‘We were walking in water, sand, mud’: Palestinian women describe terror of 12-mile escape on foot from Gaza City

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One woman said she had no choice but to abandon her elderly stepmother on the beach, and feared she’d since been attacked by dogs that were roaming the area.

In extensive interviews, the women alleged that Israeli forces abducted their husbands and sons, older relatives, and one sister, a female doctor, from the apartment building where they were sheltering in Gaza City. They accused the Israeli military of blowing up the building, as well as others nearby.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a statement last Thursday that Israeli forces were carrying out demolitions of residential buildings and other civilian structures across the enclave, including in Gaza City.

The upscale Al-Rimal neighborhood in Gaza City has been devastated by Israel’s intense bombing campaign, launched in response to Hamas’ deadly attacks in Israel on October 7. Near-constant airstrikes have reduced the city’s once vibrant business district, with its offices, luxury apartment buildings and restaurants, to rubble.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the city in waves since the bombing began. In late January, dozens of people were killed in airstrikes on the city and Israeli troops swarmed Al-Rimal district, according to Khader Al Za’anoun, a journalist for the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.

More than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed and 66,000 injured in Israeli attacks since the war started, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza.

One woman, Israa Hassan Ahmed al-Ashkar, said that for a whole week the group were trapped in the apartment building in Al-Rimal. The Israeli military “terrorized us and terrorized the children. For a whole week, they besieged us,” al-Ashkar said.

She said that they had had nothing to eat or drink. “There is nothing in the house, hardly finding some water, and it was salty water. It was salty. We drank it, and our children. We were not able to make any noises… so they wouldn’t know that we were there.”

Hoda Harb, another member of the group who made it to the hospital, said that when Israeli soldiers finally came to the building where they were hiding, they stormed it despite her saying there were children inside. “We opened the door for them and asked them not to shoot. We told them we only have kids, but they kept shooting.”

She said that when they were told to leave, Israeli troops said the building would be blown up within 10 minutes.

Al-Ashkar said that at first, they did not want to leave the building, but the Israeli military began intensive bombing in the immediate area. They “destroyed the building entrance and came upstairs. They took all the men. They gathered the people who were in the basement and took them upstairs,” she said.

She alleged that Israeli troops had beaten and stripped the men in the building. “They were freezing, only wearing their undergarments. After that they asked us all, all the women, to go downstairs.” Many men had been detained, she claimed. “We heard their screams because they were beating them up.”

Al-Ashkar said that Israeli forces had placed explosives in the buildings where people had been sheltering. “We heard the houses collapsing on the heads of people,” she claimed, and then the ruins of the buildings were bulldozed.

“They were about to bury us as well, but we begged them to let us out. They let us out and took the men in the tanks. They told us to go towards the sea to Rafah.”

“Individuals suspected of involvement in terrorist activity are being detained and questioned. Individuals who are found not to be taking part in terrorist activities are released,” the IDF said, adding that those detained were “treated in accordance with international law,” but that strip searches were “often necessary” to ensure they were not concealing explosive vests or other weaponry.

“In situations where soldiers fail to adhere to IDF orders, the incidents are thoroughly reviewed, and disciplinary actions are implemented, if necessary,” the IDF said.

Walla Abdul Rahim Shabaan al-Arbeel recounted how difficult the trek south from Al-Rimal had been – with an uncle suffering from cancer and two disabled people requiring wheelchairs. Seven people in the group had gotten as far as a roundabout called al-Mina on the coast, she said, but they had not been able to proceed any further and the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) had been unable to reach them. What happened to them is unknown.

“My children were walking all day in the rain. We spent over eight hours walking. Without shoes and without clothes. They didn’t let us take anything,” al-Ashkar said, referring to their journey from the building in Gaza City.

Based on the route the women described, the journey on foot would have been more than 20 kilometers (at least 12.43 miles). Much of the walk was on sand down the coast.

Al-Ashkar said that the walk had been longer than eight hours and said that Israeli forces were firing towards them as they walked. She said: “We left with nothing. They refused to give us anything. No milk. My son doesn’t have any milk or diapers. Not even water. All the way, I’m asking him to walk and he is saying ‘I am tired.’ I told him I am also tired.”

She described the devastation as they walked along the coast. “All the streets are destroyed.”

Al-Arbeel provided a very similar account of their interaction with Israeli forces. “Last week on Sunday, late in the afternoon, they came and they surrounded us with tanks. We were not able to go out. There was no food, no drinks, no water. We were not even able to turn on the lights. We were scared they would see us.”

Her sister, who’s a doctor, her two brothers and her husband had been taken away, she said. She does not know what happened to them.

When she finally left the building, al-Arbeel said the Israeli soldiers “didn’t let me take milk for my son. No jackets for my children. They were barefoot. Nothing. I was begging them, but they didn’t give me anything.”

Describing the journey to the hospital, she said that they could see Israeli missile boats off the coast and were fearful they would be fired on. “We were not allowed to stop. If we stopped a little bit, either the boats in the sea would see us, or the tanks from the other side. We were dying. We went to through hell.”

Harb said they had no food while under siege in Al-Rimal. “The children kept asking for food… a piece of bread… just a little water.”

She said that during the long walk along the beaches in the cold rain, she was frightened that stray dogs were hunting the children, and at one point her stepmother fell.

“She turned blue, she got so tired… I tried, I wanted to help her and bring her help, but I couldn’t, I cried so much for her, I kept telling her, ‘Get up, just try and walk, get up,’” Harb recalled. “She told me, ‘Just leave me, just go away from the Israelis.’ She kept saying, ‘Go, go, go, I don’t want them shooting you.’”

“I covered her, I couldn’t do anything for her, the dogs were around her… I left her alive, I gave her a bottle of water and told her to forgive me that I couldn’t help her.”

Harb’s daughter Tala, 10, also described what happened when they said they were forced by Israeli troops to leave the building, saying: “They took my father, uncle, and cousins, they made them take all their clothes off. My father is sick and might die from the cold… Even my uncle and grandfather [they] left them with their underwear and a short-sleeved shirt.”

Tala said she was afraid that the Israelis might have blown up the building while the men of the family were still inside, but she didn’t know for sure what had happened to them.

Another member of the same family, Warda Fadeel El Helw, also recalled Harb’s stepmother collapsing during the journey. “We couldn’t help her; she couldn’t keep going and she fell on the beach… She told us to leave her and go, and that God is with her, so we covered her and left,” she said.

“We were walking in the water, on the sand and the mud, sewage and stones on our legs.”

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