Gaza civilians face airstrikes with ‘go-bags’ and comforting cats

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
A Palestinian woman hangs laundry at her house that was damaged during fighting earlier this month between Israel and Islamic Jihad, a militant Palestinian group.
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Daily life in the Gaza Strip, blockaded by Israel and Egypt, is never easy. But this month, for the second time in about a year, residents found themselves suddenly plunged into war, as Israeli jets fired missiles targeting the militant Islamic Jihad group and the militants retaliated with rockets.

Maryam El-Derawi, a mother of two, knew the drill. She shepherded her young daughters to a hallway in the center of her apartment, a room with no windows that could shatter and splinter, and tried to take their minds off the explosions by telling them stories of her childhood and fairy tales.

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With no bomb shelters and little in the way of civil defense, Gaza’s residents have to fend for themselves when Israeli missiles start falling. A go-bag is essential. A comforting cat can help.

It’s the best coping mechanism she has. There are no bomb shelters in Gaza, where residents have to fend for themselves, and everyone has prepared a “go-bag” of emergency supplies and essential family documents, ready for instant evacuation.

Teenager Arwa Salah has her own emergency protocol – find and grab her cat. Cuddling her pet amid the explosions of Israeli airstrikes recently, Arwa settled the cat’s nerves and, admittedly, her own.

With the prospect of sudden war never far away, Ms. El-Derawi’s priorities are clear. “I only care about my children’s safety and future,” she says. “But in Gaza this task is getting increasingly difficult.”

When Israeli warplanes roared over her home earlier this month, firing missiles, Gaza resident Maryam El-Derawi knew the drill.

Just as she had done a year ago during similar strikes, she shepherded her two young daughters, Joud and Noor, into a hallway in the center of their apartment in the Gaza Strip, the only room with no windows that could shatter and splinter.

To take her daughters’ minds off the missile explosions, she told them stories of her days as a schoolgirl and, as the hours stretched out, fairy tales. When she ran out of tales, she scrolled the internet on her smartphone to find more child-friendly fables to pass the time.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

With no bomb shelters and little in the way of civil defense, Gaza’s residents have to fend for themselves when Israeli missiles start falling. A go-bag is essential. A comforting cat can help.

“I spent my time thinking of how I can both save my children and provide them with comfort and support,” Ms. El-Derawi says.

“We have nowhere else other than this house. We have no shelters here in Gaza to save civilians from sudden Israeli strikes,” she explains. “This is all we have.”

With no safe houses or bomb shelters to flee to, Gazan families must make their own safety in a place where residential neighborhoods can become war zones at any moment and with little warning.

They are finding small comforts and redefining daily life to create a sense of security in lives full of uncertainty.

A fixture in Gaza homes

This month’s 147 Israeli airstrikes on Gaza – targeting the militant Islamic Jihad group in what the Israeli military described as a preemptive bid to prevent an attack – lasted three days and drew retaliatory rocket fire from Islamic Jihad. The fighting killed 22 Palestinian civilians, 17 of whom were children, according to the United Nations; wounded 70 Israelis; and caused destruction in both Israel and Gaza.   

While not as long or as devastating as last year’s war between Israel and Hamas, the August strikes have reinforced fears of how war can suddenly explode in the midst of daily life.

Conflicts between Gazan militants and Israel instill fear, destroy homes, and disrupt life in Israeli border towns too, but people’s ability to cope and adapt to the violence is much more limited in Gaza. There families, still living amid the destruction of the 2021 war, are hemmed in by an Israeli naval blockade, a shuttered border to the east, and an Egyptian-imposed border closure to the southwest.

Should missiles strike close to her home, Ms. El-Derawi, like most Gazans, has one emergency resource at the ready at all times: her “go-bag,” a backpack full of emergency supplies and family documents, including medicines, a first-aid kit, birth certificates, ID cards, leases, rental contracts, and even bank statements.

Hatem Moussa/AP
Palestinians search through the rubble of a building in which Khaled Mansour, a top Islamic Jihad militant, was killed in an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza Strip earlier this month. Civilians also got caught up in the fighting.

For many Gazans, the bag has become a fixture in their homes, almost like a family member.

“I prepare this bag and keep it in a safe place so that I can easily access it if we have to evacuate the house,” Ms. El-Derawi says. Often such evacuations are to the street.

Teenager Arwa Salah has her own emergency protocol: find and grab her pet cat, Shujjaa.

Sitting in the center of her family’s apartment during the recent airstrikes, she cuddled and calmed the cat as explosions rocked nearby neighborhoods, settling her pet’s nerves – and, admittedly, her own.

“My cat can’t cope with the sound of the blasts,” she explains sheepishly. “I feel sorry for him.”

Where good views can be dangerous

Weeks after the May 2021 war, when newlywed Hasan Aldawoudi went apartment hunting in Gaza City, like many Gazans he had two criteria in mind: the property’s rent and the likelihood that it might be hit by a rocket.

He looked for a place “far away from the beach” and thus less vulnerable to Israeli naval bombardment, “not in the far east of the strip near the border with Israel, and not in a high building,” Mr. Aldawoudi says.

Since the 2021 war, during which Israeli forces targeted 15 largely residential buildings of five floors or more, residential high-rises once seen as offering affordable apartments with good views are now seen by Gazans as a hazard.

Perceptions that coastal and border areas are unsafe have led to increased demand – and rising prices – for housing in the center of the enclave, though experts warn that the district is no safer than others from potential rocket fire.

For some Gazans, missile strikes mark out the rhythms of their lives.

In the 2021 war, Anisa Blima raced to find the safest room in the house and checked in on her relatives.

When missiles struck this month, though, Ms. Blima’s thoughts turned to a new concern: finding baby formula and diapers for her 2-month-old.

She happened to be visiting her parents in central Gaza, far from the airstrikes, so she could arrange an emergency delivery, fearing that Gaza could enter a multiday war.

“As a mother I need to prepare myself for the worst,” she says. Formula and diapers are now key items in her emergency bag.

Becoming a new father also brought a fresh perspective for Mr. Aldawoudi, who for the first time considered leaving Gaza after the recent strikes.

“In the past, I was only responsible for myself,” he says. “Now, I have a family to think of, a wife and a son. I promised not to let anyone harm them.”

For Gazans far from their families, the telephone can be the only source of comfort in times of war.

Gazan matriarch Faiza Awoda says she feels uneasy until she has spoken with her children and grandchildren to make sure they are all safe. It is a tall order; she has 12 children and 47 grandchildren living across the Gaza Strip. 

“I keep in touch with them to make sure they are fine,” Ms. Awoda says. “This puts a lot of pressure on me.”

Gazans’ constant state of insecurity has an outsize impact on children, who are overwhelming a health system already under stress, Gazan mental health experts say.

It has provoked what some call “Gaza syndrome” among young people, an “ongoing traumatic stress disorder” with symptoms such as bed-wetting, hallucinations, and recurrent nightmares, says Dr. Sami Owaida, a consultant psychiatrist at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

“We are still working with children who are suffering since last year’s aggression, and now we have to prepare ourselves for another wave of cases,” he worries.

With the prospect of sudden war never far away, Gazans say they will continue to count on each other for emotional safe spaces when physical safe spaces are lacking.

“Like any other woman in the world, I only care about my children’s safety and future,” Ms. El-Derawi says. “But in Gaza this task is getting increasingly difficult.”

Ghada Alhaddad contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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