Israel-Hamas war: Gaza journalist describes life under siege

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - GAZA, Nov 17 — On October 7, the day of the Hamas terror attack on Israel, Gaza-based journalist Hazem Balousha could tell the rocket fire from Gaza was not some routine test by Hamas.

Balousha, who has been reporting as a DW contributor from the Gaza Strip since 2012, kept his two sons from going to school that day, as everyone anticipated Israel’s retaliation.

“An apartment on the backstreet was hit. There were some strikes in the street as well, which caused some windows of my apartment to smash,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Balousha to realise the damage was caused by an airstrike to a nearby building. He decided it was no longer safe to stay in his apartment. He took his family, packing very lightly, and fled Gaza City.

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“That day was like the turning point of our life,” he said.

This was the first of several times the journalist would have to relocate within the roughly 360 square kilometer (140 square mile) Gaza Strip.

Balousha moved with his family, searching for a safer location, as well as access to food, water and electricity.

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The family eventually managed to leave the Strip on November 3, two days after Egypt allowed foreigners and injured Palestinians to cross the border at Rafah.

Balousha told DW about his nearly monthlong experience inside the Strip, and the difficult decision of leaving his home city and extended family behind.

Now is ‘toughest time’ to be reporting from Gaza

The war that was sparked by the Hamas terror attacks on October 7 in which 1,400 were killed and some 240 people taken hostage was not the first conflict that Balousha has covered as a journalist from Gaza.

However, he said the current conflict is “the toughest time for being in Gaza and reporting from Gaza.”

The journalist was particularly challenged by the recurring telecommunication and internet disruptions, which he said persisted from the first day.

“The internet is very slow. The service and the signal become very weak and it’s very hard to communicate.”

Balousha first left his house and moved to a hotel room, which he thought was safer for his family, and would provide electricity and internet access in order to work.

“Unfortunately, that didn’t last for long,” he said.

The hotel stay lasted barely a day. Balousha was soon told the hotel needed to be evacuated. He took his wife and two kids to the al-Shifa Hospital, where they spent the night in the courtyard in “very cold weather.”

Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s biggest healthcare facility, became the target of an Israeli operation this week.

Israel and the US have said Hamas operate a command centre below the al-Shifa complex. Hamas and the hospital authorities have denied this claim.

Move to refugee camp ‘horrible experience’

The family’s next destination was the Balousha’s sister’s home in Gaza City. They stayed there for a few days until the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) started calling on Gaza citizens to move southward.

The family moved to an “abandoned” house in the Nuseirat refugee camp, located in central Gaza. This would become their home for the next three weeks until they succeeded in leaving Gaza.

Balousha described the situation as a “horrible experience I never experienced before.”

“First of all, we thought that south [of Gaza City] would be safe,” he said. “Of course, I can’t compare [to] the situation in Gaza [City] and the area. It was safer. But many incidents happened in the nearby places that they were bombing and even the windows in the place that we were staying at were smashed.”

He recalled hearing bombardment at night from different directions, “whether from air, land, or sea.”

Food, water, electricity shortages

Balousha also spoke about the shortages in food, water and electricity.

Crammed into the house with some 12 members of his extended family, he said accessing basic needs became more of a struggle as the days went by.

“It wasn’t easy, mainly because there was no water and we were limiting going to the toilets,” Balousha said.

“Some nights, we had no drinking water,” he added.

Balousha said he managed to buy a small solar panel that he would use to charge batteries during the day to be able to operate some lighting.

He also spoke of the “struggle to find good food,” saying the family had to mostly rely on canned food, but the availability of food grew sparse as the war continued.

“A week later, I started to search in different places and walk longer times,” he said.

Guilt at leaving Gaza behind

Balousha, his wife and two children were able to cross into Egypt on November 3, and from there they moved to Jordan. However, the decision to leave Gaza was not easy.

“I talked to my wife [about] whether she’s OK, if we want to leave. She wasn’t excited about the idea because we didn’t know how things would be. But as long as the war becomes harder, we felt we had to leave.”

According to the Hamas-led Health Ministry in Gaza, over 11,000 people have died since the Israeli military operation started.

Balousha only has a Palestinian passport. But his work with foreign media outlets facilitated his exit from the strip, with the help of the US Embassy.

Balousha had to leave his father, siblings and their families behind. He spoke about the “really hard and horrible” feeling he had, especially thinking about his nephews and nieces, who used to play with his boys.

“Luckily, on the day I left, they were asleep because I left in the early morning. I didn’t wake them up, so I didn’t want to say goodbye, so I didn’t want to see they are feeling bad, like we are leaving them and they are still there.”

Balousha also said he felt “guilty that I left people behind me,” adding that he deliberately avoids watching videos coming out of the Gaza Strip, though he consistently stays in touch with family members, whenever he can get through to them amid the connectivity challenges.

He also spoke about how he avoided taking any personal photos or videos during the war for himself or his family, “because that [is] a memory that I don’t want to remember.”

Balousha said it was not yet clear whether he would be able to go back to Gaza with his family once the war is over. He spoke of the level of destruction, saying he was not sure whether his house was still standing, as it is located in the area where Israel has led a ground offensive in recent weeks.

“So already my life has changed and the war changed everything,” Balousha said. “I mean the war is still going on and continuing, so I’m not sure who will stay alive.” — DW

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