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Gaza shrinks for Palestinians seeking refuge. 4 stories offer a glimpse into a diminished world

BEIRUT (AP) — Gaza has always been a small, crowded space with hardly any exits. Now the world for Palestinians there has shrunk to the size of whatever refuge they can find: a jammed shelter, a car, the walls of a shared apartment, or floors and benches in hospital corridors.

The strip is 25 miles (40 kilometers) long by some 7 miles (11 kilometers) wide, and Israeli troops are spread throughout the northern third. More than 2 million people, the majority of Gaza’s population, cram into what’s left.

Beginning in mid-October, The Associated Press has followed four people trying to survive and communicate from that diminished world, using texts, voice messages and video clips and the rare phone call from a balky 2G network whose fate also hangs in the balance. Explosions and the buzz of drones pierce some of nearly 80 recordings.

One lawyer, determined to stay in Gaza City, carries her paralyzed father from place to place to escape bombs. A U.N. worker shelters with tens of thousands of displaced, retreating to his car for a sliver of privacy. A writer is trapped between four walls and is urged by his family to stop documenting the war for their safety.

Israel says it is dismantling Hamas, the group that unleashed a surprise attack on Oct. 7 that killed around 1,200 people in Israel. Weeks of Israeli bombardment have killed more than 13,000 Palestinians, 70% of them women and children. That’s more than the number of civilians killed in 18 months of war in Ukraine.

While most civilians have been able to flee the combat zone in other wars like Ukraine, Palestinians in Gaza have no escape.

All four people followed by the AP are part of its fragile professional class, living in central areas of Gaza City which has largely been spared in past conflicts but is at the heart of this one. AP contacted eight Gaza residents and these four were able to maintain the connection, despite evacuation, multiple hits on their areas and communication blackouts.

They now are nowhere near each other, but they chronicle the despair of the same shattered, anguished world that is closing in on them.

HOSEIN OWDA, U.N. WORKER

Moving day was scheduled for Oct. 7 for the Owda family. The windows were in place and the last pieces of furniture were due to arrive.

Hosein Owda had spent two years and most of his savings getting the apartment ready.

It helps to have a long timeframe for home construction in Gaza, which has been under economic blockade since 2006. It also helps to have one of Gaza’s most coveted jobs, working for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, which assists more than three-quarters of the Strip’s population, all of them refugees.

When he woke that morning to the barrage of Hamas rockets, Owda knew Israeli retaliation would be swift. His first thought was that the move would have to be postponed.

In a matter of days, his world fell apart with dizzying speed. Owda’s new apartment was gone in one airstrike and one of his best friends killed in another. He still agonizes over ignoring pleas for help from a neighbor trying to find a daughter thrown out of a window in an Israeli strike. He was busy evacuating his own family to safety.

On Oct. 13, he and his extended family of 15 people crammed into two cars, one with a broken windshield.

They were now among 22,000 people sheltering at a U.N. vocational center in Khan Younis. There are 24 bathrooms — more than 900 people per toilet — but no beds, mattresses or running water. The numbers continue to swell.

His wife, three children and six other relatives shared a 3-by-3-yard (meter) classroom. Owda slept in the car.

“It is a struggle with life for the most basic, simple things. If you want to take a shower, this is a faraway dream,” he said.

On Oct. 29, Owda learned an Israeli strike had hit Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza city. It took him hours to confirm what he feared: Nine members of his family were killed, including his uncle, aunt and two of their three adult children. A few days later, the third died of his wounds.

Two of his cousin’s daughters survived, but Owda couldn’t do anything for them. The 15 miles (25 kilometers) that separated them were insurmountable.

“They are in one place, all alone, and we are far,” he said. A fighter jet roared in the background of the recording.

Almost immediately after, another strike killed a friend who had been his companion on evening walks. Also killed were the man’s parents, sisters and their families.

Everyone he knew had lost someone. Finding bodies was barely possible. Proper burials were out of the question.

“There is no space to grieve,” he said. “Only our vital signs show we are alive. We breathe, but other than that we have lost all other signs of life.”

Owda felt trapped by all the things he couldn’t say: He wouldn’t tell his children, ages 9, 6 and 1, that they no longer have a home, and he couldn’t bring himself to tell his father about the relatives dead in the airstrike.

At least 108 of Owda’s U.N. colleagues have been killed, and he said fear is spreading among the rest, who number about 13,000.

Owda had made his living trying to help Palestinian refugees. Now he lives among them in a shelter. The despair he witnessed all around consumed him. He lost 20 kilograms (44 pounds) in about a month. His gentle sense of humor vanished, replaced with the hollow voice of a drained man. He left the shelter only twice, to search for medicines for his father, but needed to hire a donkey cart because there wasn’t fuel for a car.

Usually in charge of documenting the positive impact of aid on people’s lives, now Owda found himself in charge of managing outbursts of anger and recording accounts of survival. One man tried to take his own life in the shelter. Children talked about seeing a chicken pecking at lifeless bodies on the road from Gaza City, and he was grateful his own children were relatively unaware of the upheaval back home.

His text messages grew more somber. Deaths among the displaced are becoming grimly routine, even in the so-called “safe zones” proclaimed by Israel. Gaza’s health ministry’s ability to count the dead in the north has collapsed.

“What is really shocking to me also is that the ceiling of my expectations has become so low,” he said in a recording Nov. 20. “To tame an animal, you make them hungry, they will obey and that way they do what you want.”

ASAAD ALAADIN, WRITER

Asaad Alaadin’s home near the Israeli border ended up on the wrong side of the front line almost as soon as the first bombs fell.

He took shelter in central Gaza City, usually the safest spot in previous wars. On Oct. 11, he was trapped alone in a downtown office by the acrid smoke of Israeli bombs. Alaadin turned on his phone camera and breathlessly described the scene. He feared those moments could be his last.

By the next morning, it was calm enough to venture to his grandfather’s house, also in central Gaza City, joining his immediate family, in-laws, and seven families of cousins. They huddled together as missiles screeched overhead.

A 33-year-old writer, Alaadin contributed to various publications, including an Arabic website aimed at Palestinians inside Israel, covering the arts, literature, protest movements and Gaza’s social dynamics. His wife was in Canada for her studies, which, for a moment, seemed like a relief.

The family debated: Stay or go? They prayed together. His mother’s argument won out. Time to split up. If something happens to one of us, she reasoned, “someone survives and keeps going.”

They set out at 7 a.m. on Oct. 13, the day Israel’s military ordered 1 million Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate. His father went to central Gaza; one sister stayed in Gaza City. He, his mother and a sister headed to Rafah, the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, near the border with Egypt.

Traffic was sparse at first, a car with a mattress tied to the roof and some people trudging through the smell of gunpowder and munitions with their belongings in their arms.

Hours after the Alaadins passed, the road was jammed. Explosions hit a group of trucks filled with families, leaving the ground strewn with dozens of bodies. Israel and Hamas blamed each other. The road emptied again afterwards.

They couldn’t stay long in Rafah. Their hosts asked them to leave because they feared Alaadin’s filming the war put them in danger.

The last core of his family broke apart. His mother and sister went to Khan Younis, a few miles (kilometers) north. Alaadin moved in with his in-laws near the border with Egypt. They, too, asked him to stop filming.

He agreed but kept sending out voice messages, which included the background rumble of warplanes. When more relatives arrived, he and his in-laws left the airy home with its garden and olive trees for a tiny apartment to make room. It was Day 10 of the war.

Their focus turned to day-to-day survival, finding water and food, securing fuel for the generator that keeps their phones charged.

Sunset brought the day’s only meal — mainly pasta, beans or lentils. He treated it like a fast: to save food, build resolve and be closer to God. They listened to the radio for news, read a Kindle, and most of all, searched for network to get news from friends and family.

It was not Hamas that he felt trapped by, he said, even if the group had tried at first and failed to stop people moving south. People didn’t want this bloodshed, “but the reality is our killer is not Hamas. It is the Israeli army,” Alaadin said.

His mind raced down dark passages. Finding food was hard, but easier than having a strike crush you to death under your own home. Even worse was to be injured: Hospitals have run out of supplies, including anesthesia.

But the darkest passages of all were communication blackouts such as the one Israel imposed on Oct. 27. Everything beyond the walls of his in-laws’ house went black. The worst imaginings filled the void.

His wife Jenin, far away in Canada, “went mad,” he said.

When the internet came back on after 36 hours, it was “like the return of the soul to the body.” He broke down in tears at the sound of each voice: his father, his siblings, his mother, his wife. He had feared the worst for his sister in Gaza City, and when they spoke, she wept from the stress of the bombing around her but still refused to leave.

Communication “is more important than food and drink,” he said. “It tells us all the details that we need … who is dead and who is still around.”

The communication blackout marked the beginning of the Israeli ground assault into northern Gaza. Israeli troops have since moved into Gaza City and now threaten to advance south.

His sister and her children finally made it out of Gaza City by Nov. 7. He joined them and their mother in Khan Younis.

Communications cuts became routine. The only way to get a signal was through Israeli or Egyptian e-SIM cards or to wait for brief moments when local providers came online. Alaadin’s voice recordings arrived sporadically, sometimes taking days to land. His voice croaked and grew fainter.

“We feel the danger getting closer. Gaza is shrinking,” he said. “Every war, no matter how destructive, they (Israelis) never changed the features of the city. Now they have.”

SALEM ELRAYYES, JOURNALIST

Salem Elrayyes considers himself a student of Gaza’s urban landscape and how its growing population adapts to being hemmed in by the sea, Israel and Egypt.

Just before Oct. 7, the journalist was working on a podcast about how Gaza grows vertically — apartment towers replacing old villas, crowded shantytowns and farmland.

His 13-year-old daughter’s screams at the sound of hundreds of outgoing rockets woke him early Oct. 7, alerting him to events over the fence.

“It was madness, one after the other, phsst, phsst, phsst,” Elrayyes recalled.

At first, he thought it was rockets from Palestinian factions responding to an Israeli attack. Tension was in the air before Oct. 7.

The reality was harder to fathom.

A border breach, paragliders, the storming of Israeli communities. Israeli jeeps taken by Palestinians raced through Gaza’s streets.

For hours, Palestinian militants controlled several Israeli communities, including villages and towns of the ancestors of current residents of Gaza before Israel’s creation in 1948.

“For me it was the stuff of imagination … I never thought that could happen,” Elrayyes said.

He thought Gaza might expand for the first time, even if just by a bit. But when the Israeli retaliation came, the opposite happened.

Deaths spiraled over the following weeks. “Each strike on a building would level it. Roads were closed with rubble. Movement became hard for us and for ambulances.”

The 37-year-old journalist, who had covered all of Gaza’s wars since 2008, had never felt the need to even stockpile supplies in the past. Calm and grounded, he was always confident that living in central Gaza was security enough.

But a week into the war, Elrayyes and his wife decided that it was time to evacuate from their modern apartment and the roof garden his father had cared for meticulously.

His parents, who lived in the same building, took more convincing. His mother needed dialysis three times a week. He explained that Gaza City’s Shifa hospital, the largest in the Strip, was already overwhelmed.

On Oct. 13, he packed clothes, passports and IDs, and drove his wife and children to an apartment in Khan Younis. He came back for his parents, taking them to a refugee camp in central Gaza near a medical center that offered dialysis.

Then he based himself at the hospital in Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest, where he documented bombings and the deluge of killed and wounded.

He had two daily drives: One to Gaza City to check on the apartment, have a cup of coffee alone and water the plants, and the other, inside Khan Younis, to see his children. The distances weren’t far — about 20 miles (35 kilometers) total.

His last trip to Gaza City was on Nov. 1. He made himself coffee at home but can’t remember if he watered the plants.

Elrayyes’ calm began to fray. He reminisced about quiet nights listening to music and playing with his kids or visiting friends. He dreamed of home-cooked meals.

“Not only the physical space is tightening. My private space is eroding,” Elrayyes said in a long, ranting voice message.

He slept in his car outside the hospital and filed reports and photos from a tent for journalists or an emergency staircase.

At least 46 journalists and media staff have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization that documents threats to the media. Four were Elrayyes’ friends.

By Day 17, like many in Gaza, Elrayyes had the flu. Water was scarce. Irrigation water was used for showers, and some people washed in the Mediterranean to avoid contamination. Eleven bakeries had been bombed, and only nine were left to provide for the hundreds of thousands displaced in the south.

A stale piece of bread was Elrayyes’ only meal on a recent day and he wondered whether he could keep going. “We are not eating well. We are not sleeping well. We get sick easily, not to mention the rockets and whatever else they are lobbing at us,” he said.

He has seen his mother twice since they evacuated. Her dialysis had been cut to twice a week, and she was growing frail.

His communications through WhatsApp with AP were a cherished connection with the outside world.

On Nov. 6, he and his wife were in the car when the dust and smoke of an explosion darkened the air around the shelter housing their children. Fearing the worst, he hit the accelerator. It took just a couple of minutes of frenzied driving behind ambulances to realize the shelter was intact.

Elrayyes couldn’t bear to see the children so soon after envisioning his worst nightmare. He dropped his wife and continued to follow the ambulances.

Fears for his children haunt him. If anything happens to them “it will kill any relation between me and Gaza even after the war.”

On Nov. 20, Elrayyes was called into the morgue of the hospital where he’d camped out to see four of his cousins, including an 18-month-old. They were killed in a nearby airstrike.

AYAH AL-WAKEEL, LAWYER

Ayah al-Wakeel has made a career campaigning for better rights for women. The Gaza City lawyer is used to uphill battles in a conservative society whose religious courts often side with men.

When the war broke out, she stayed focused on the right to a dignified life, raising funds to provide necessities for the thousands who followed Israeli orders to evacuate northern Gaza. But she and her family were determined not to be among them.

They, like many, feared Israel was repeating the 1948 “Nakba,” — the catastrophe — when some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from homes in what is now Israel.

Back then, al-Wakeel’s family was displaced from Jaffa, a city 40 miles (65 kilometers) to the north that the 33-year-old has never seen. They refused to take the chance of losing yet another home to Israel forever, she said in a voice note on Oct. 17 from her house in Gaza City.

“We had a consensus in the family,” she said in a recording. “We will not leave, and we won’t give them what they want. Whatever God has preordained will happen.”

For 12 days, she stayed with her parents, sister, brothers, and uncles in the family building as bombs fell near them.

Then the story of displacement that began in a town al-Wakeel has never seen resumed with a vengeance in the only city she’s ever known. On Oct. 19, in a series of frantic pre-dawn texts, she explained what changed their minds.

“They bombed our house over our heads. We miraculously survived,” she wrote.

Her neighborhood, she wrote, was surrounded by what she called a “ring of fire,” describing successive airstrikes in one block. The barrage seemed designed to drive out anyone who dared stay, she said. She and her neighbors pulled her partially paralyzed father to safety.

She wrote in fragments:

“Four people carried him”

“Each holding an arm or a leg”

Twice, her father asked them to leave him to die.

“We sat around him and said if one rocket hits, we all go together. We kept praying and reading the Shahada,” she wrote, referring to the Muslim profession of faith recited when death seems near.

They managed to carry him out, but another strike hit as they fled. The family scattered, reuniting later at Shifa Hospital.

For six days, al-Wakeel went silent. Then briefly, she wrote: “I am sorry. I can’t keep in touch now. The situation is very terrifying. I have no brain. There is no internet.” A similar message landed the next day.

The next day, she wrote: “In no other war before was I so scared of strikes. After what happened to us, I am terrified beyond words. I can’t keep myself together.”

Again, she fell silent. It was the first communication blackout, on Oct. 27.

When she surfaced two days later, it was to report on another Israeli warning, to leave the Shifa hospital area where Israel claims Hamas built an underground headquarters.

“We don’t know where to go. We are calling friends to try to find a place. We have a bus.”

Eight hours later, al-Wakeel and her family joined about 14,000 people sheltering at al-Quds hospital, about 2 kilometers (1.4 miles) away.

Another evacuation order, another “ring of fire.” Two neighboring apartment towers were bombed. Smoke filled the hospital and damaged one of its wards.

“The sound is really loud and terrifying. The hospital is shaking,” she wrote. In a photo she shared, people slept on the floor.

The next morning, the family moved again to another hospital, their third in three days.

“Father is ok. He is just tired of moving.”

Al-Wakeel thought obsessively about a cold drink of water. She was limiting her intake to two sips a day to avoid the crowded, filthy bathrooms.

Since she left home on Oct. 19, she had had one shower but had no change of clothes. She bought new underwear.

Al-Wakeel was thankful she got her period at a time when she still had some privacy. There were reports of Palestinian women searching for birth-control pills to delay their menstrual cycles.

“My sister is praying she doesn’t get it until after the war,” she texted on Oct. 30.

Five days of silence.

On Nov. 4, she wrote that a “ring of fire” surrounded the third hospital where they had sought shelter. They returned to Shifa, the first hospital.

“I want to collapse but I really don’t have the energy for that,” she wrote.

On Nov. 7, she said Shifa was unsafe but neither was going south. On the same day, al-Wakeel wrote to one of her best friends outside of Gaza: “I miss you, my love.”

Israeli forces breached the hospital on Nov. 13. She has not been heard from since.

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