When Israel warned civilians to leave northern Gaza, Rahma Saqallah and her family fled south. But after Israeli bombs killed her husband and three of her children, she is heading back home.
“Wherever we go, we will die,” Saqallah said, as she prepared to leave the city of Khan Yunis in the south of the territory to return to Gaza City with her surviving child.
She is among roughly 600,000 Palestinians UN officials have said fled south in response to Israel’s warning to evacuate “for your own safety”.
Israel’s relentless bombardment was launched on October 7 in retaliation for the Hamas attack which Israeli officials say killed 1,400 people.
The strikes, which the Hamas-run health ministry says have killed more than 7,000 people, were initially concentrated in Gaza City.
But repeated deadly strikes on the south of the territory in recent days have prompted 30,000 of the displaced to head back home, according to UN figures.
Many were in any case struggling to find shelter in Khan Yunis, an already densely populated city which has been swamped by the influx of families fleeing the north.
On Wednesday, before leaving, Saqallah told AFP: “My husband and my three sons, Daoud, Mohammad and Majed, became martyrs on Tuesday at dawn”.
‘Die in our own homes’
Her husband was 47, her son Majed 9, and Daoud 18, while Mohammad was due to “celebrate his 15th birthday today (Wednesday),” she said.
The strike “destroyed the second and third floors” of the apartment building in which multiple families, around 60 people, were sheltering, she said.
It killed 11 members of her extended family and 26 people from other families.
“From my family, only me and my daughter Raghad (17) are still alive. We are alive but I cannot say that we are well,” she said.
“They have reduced Gaza to ruins, they want to turn it into a cemetery.
“They told us to leave for the south and then they killed us (here),” Saqallah said, calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a liar”.
Like so many other displaced people heading home, Abdallah Ayyad, his wife and their five daughters had squeezed onto a cart pulled by a motorcycle for the journey back to Gaza City having earlier taken shelter in the grounds of Deir el-Balah hospital.
“We are going back to die in our own homes. That will be more dignified,” said the father, in a tone that blended resignation with disgust.
“We live in humiliating conditions here. Nothing to eat, nothing to drink, no toilets and, to top it all, there are bombs going off everywhere,” he said.
‘Nowhere is safe’
Some of those returning north have found it impossible to reach their homes due to the intensity of the bombing.
Instead, they have resigned themselves to sheltering in the grounds of Al-Shifa, the main hospital in Gaza City.
There, whole families huddled beneath canvas tarpaulins hung from the walls and concrete pillars as makeshift tents.
“I, my wife, my children and my brothers-in-law, roughly 40 people in total, live in a tent that can’t be more than three square metres (32 square feet). It’s unfit even for livestock,” said Mohammad Abou al-Nahel, one of those displaced.
“We can hardly use the toilets because of the overcrowding. We are always seeing martyrs and wounded arriving. We don’t have fresh water to drink and the children are sick because of the cold,” said Mennah al-Bahtiti, a refugee who had fled from southern Gaza to the hospital.
The UN humanitarian coordinator in the Palestinian territories, Lynn Hastings, warned on Thursday that “nowhere is safe in Gaza” because of Israel’s bombing.
Asked by AFP, the Israeli army did not immediately comment on its persistent bombing of the south after urging civilians to seek refuge there.