavement. We zoomed past the abandoned police checkpoints, its occupants nowhere in sight. Though the road was empty, it would soon fill as people understood the reality of the evacuation order and did seek safety in the south of the enclave. That morning, though, only packs of stray dogs roamed along the usually busy seaside road leading toward Khan Yunis and Rafah. The restaurants from where we used to enjoy sunsets over the Mediterranean Sea before the war, eating seafood platters at Bab Al-Bahar or enjoying a lemon and mint juice over a shisha at el-Bakka, were empty of the vibrant and joyful life they used to host, bearing marks of nearby strikes.
In Khan Yunis, we found ourselves in a training centre belonging to the UNRWA, the UN refugee agency, a half-mile-by-half-mile compound dotted with a dozen small structures and large fields. At last, we found a little bit of respite from the incessant bombing. Though empty when we arrived, by the end of the day, it would become a chaotic camp for the displaced as thousands of people streamed in, looking for safety within its walls. Staff had left the compound, which was quickly taken over by tens of thousands of people, with only a handful of toilets between them, nowhere to bathe, and no privacy. The glaring absence of any sort of authority in or around the camp echoed the breakdown of the state in the rest of Gaza.
The former classroom where we laid down our bags and mattresses was spacious and accommodated our group comfortably. In the hours that followed, however, another fifty or so people settled alongside us in the room, with pressure mounting in Gaza to find space for half of its population, should the entire northern area be vacated. Among them were judges, engineers, lawyers—people from across the social strata of Gazan society.
By the next day, in a spectacular display of sumud—resilience, in Arabic—Palestinians were making do with what was on hand. Foreigners in Palestine have almost overused this concept of sumud, eroding some of the power it seeks to express, but it took on all its meaning in Khan Yunis. As the former classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias of the compound filled with families, people began digging trenches and erecting shelters with all the material at hand. Cinder blocks, wood pallets, metal poles, tarps—anything that could be repurposed was used to house the growing population, with women’s spaces and a prayer space being established later, while the most entrepreneurial set up stands to sell basic items, even an open-air barber shop. Coffee, sold for two shekels at the compound’s snack kiosk upon arrival, dropped to one shekel the following day when people started selling it. These costs would eventually rise again with scarcity, but the sheer speed at which the training centre was converted into a living space was astounding. Health problems linked to overcrowding loomed, however, as unsanitary conditions and the lack of water to mitigate them led humanitarian organizations to fear disease outbreaks, from gastroenteritis to bronchitis, pneumonia, and even scabies.
By then, MSF had donated all its medical disposables and medicines to hospitals, even though the war was only completing its first week. The already complicated supply logistics in the enclave were aggravated by the soaring needs and the absence of any trucks coming in from the outside. While we were taking a break outside with a nurse manager from the Al-Awda hospital, a group of young boys approached us. “I wanna go with you,” said the youngest of them, hopeful, echoing a sentiment that I, as someone able to come and go from the enclave freely, had previously heard being aired in jest—a sentiment now taking on a much more tragic tone. The older boys, in their teens, were angrier at the situation and at the hopelessness that the West’s positions regarding the war made them feel. “Why does Macron hate Arabs?” one asked me, learning I was French. My colleague, from New York, hoping to avoid harsh criticism, said she was British. “Fuck Balfour” was the response.
When the Khan Yunis camp became too crowded, we relocated to a UNRWA logistics base near Rafah, the southern Gaza town from where we hoped to eventually cross into Egypt. In our wake, we learned later, 6,000 people left the Khan Yunis camp. Such was the perception of safety that our presence granted the space; so dramatic and uncertain was the security situation in Gaza. At a time when online rumours and limited communications turned any movement into a gamble, we were presumed to have better information on the safest place to be. Many in Gaza, like us, had already had to move several times—from home to camp, a relative’s house, or a rented apartment—to escape incoming bombing.
By the time of our arrival on October 15, the Rafah logistics base—a larger compound dotted with tall warehouses where aid such as blankets, mattresses, water, rugs, and so on was stacked in piles tens of feet high—had already been converted into another camp for the displaced. Some warehouses remained under UN control, while others had been converted into living quarters for fleeing civilians. Water spigots and some latrines had been organized while some UN staff kept a semblance of order in the camp. They assigned the nearly forty of us—we had been joined by other humanitarians, both foreigners and Palestinians—to a parking lot at the end of the camp that doubled as a container storage space.
Only as we sat down on an old tarp lying around did we realize how woefully unprepared we were. As the safest place we had arrived at since the beginning of the war, this parking lot would have to be organized for us to live in, yet it had no ropes or tools and little food or water. With time, however, even as things got worse outside, the space afforded us a degree of comfort and stability not available to those in the rest of the camp.
Shelter was the first requirement. The large tarp was hoisted up to the corner of one of the containers on one side, tied down with scrap metal wiring and evaporator coils from old fridges lying about the camp. On the other side, the only option was a light pole, but the resulting shelter allowed water to pool in the centre of the tarp, forcing us to jab a hole in it at 5 a.m. on the second morning. On the third day, I climbed onto a pallet on a forklift that belonged to one of the warehouses in order to tie the tarp to the top of the five-metre-high walls of the compound. These walls, with their three layers of barbed wire on top and their UN blue stripe in the centre, were our horizon on all sides for most of our time there. However, from the top of the forklift, I was briefly able to see the Mediterranean Sea, of a blue much deeper than that of the stripes on the walls, only 400 or so metres to the west of the camp. Once the tarp was secured to the base of the poles holding the barbed wire atop the wall, I was hoisted down and the sea disappeared.
Roles established themselves, with those wanting more to do with organization taking the lead on such tasks while the coping mechanism of others was to stay more reserved. New aspects of people’s characters were revealed by the events. Darwin, originally from the Philippines, had spent most of the past two years there and had developed very close bonds with our Palestinian colleagues. He kept organizing medical activities from the camp during those twenty-five days and never broke down, at least not publicly. But certain aspects of this drastic situation were catching up with us. Some began to crouch in a defensive manner when the sliding doors of our minivans were opened too quickly, because the roaring sound they made was similar to that of the occasional rockets that flew over our heads after being launched by militant groups in Gaza.
Another source of anguish was the steady stream of bad news from the rest of Gaza, which was being flattened methodically while our friends kept hearing of more relatives lost and homes destroyed. Then came the night of the Al-Ahli Arab hospital bombing, in which 471 civilians were originally thought to have been killed, according to a contested report by Gaza’s ministry of health. That night, I was hosting a pretend talk show, The Rafah Show, in which I interviewed camp members, sitting in broken chairs on a stage made of wood pallets, on topics of their interest. Escapism and entertainment was the idea, hence the choice of topics such as the beautiful modernity of toilets in Japan, which came from our jovial Japanese human resources manager, or an introduction to Chinese medicine pressure points, from our Taiwanese emergency doctor.
On the Al-Ahli evening, however, reality proved too hard to escape. Amal, a Palestinian woman who had done much to help us organize camp life, came to talk to us about the Italian NGO she worked for. Still angry at the lives lost that day in a single explosion, she changed course to talk about the indiscriminate bombings and the destruction of Gaza while I, powerless, could not find words to match her sadness and anger. It was a pretend interview but turned out harder than most real ones I had done in the past.
For two weeks, we remained at Rafah, organizing ourselves while the situation deteriorated both inside the camp and in the rest of Gaza. More than fear, uncertainty and boredom were the mind killers. I jogged in circles in our parking lot, while others worked out with bricks found there. Some gave and others took Arabic lessons, and we cooked, ate, and slept—all in the parking lot.
With time, even the bombing far and close lost its novelty. One evening, as we gathered as a group to discuss camp organization, one particularly large explosion on the horizon briefly derailed our discussion as its black and grey plume hid the fiery orange of the sunset behind. The humming of reconnaissance drones, already commonplace before the war, was near constant, replaced at times by the louder whoosh of warplanes, particularly as bombing in the middle and south of Gaza became more intense.
At times, the F-16s became a source of distraction as we discussed the American technology that enabled them to disappear in the sky almost magically as they looped high above Rafah in wide circles, like birds of prey. As they blended into the blue sky, we would return to the origami cranes we built out of scrap paper.
Inevitably, gastroenteritis reached our part of the camp. Hygiene conditions were not good enough to prevent the first cases, and water was too scarce to wash hands often enough to prevent the spread. Ours was still an enviable condition, for we had control over who used the one toilet we had for the roughly forty of us, and we could maintain it at a certain standard of cleanliness. In the rest of the camp, now housing between 10,000 and 15,000 people, the ratio and the cleanliness levels were much worse.
Just as water was getting scarcer and tensions in the camp were rising, the blackout of October 27 came. Cellphone coverage disappeared, and we presumed a massive ground attack was about to begin in the north. Information, always a crucial element in assessing and guaranteeing the safe outcome of any decision, was now fully contingent on satellite phones, if both parties wishing to exchange messages had access to them. In the nights that followed, as bombing was growing heavier in the south of Gaza, we heard a new sound: hollow explosions fired in rapid succession. Our team recognized the sounds as artillery fire from the Israeli navy along the coast.
With the communications blackout, gone was the certainty of being able to drive to Rafah to get supplies, so the more organized among us proceeded to an inventory. Our group had enough for two and a half days at 900 calories per person per day, around half of what an adult needs. Surprisingly, the news of low stocks made people—even those who had been resistant to following strict rules around collective life so far—favour a true rationing system. Strict rationing is the surest way to ensure an equal division of resources and is thus the best way to create trust and avoid tensions related to food.
After air strikes destroyed some of the large bakeries that provided Gaza with bread, crowds of people came to loot the UN warehouses for flour. When the camp authorities’ response to such tensions was to close the front gates, young boys started walking around the compound’s walls, eventually reaching our side of it, and began to climb. A decision to move was made, and on October 30, we packed and left. We arrived at a house in a village on the coast just north of Rafah. There, in a more rural area, the risk of being struck by the debris of nearby buildings being bombed was lower, for the area was theoretically not a target. It was strange to leave the concrete of the camp and end up in a house with a garden that looked like Eden—just in time to collect the dates weighing down branches and still early enough to collect the last figs of the summer.
In Al-Mawasi, the rural landscape made the war seem more distant, although the echoes of strikes soon broke the silence. Al-Mawasi was already housing other organizations such as the Red Cross and had been labelled by Israeli forces as the humanitarian area in Gaza despite its insufficient space for the crowds that later settled there in search of safety.
By 2 a.m. on November 1, word had spread on Palestinian social media regarding a list with the names of around 400 people approved to cross into Egypt from Rafah that day. The list was leaked on social media, and our names were on it. The call to leave at last came unexpectedly and quickly. Four hours later, we were waiting outside the crossing with a crowd that had gathered there, enticed by the news of the first opening.
Rafah is the crossing that Gazans must take when they wish to travel abroad. We knew from our colleagues that lines there could last entire days. For any trip abroad, they must factor in three to four extra days to cross out of Gaza and through the Sinai Peninsula—an eight-hour drive across the desert, prolonged by many army checkpoints—to Cairo International Airport. For Gazans, the inconvenience and the many humiliations that come with it are a symbol of their besieged life. Before the war, three people had told me, in a tone of careful hope, about rumours of plans to open the Al-Arish airport in Egypt, only an hour from Rafah, to international flights and the time gain it would represent.
Only 400 would cross that day, however: mostly foreigners and dual passport holders. Scenes of pushing and shoving occurred in the waiting area as people waved their passports at border guards, imploring them to let them cross. After several hours waiting, our group crossed, and the border guard marked my passport with the “State of Palestine” stamp, a rare symbol of Palestinian sovereignty. Rafah is the only crossing in Palestine where such a stamp is issued, as Israel handles border security elsewhere.
Several others were not allowed through. A man named Salman, who had shared the camp with us since Rafah and always supported those in need, was not allowed to cross. He had travelled to Gaza before the war from his native Hebron, in the West Bank, with only a national ID and was refused entry into Egypt. One Italian woman, who had been stuck with her young daughter when the war erupted as they visited her native Gaza, was also denied entry even as her six-year-old daughter, who had an Italian ID, was allowed to cross on her own. At least 6,000 foreign passport holders, the vast majority of them dual citizens, lived in Gaza. Such is the state of siege in the enclave that it took twenty-five days for the first few hundred who were legally allowed to live in other countries to be allowed out.
In the no-man’s-land between the Palestinian and Egyptian crossings, a line of aid trucks marked “Red Cross,” “Iraqi Red Crescent,” “UNICEF,” and more, was streaming into Gaza through a hole in the border wall, the area cleared of rubble after the crossing had been bombed. An elderly man on our bus began to weep. “Gaza would have never needed all this in the past,” he said.
Once in Egypt, we faced a heavy military presence and prolonged waiting times, and several “services fees” had to be paid to various officials in the process before we received entrance visas for seventy-two hours, just enough time to allow us to get to Cairo and fly out. I was too tired from the thirteen hours the border crossing had taken to fully register that we were finally out. My mind could focus only on the dozens of beetles crawling the parking lot, with Egyptian soldiers sweeping them aside, wondering why there had been none on the Palestinian side just a few hundred metres away. In the cold of the desert, we drove to Al-Arish for the night, because of safety concerns associated with crossing the Sinai after dusk, with some jihadist groups still active despite the heavy army presence. No one spoke.
It took a long time not to think just about Gaza afterward. There is a tendency among humanitarian workers to return to Gaza after working there once, defying the outside world’s conception of the enclave as a terrible place. There is something we can learn from Gazans’ ability to make the best of life in a besieged place. It was a place where Palestinians had still been able to live despite the lack of freedom and the oppression caused by the blockade. Now, Gazans have nowhere safe to live.