Return to Al-Wahda street: Palestinians in Gaza mourn lives and dreams lost in latest Israeli offensive

Young men amidst the rubble of their home in Gaza City (Mohammed al-Hajjar)

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  May 21, 2021

On Friday morning in Gaza, just hours after the streets were full were filled with thousands of people celebrating the ceasefire, many Palestinians mustered the courage to return to destroyed homes while mourning those who were lost.

When the 2:00 am ceasefire went into effect on Friday morning, Mahmoud al-Qawlaq’s family got up to leave the UN school where they had been sheltering in Gaza City, and prepared to head back to see what was left of their home. 

It was the first time in days that many families, like the Al-Qawlaqs (other spellings include Al-Qulaq and Al-Qoulaq), felt safe enough to go out into the street and return to their homes, following a devastating 11-day Israeli offensive that killed at least 248 Palestinians, including 66 children.

“They told me to go with them, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” Al-Qawlaq, 22, told Mondoweiss.“I couldn’t bring myself to face it, it was too devastating.”

It was only five days prior, on May 16th, when Al-Qawlaq’s family home was targeted by an Israeli airstrike on the densely populated Al-Wahda street in the Rimal neighborhood at the heart of Gaza City. 

It was recorded as one of the single deadliest nights since the offensive began on May 10th, with entire families wiped out that night. An estimated 43 Palestinians, including eight children, were killed, in what many are now remembering as the A.

Twenty-two members of Al-Qawlaq’s family were killed that night, including his brothers, cousins, uncles, and nephews. 

“It was around 1:00 am, and we suddenly heard explosions everywhere. There were rockets raining down onto our homes, without any other prior warnings,” Al-Qawlaq recounted. “I got up and ran out of my house, because I was scared it would be bombed at any moment.”

Al-Qawlaq said that he barely made it 10 meters when an Israeli missile hit his home, decimating it. “Everything was destroyed, it was unreal. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

“I was lucky that I left the house. But most of my family didn’t have time to escape. They died in their homes, some of them instantaneously, some after being trapped under the rubble for hours,” he said. 

On Friday morning, as the dust settled and a sense of calm blanketed the streets of Gaza City, which just hours prior were filled with thousands of people celebrating the ceasefire, Al-Qawlaq mustered the courage to return to his neighborhood. 

Standing in front of the rubble of his home, passersby and people on the way to assess the damage of their own homes stopped to greet Al-Qawlaq, and offer their condolences for the loss of his family members.

“When I stand here and look at what’s in front of me, all I see is loss,” Al-Qawlaq said. “The loss of my family members, my loved ones, my home, and the loss of my dreams.”

“People were sitting with us in the last moments of their lives, we were together, and now they are gone, just like that,” he said, in disbelief. 

“I can still see the house standing in front of me, and all my family still inside, laughing and playing. I can’t believe that they’re gone. I can’t believe it.”

A long road to reconstruction

Al-Qawlaq and his surviving family members are just some of an estimated 91,000 Gazans who had been displaced as a result of the latest Israeli offensive on Gaza, according to UN documentation. 

The Ministry of Public Works and Housing in Gaza estimates that since the start of the escalation, at least 258 buildings were destroyed, comprising 1,042 housing and commercial units.

In addition, 769 units have been severely damaged and rendered uninhabitable, while an estimated 14,536 additional units have suffered minor damage.

 “One of the most devastating things, of course after the people who have lost family members, are the people who have been displaced and lost their homes,” Laila, a humanitarian worker in Gaza told Mondoweiss. “Having a roof over your head and the safety and security of a house is one of the most important things in life.”

Laila, who asked not to be identified by her last name, explained that for Palestinians, ownership of a house is, “something that contributes to your dignity, and for many people is a measure of the ability to have a decent life here.”

“It took a lifetime for some people to be able to own a house, and they lost it in a matter of seconds. It’s absolutely devastating,” she said. “And now they need to rebuild again.”

The idea of starting all over again, after spending years of pouring his time and hard earned money into building his house, is one that Al-Qawlaq is struggling with. 

“I wasn’t just building a house, I was building a future. A future for me and my wife, and our future kids,” he said. “But now because of the [Israeli] occupation, my house is gone, and I have to start again from nothing.”

“My dream was to live in this house, to live a nice and beautiful life with my wife one day,” he said. “But now that dream is gone. There’s nothing left. This is how life in Gaza is.”

For Al-Qawlaq and thousands of others, the process of rebuilding is going to be a long and painful one, as Gazans continue to assess the damage done to their infrastructure in the coming days and weeks. 

“Infrastructure has been completely destroyed, roads damaged, businesses lost, entire buildings destroyed. It’s not something we can just start tomorrow,” Laila said, highlighting the fact that many Gazans who lost their homes in the 2014 Israeli offensive on the territory are still in the process of reconstruction. 

Over the past 12 years and the course of now four Israeli offensives on Gaza, Laila pointed out that many Gazans have barely been able to recover from one devastating war by the time the next one begins.

“The reason we are in this situation is because of the occupation, and the siege,” she said. 

Gaza’s inability to rebuild and recover, Laila and countless other experts say, can be attributed to Israel’s land, air, and sea blockade that has strangled the more than 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza for 14 years now. 

For the past decade, Gaza has largely been in ruins. In addition to the absence of basic infrastructure like electricity, clean water, sewage treatment, and waste management, Israel’s suffocating blockade has debilitated Gaza’s economy, making it one of the world leaders in unemployment, with more than 60% unemployment amongst Gaza’s youth. 

Israel’s restrictions on Gaza’s borders and who and what goes in and out of the territory have also severely impacted the entry of humanitarian aid and essential construction supplies in amounts that would sufficiently address the reconstruction needs in the strip.

“Everything is controlled by Israel, we don’t have full access to what is needed for the movement of goods and people, access to raw materials, machinery, and anything that contributes to building the economy,” Laila said. 

“This is a paralyzed economy. As long as we don’t have full access to the outside world, we won’t have a thriving economy, and the situation in Gaza will not improve, and will only continue to get worse.”

The last family on the block

Just a few blocks down from the rubble of Al-Qawlaq’s home, is one of the few houses that remains standing after the bombing of Al-Wahda street. 

In it is 22-year-old Mai Rajab, who worked as a copywriter in an office nearby, which was also damaged by the bombardment on the neighborhood.

And though her home is still standing, the pain of returning to Al-Wahda street, and reliving the horror of that night is something that Rajab is finding too difficult to bear. 

“The first five days of the war were really horrible for us, because most of the strikes were being conducted in the area around us,” she said. “We just kept hearing bombs and strikes and kept hiding under tables and anything we could find, because we were scared that our house to be bombed.”

“When the strike happened on Al-Wahda street, it was a disaster. More than a disaster.”

Similar to the scenes described by Al-Qawlaq, Rajab said the neighborhood suddenly came under heavy bombardment, with no prior warning call from Israeli forces — a practice carried out by Israeli forces before bombing a building in order to evacuate civilians, and one commonly used by the army to back up its claims that it is does not target civilians.

“I looked out my window and there was fire and explosions everywhere,” she said, “everyone was screaming, we had no idea what was going on or what to do.”

Rajab said that she huddled together with her parents and brothers underneath the staircase in the building, and they all recited the shahada, the declaration of faith that is one of the five pillars of Islam, and what Muslims believe they should recite before they die. 

“I was nine when the first war happened here in Gaza, and I’ve grown up witnessing these wars every few years,” she said. “But these have been the worst days of our lives.”

“After the strike happened, I just remember seeing bodies everywhere, blood in the streets, my neighbors caught under the rubble of their homes,” she said, looking out the window at the remains of what was once the home of her neighbors, the Abu al-Ouf (also spelled Abu al-Auf) family. 

The Abu al-Ouf family were one of several families on Al-Wahda street that lost multiple members of the same family the night of the bombing. Reports indicated that 12 members of the Abu al-Ouf family were killed, including Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf, the head of Gaza’s Coronavirus response team, his wife Reem, their son Tawfiq, 17, and their daughter Tala, 12. 

“We saw death right in front of us. We are the only family that survived on our block. All of our neighbors, everyone was killed,” she said, choking up with tears. “It is too painful.”

“These were our neighbors, our friends, we grew up together,” she said. “Our houses were so close together we could speak to each other from our windows.”

Now, when Rajab sits by her bedroom window, she longs to hear the sounds of her neighbor’s children playing.

“But now when I open my window, there’s nothing left around me,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “Where are the people that were around us? Where is the building that was next to us? I still can’t believe it.”

‘I want to be free’

In the hours after the ceasefire went into effect, the streets of Gaza, Jerusalem, and cities all across the occupied West Bank were flooded with Palestinians, celebrating what many were calling a victory for the resistance, and rejoicing in the fact that finally, after some of the worst days of their lives, they could breathe a sigh of relief. 

But for many Gazans, like Mahmoud al-Qawlaq, Mai Rajab, and Laila, the pain of the past 11 days overshadowed the joy that came with the ceasefire.

“I couldn’t go out in the streets to celebrate, but in the midst of their celebrations, people came to give me their condolences, and that gave me some joy,” Al-Qawlaq told Mondoweiss. “But still, nothing, no ceasefire, can give me back what I’ve lost.”

Rajab described the scenes of people celebrating in the streets as bittersweet. “I know people are happy for the killing to stop, but I couldn’t join the celebrations, because we are still grieving our neighbors, our friends who were killed, and our houses that were destroyed.”

“But celebrating victory?” Rajab asked, referring to those claiming the ceasefire as a victory for the resistance. “That still needs time. When the siege is over, when the occupation has ended and Palestine is free, then we can celebrate true victory.”

Rajab’s sentiments were echoed in calls by Palestinians, in Gaza and beyond, across social media on Friday. While many celebrated that there was an end to the current bombardment, they urged the world to take notice of the fact that the fight for Palestinian liberation and freedom was still not over. 

People called for an end to the 14-year siege on Gaza, an end to the military occupation in the West Bank, an end to the forcible expulsion of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and Jerusalem, and an end to the discrimination and racial violence face by Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

“We didn’t lose all these people, our family and friends, for nothing,” Al-Qawlaq said. “There must be an end to the siege, and an end to the occupation. This is what we are fighting for.”

While Laila agreed that the ceasefire was a necessary step, and a much needed relief for Gazans after the past 11 days, she said there is no one who is “truly happy,” despite the celebrations.

“The ceasefire is like a band aid, just a temporary solution to 11 days of death and destruction,” Laila said. “But it didn’t eliminate the root causes of those 11 days, which is the ongoing siege and Israeli occupation.”

“Money and aid will come, but these are only more band aids, only dealing with the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. So long as the siege and occupation are in place people will go back to living a life with no dignity.”

And that kind of life is one that the people of Gaza do not want to live. 

“The ceasefire just stops the killing and destruction. But we are asking to have a life, a real life, with freedom and dignity,” Rajab told Mondoweiss. “That is what we are asking for. That is all we want.”

“I just want to be a human, a free human,” Rajab said. “We want to live like normal people, with open borders, the freedom to move, the freedom to work, the freedom to travel, and the freedom to swim in our sea, as far as we want, with no occupation and no siege holding us back.”

Yumna Patel is the Palestine correspondent for Mondoweiss

Mohammed al-Hajjar contributed to this report from Gaza