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An elderly Palestinian woman fled her home in northern Gaza. Now she is fighting to keep her grandchildren alive

By Mohammad Al Sawalhi, Abeer Salman and Sana Noor Haq, CNN

(CNN) — The courtyard of Um Ihab’s family home in Jabalya, northern Gaza, once bloomed with citrus trees.

On most weekends, dozens of relatives would gather for a birthday party or a university graduation. The Palestinian grandmother would decorate the house with gold streamers and multi-colored balloons, as white confetti poured from the ceiling.

But when an Israeli airstrike demolished the house last winter, at least 30 members of the Ihab family were forced to flee the neighborhood where three generations had lived. Now, they are staying in a cramped tent in the yard of a displacement shelter in Deir al-Balah, in central Gaza, Um Ihab said.

“The land was swept away,” Um Ihab told CNN in February. “Not even one tree stayed up.”

Over six months of war in Gaza, Israel’s military offensive has decimated neighborhoods, drained essential supplies and caused severe hunger and thirst. Many Palestinians have been forced to seek refuge in outdoor tent camps, where they struggle to find enough food or water.

For elderly Gazans whose lifetimes have been punctuated by war, the latest fighting has compounded years of suffering under partial blockade. These days, many find themselves marking death instead of celebrating life. Some, like Um Ihab, are desperately trying to hold their families together. But their age and poor health make daily survival even more of a struggle.

Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza on October 7 after the militant group Hamas, which governs Gaza, killed at least 1,200 people and abducted more than 250 others.

Israeli attacks in Gaza have since killed at least 33,091 Palestinians and injured another 75,750 people, according to the Ministry of Health there. CNN cannot independently confirm the figures due to the lack of international media access.

As Israel’s offensive in Gaza hits the six-month mark, international bodies and human rights advocates have called for an urgent and immediate humanitarian ceasefire. Human Rights Watch and Oxfam last month accused Israel of carrying out “indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks in violation of international law” and imposing collective punishments on the civilian population.

Approximately 111,500 older Gazans are among those most at risk of hunger, dehydration, illness, injury and death, HelpAge International reported in February.

“We used to live a dignified life. Everything was available,” said Um Ihab. “But everything is gone now. No trees, no house. My son lost his house. I lost my house. My daughters lost their houses. Nothing remains.”

‘Water is very scarce’

Um Ihab plays with her grandchildren on the floor of their tent, where a toddler carries an empty milk bottle. They sing a song about stolen childhood in Arabic.

Video filmed by a journalist working for CNN in Gaza shows women from the family rocking their children to try to comfort them as Israeli drones buzz overhead.

“You can clearly see our reality here. We wake up every day thinking it’s a dream,” Um Ihab told CNN in a lengthy interview, as she clambered over rumpled bed sheets and blankets. “You can hear the voices around us… We’re not used to this. We are used to living independently.

“We are not asking for much, we are asking for the bare minimum.”

Israel’s offensive has forcibly displaced at least 1.7 million people in Gaza, according to the UN. Palestinians who lived in traditional extended family homes before the war say they are crammed with dozens of relatives inside improvised shelters with no privacy. Makeshift tents constructed with large wooden poles covered in plastic sheeting are too flimsy to withstand winter weather. Grandparents beg on the streets because they cannot find enough food, water or infant formula for their families. Young children stay inside so they do not get lost in the chaos of the displacement camps.

“If he was at my house… he would have been walking in my garden,” Um Ihab said of one of the youngest grandchildren. “These are the children of the future. What did he do wrong so he would be deprived from all the essential foods that he needs?”

Israel’s severe restrictions on aid entering Gaza have exposed the entire population of more than 2.2 million to the risk of famine, according to a UN-backed report. Virtually all households are skipping meals every day, the report said, adding that one in three children aged under two are “acutely malnourished.”

In March, UN rights chief Volker Türk warned Israel’s sustained restrictions on the entry of aid into Gaza “may amount to the use of starvation as a method of war, which is a war crime.” Israel insists there is “no limit” on the amount of aid that can enter Gaza, but its inspection regime means relief is barely trickling in. The Israeli bombardment has also severely damaged Gaza’s critical infrastructure.

“Water is very scarce… It’s a big struggle, beyond what you can imagine,” said Um Ihab. “We are hardly managing to feed the children… If I needed a loaf of bread, I would be begging for it because I need to feed my grandchildren. What else can I do?”

Lentil soup is often all the family can afford in Deir al-Balah, where market supplies are thin and food prices have rocketed. On most days, Um Ihab says, the family cannot afford dinner.

She crouches over a pile of firewood and stirs a pot of soup. “As you see, when we use the wood, the smoke comes to our eyes and tears fall immediately,” she told CNN.

Elderly Palestinians less likely to survive privations

Um Ihab’s husband spent his final days hungry, sleep-deprived, in pain and physically exhausted.

About 12 years ago, he suffered a stroke that left him needing physical care. Um Ihab said she nursed her husband back to health by feeding him pureed food and taking walks in the sunshine.

But after Israel’s bombardment forced them to flee south to the displacement shelter, his lack of mobility severely worsened, leaving him bedbound, according to Um Ihab. He developed pressure sores, which led to sepsis. He eventually died inside the tent from severe malnutrition, she says.

“He spent 55 days without eating anything. He used to swallow pureed food prepared by a blender. We came here, we didn’t have yogurt. There was nothing,” she told CNN. “My husband died in that tent because of lack of hygiene, and lack of electricity… He died from hunger, he died from oppression.”

His story is part of a broader picture of suffering for his generation. Displacement shelters in Gaza are not equipped to support elderly Palestinians who require specialized care. And women of all ages face an increased risk of violence, exploitation and abuse, HelpAge International said.

Doctors have told CNN that those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, are less likely to be able to access life-saving medication, as Israel’s restrictions on the entry of goods drastically cut drug supplies. Limited electricity supply means vulnerable members of the population cannot power assistive devices. Elderly Gazans may have less access to the internet, which means they could miss food distribution alerts.

They have “less physiological reserve” than younger members of the population, making them less able to tolerate dire living conditions and more prone to infection, said Rebecca Inglis, an intensive care doctor in Britain who regularly visits Gaza to teach medical students.

“(They are) more likely to become more severely unwell when they catch something,” she told CNN. “Some older people will go without to ensure younger people are fed, putting them at increased risk of malnutrition.”

For older Palestinians, grueling displacement journeys on foot can compound the daily stress of trying to survive the war. Elderly Palestinians who struggle with mobility may be “unwilling or unable” to move from their homes, reported HelpAge International.

Such difficulties mean they are less likely to be able to comply with evacuation orders or flee in an emergency, medical workers told CNN. “A colleague in Gaza told me of an elderly man who suffered a heart attack after being forcibly evacuated from the north of Gaza to the south,” Inglis said.

If hit by airstrikes, those who survive may be unable to pull themselves out of the rubble, she added.

Years of trauma

In the weeks since her husband passed away in Deir al-Balah, Um Ihab says she has been haunted by the indignity of his death.

Hundreds of Muslims gathered to perform his Janazah, the Islamic funeral prayer. Palestinians have previously told CNN they find solidarity through small acts of worship – against the backdrop of tremendous devastation. But for Um Ihab, faith offers little consolation.

“Everyone came, young and old, from Jabalya and outside Jabalya. They all participated in his funeral, despite the circumstances and suffering,” she said. “We were forced to bury him here.

“I wish he had died a normal death in his house with honor. His death was such a pain in my heart.”

As Israel’s military campaign pushes Gaza residents out of their homes, those inside the enclave fear they will meet the same fate as their ancestors.

Um Ihab says her mother fled historic Palestine during al-Nakba, or “the catastrophe,” of 1948. At least 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes following the 1948/49 war, in what is now Israel. They and their descendants say they have never known a life without the constant threat of Israeli invasion. Others are paralyzed by the grief of seeing their children’s futures being taken away from them.

“My tears dried up from crying over my husband, crying over my kids,” said Um Ihab. “I feel like I will lose my mind… We try our best to make it easier for them and cheer them up. If they were at home, they would have their own toys.”

Even before the war, Israel’s partial blockade of Gaza made it harder for elderly Palestinians to access health and social services. At least 97% of older Gazans had at least one health condition and 86% had at least one disability, according to data from El-Wedad Society for Community Rehabilitation and HelpAge International in 2021. At least 78% reported that they felt anxious all, or most, of the time – and almost 27% of older Palestinians lived in poverty.

“When I feel sad and start screaming or crying, they (relatives) still endure me because they know what I have been through,” Um Ihab told CNN.

The Palestinian grandmother says she finds some respite along the beaches of central Gaza, where blue water licks the sandy shores. She tries to call relatives to let them know she is still alive.

“Every time I come, I complain to the sea, hoping that God responds to my fate and take us out from this pain,” she reflected.

“Our life was good and comfortable. We used to come to the sea to have fun and have good time, now we come to the sea to complain about our worries.”

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