A war on women

Gihan Shahine , Friday 24 May 2024

The Israeli war on Gaza has left Gazan women clinging onto hope despite the uncertainty and destruction that surround them, they explain to Gihan Shahine

A war on women
A war on women


“We are not afraid of death — absolutely not.”

These were the words of Walaa Al-Nawagha, a Gazan psychotherapist and the mother of two children aged four and 11. “Most women in Gaza have lost such a lot, almost everything, that they have no problem with death,” she said.

“Our real fear is of evacuation, of remaining homeless, and of a future that remains largely shrouded in dark clouds,” Al-Nawagha told Al-Ahram Weekly, ironically just a few days before she was forced to move again, this time from the southern Gazan city of Rafah.

The first time she was forced to move was from her marital home in the city of Gaza, which had a view overlooking the sea, to her relatives’ house in Rafah. The details of her forced evacuation were almost akin to something out of a film, just like most of the stories told to the Weekly.

This time she has to move again, but to an unknown place and an unknown future.

“We never thought that we would have to go through this horrible experience,” Al-Nawagha said with a sigh.

We were talking online, and Al-Nawagha’s voice bespoke a mixture of inner power and unmistakable agony. She was trying to be upbeat despite her hardship, cracking jokes with her colleague and friend Shuaa Al-Rayes, the founder of the Palestinian Food Bank where the two women were volunteering in community services in nearby refugee camps.

Our conversation took place before the Israeli invasion of Rafah. Al-Rayes and Al-Nawagha were working at the organisation’s makeshift office in Rafah, where they had been forced to move and where they were trying to help with the shattered lives of displaced women in tents.

Their voices were sometimes interrupted by the poor Internet connection or the loud sound of Israeli aircraft hovering overhead, these being called al-zananna because of the irritating sound they produce.

“Are you annoyed by the sound of the al-zananna?” the women asked. “This is part of our daily lives and is the least of our concerns. We wouldn’t be able to sleep and might even get worried if we didn’t hear it hovering over our heads.”

The two women laughed. “It’s nothing compared to the sounds of the Israeli bombings of residential areas,” Al-Rayes said.

 “We’ve been through wars before, but nothing like what we’ve been through since 7 October last year,” Al-Nawagha went on. Her tone grew more serious. “This time is totally different; it is a genocide that has left every single family with unprecedented losses. We’ve never been through this before.”

Women and children often bear the brunt of wars, but in the case of the Israeli war on Gaza the amount of suffering that both Palestinian women and children are going through is beyond words.

In Gaza, the consensus is that it is not a war. It’s a genocide that seems to be directly targeting women and children. The UN has produced alarming statistics saying that 70 per cent of those killed in the Israeli war on Gaza are women and children. According to UN estimates, “six months into the war, 10,000 Palestinian women in Gaza have been killed, among them an estimated 6,000 mothers, leaving 19,000 children orphaned.”

But death is almost the least that can happen to women in Gaza. According to UN Women’s latest “Gender Alert on Gaza,” “women who have survived Israeli bombardment and ground operations have been displaced, widowed, and face starvation.”

“This devastating differentiated impact continues to make the war on Gaza also a war on women,” it warned.

Anyone looking at the videos coming out of Gaza on Gaza’s women will get a glimpse of their plight. One heartbreaking video that went viral a few weeks ago shows a woman clinging to the dead bodies of her six-month-old twin babies who had been killed along with their fathers in an Israeli raid on their neighbourhood at night while they were sleeping.


“Who will call me mother from now on? Who will call me mother?” Rania Abu Anza repeated, sobbing, as she mourned her twins who had been born following fertility treatment. Abu Anza’s cries reduced all those listening to tears, including the host of the Al-Jazeera TV channel who was interviewing her on air.

But even those who appear to be luckier than Abu Anza in that they have not lost their children to the war are struggling to feed them. One woman was encouraging her baby to suck the juice from a date as she was not able to breastfeed him due to malnutrition and formula milk being unavailable or too expensive.

It is no wonder that many mothers have lost their children to starvation or malnutrition.

“In this war, all women have lost immensely. No one is immune this time round,” Al-Nawagha lamented.

“Most women have lost their homes and are living under inhumane conditions in tents or crowded shelters. Many have lost their husbands, children, and perhaps even their whole family and have been forced to evacuate and move to the unknown.”

“Losing your home and leaving your whole life behind is horrible. Dozens of women have also lost their dignity because of sexual assaults, though few might have the courage to confess it.”

“Nothing whatsoever can compensate for such losses, nothing.”


One Gazan women who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity related tales of horror of her own experience and that of relatives and friends when she had been forced to leave her home and head to Rafah.

“It was on the eve of 11 November when we were told to leave our homes in Gaza City, because it was announced that it was an area of combat that was no longer safe for civilians,” the 28-year-old mother of two children aged three and seven said.

Mona, not her real name, talked to the Weekly online from her temporary home in Rafah where she has been living with her in-laws, parents, and other families since their evacuation. Our conversation took place just a few days before she was forced to move again, this time to a tent in a camp in Al-Sheikh Zuwayed.

 “Initially, my husband refused to leave our house in Gaza despite the fact that most of his family had already left. We decided to remain in the basement of our building with two of his siblings and their spouses,” Mona said, relating her first experience of displacement.

“The Israeli army then started to bombard the place, and we called the Red Cross to help us evacuate. They told us to carry a white flag and to go out into the street. We did that, but we were chased by Israeli tanks that opened fire on us as we were trying to escape in side streets.

“We hid in a nearby mall where we spent a horrific night in the dark — there were no lights to switch on and anyway the walls were made of glass. We had to drink water from a toilet. We called Al-Jazeera TV to ask if they could help us move to the south, and we were told again to go out carrying a white flag to show that we were civilians.”

All those interviewed said that moving south was dangerous and took nine whole hours on foot, during which no rest or food or drink were allowed. Those moving on foot had to walk on the beach because it was easier to walk on the sand, and they had to obey a brutal Israeli order. If they dropped something, they were not allowed to bend down and pick it up, even if it was a child, as if they did the Israeli army would shoot the whole group of people.

“One of our neighbours had her baby screaming on her arm,” Mona said. “The Israeli soldiers, apparently annoyed by the baby, told her to leave him on the ground and carry on walking without looking back or else they would shoot the whole group of people.

“When the woman was forced to obey the order, they shot the baby dead. It was horror, horror, horror.

“Another young man who had been pushing his elderly father in a wheelchair was similarly ordered to leave his father behind. All those around him pleaded with the young man, telling him that he and everyone else would be shot. When the young man surrendered, the Israeli forces shot his father dead in his wheelchair.”

Mona was luckier than her neighbours. Having had no food for almost three days, she and her two daughters aged three and nine fell on the ground while walking the 9 km to the south. Mona hurried back onto her feet and was able to grab the hands of her children, helping them to stand up and resume walking.

“My three-year-old daughter kept crying all the way out of hunger, and I told my children to run and never look back until we reached our destination,” Mona said.

 “The Israeli soldiers ordered my husband to leave the group and go ahead. We were told to move on and not look back, and he disappeared for a few days. We didn’t know anything about him until he was released. It turned out that he had been arrested for a few days, and he told us about the torture he had seen in the Israeli detention camps.”

The images of dead bodies and those threatened and killed on the way remain engrained in such women’s minds and wake their children at night. “The children still suffer from nightmares and have nervous fits,” Mona lamented.

“It’s too much for women and children to bear all this.”


Today, Mona has been thrown out of her temporary home in Rafah and thrust into a nightmarish reality, sharing a tent with many of her family members after her second forced evacuation.

“We feel like we are sleeping in the street,” she sobbed. “We sleep on uneven ground, and the tent is as hot as an oven. We are surrounded by insects and reptiles. What is worse, we cannot see any end to our misery as things get worse every day.”

Tens of thousands of Gazan women are forced to endure overcrowded refugee camps and makeshift shelters, where life has become a daily struggle for survival.

“In this harrowing landscape, women have to endure the unbearable heat inside the tents and walk for miles to get a gallon of water that does not even cover their basic needs,” Al-Nawagha said.

“Having a shower has become a luxury and personal hygiene has almost disappeared, causing the spread of disease, not to mention insects and reptiles. Women struggle to find sanitary pads during menstruation, and they are both scarce and extremely expensive.”

The UN publication Scarcity and Fear attests to the “lack of access to water, sanitation, and hygiene [WASH] services, which are vital to women’s health, dignity, safety, and privacy.” It shows how “more than one million Palestinian women and girls in Gaza are facing catastrophic hunger, with almost no access to food, safe drinking water, functioning toilets or running water, creating life-threatening risks.”

“Access to clean water is especially critical for breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women, who have higher daily water and caloric intake requirements,” the report says. “It is also essential for the ability of women and girls to manage their menstrual hygiene with dignity and safety. UN Women estimates that 10 million disposable menstrual pads or four million reusable sanitary pads are required each month to cover the needs of 690,000 women and girls in Gaza.”

However, this need cannot be satisfied owing to Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to humanitarian aid. “International organisations say they don’t receive enough aid for the growing needs of the Strip,” Al-Nawagha said. “Even their aid kits do not necessarily fulfil the basic needs of women.”

Pregnant women may be bearing the brunt of the hardships. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a NGO, is sounding the alarm on the severe effects nearly six months of conflict are having on these Palestinian women, especially owing to the critical shortages of food, water, and healthcare and the threat of imminent famine.

“Pregnant women in Gaza face hunger, Israeli bombardments, displacement, and the constant threat of death or illness from injuries, infections, or disease,” says a report by the IRC. “Many women have had to give birth without any form of medical aid, and there are credible reports of women forced to undergo C-sections without anesthesia.”

Al-Nawagha agreed with the IRC report. She told the Weekly that her cousin had had to undergo a C-section with little or almost no anesthesia.  “My cousin said she had a nightmarish experience as she felt almost every cut and stitch in her body during the C-section,” she said.

In the absence of hygiene, “her stitches were infected, and she had to go through yet another painful procedure to clean the infected stitches and replace them with new ones, again without any real anesthesia.”

Even those surviving such nightmarish conditions are faced with yet another struggle because of the lack of maternity care.

“Women do not receive enough nutrients. They live on canned food that more often than not has to be eaten uncooked in the absence of natural gas and the rising prices of wood,” Al-Nawagha went on. “We live on two cans of food per day that our bodies almost reject anyway.”

Breastfeeding is no option for many women lacking proper nutrition. “Baby formula is scarce and very expensive, and international organisations provide mothers with only one tin of baby milk per month. The rest of the time, the mother is left to struggle for milk for her baby to survive.”

Infant mortality is high, and even those children who survive suffer from malnutrition, infections, and diseases. “Diapers are extremely expensive, and organisations provide only 12 diapers every 10 days or so. Mothers sometimes clean the diapers and re-use them because they don’t know what else to do, and this of course also causes skin infections and other problems.”


Besides facing starvation, dehydration, and direct exposure to armed conflict, doctors have told the UN that “stress and shock are causing some pregnant women to experience premature labour in a context where emergency care is beyond reach, often resulting in the death of their babies before reaching full term.”

“This tragic outcome can be attributed to the traumatic experiences of witnessing their homes bombed, experiencing displacement and fear, and the wholesale destruction of Gaza’s healthcare system,” IRC team leader for the Gaza crisis Arvind Das said.

“Pregnant women and newborn babies have repeatedly been forced to evacuate hospitals, and aid workers have been reporting a major increase in premature births due to extreme levels of stress.”

A mixed state of fear, loss, and hope is what most women in Gaza are undergoing, depending on their plight and their level of suffering, according to Al-Nawagha.

Whereas some women have literally lost everything, others remain resilient in the face of calamity. Many women struggle to stay strong in order to be able to support their families, to help their children cope with the miserable conditions, and sometimes to bear the loss of their fathers and siblings.

“It’s a horrible feeling that you are being constantly displaced, living with imminent threats and dangers, that you don’t have a home, that you see your country being totally destroyed, and more importantly perhaps, that you don’t have any clue when this ordeal will be over,” Al-Nawagha lamented.

But just like many other Gazan women, she tries to cling to “hopes and thoughts of a better tomorrow bringing a better future.”

“This is what Allah has promised, and we do believe in our ultimate victory, even though we don’t know whether that will happen any time soon,” Al-Nawagha said. “We trust that the day of victory is coming and that we have to make sacrifices for our own land. Some women are desperate, of course, and we try to spread such positive thinking to help them go on living and take care of their children.”

One 66-year-old displaced woman, with diabetes and blood clots in her legs impeding her from walking, joined the conversation. Her voice was full of hope and resilience, and she kept on emphasising resilience and divine submission.

“We are strong and patient, and we will remain in our land no matter what,” the old woman insisted. She considered herself to be lucky because she was already in Rafah attending a wedding on the eve of 7 October and had remained there ever since.

“Walking nine hours from north to south would have been impossible for me, but it was God’s protection that brought me to Rafah just before the war broke out,” the woman told the Weekly.

“We live in very difficult conditions, crammed in a small flat that has only one bedroom and is shared by 23 people,” she went on. “But we thank God we have survived and can keep going.”

What happens next is a question that no one can answer. All the Palestinian women who talked to the Weekly said that they will have to survive manifold challenges today as well as in the future when they go back home and find their once-beautiful city in ruins.

“In the fragile socio-political landscape of Gaza, women and girls stand as symbols of both resilience and vulnerability,” commented Amal Mohamed Al-Malki, a Qatari scholar and advocate of women’s rights.

In her article “Resilience and Vulnerability: The Complex Reality of Women in Gaza”, Al-Malki explains how the “unwavering spirit” of Gazan women “offers a glimmer of hope amid overwhelming despair”.

“Their remarkable resolve and strength in the face of unimaginable hardships stand as a testament to the indomitable spirit of Gazan women,” Al-Malki wrote. “Their stories, filled with pain and sacrifice, demand not just sympathy but also action.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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