A family’s struggle to survive in Gaza

LEFT: Amgad Al-Mhalwi with his son Majd on Gaza beach before the war. RIGHT: Al-Mhalwi’s son Ibrahim on the evening of Nov. 19. — Amgad Al-Mhalwi LEFT: Amgad Al-Mhalwi with his son Majd on Gaza beach before the war. RIGHT: Al-Mhalwi’s son Ibrahim on the evening of Nov. 19. — Amgad Al-Mhalwi

Before retiring five years ago, I directed the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office in New York and co-chaired the Israel-Palestine Working Group, a nongovernmental organization at the U.N.

MCC supports several NGOs doing relief, development and peace work in Israel and Palestine. On visits to Gaza, I became friends with several staff members of Al-Najd Developmental Forum, one of the MCC-supported NGOs with headquarters in Gaza City. Al-Najd, with Mennonite support, helped Gazan families develop home gardens and raise rabbits and chickens.

I have kept in touch with two of the Al-Najd staff over the years. After the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 and the Israelis’ response of massive bombing, I soon learned that the building that housed Al-Najd was destroyed and that Mostafa Al-Naffar, one of my staff friends, had been killed. My remaining friend, Amgad Al-Mhalwi, has worked at Al-Najd for 17 years and continued sending me text updates on his family.

Amgad’s family was originally from Hamama, 25 miles north of Gaza. But in what the Palestinians call the nakba (the “catastrophe” in 1948 when the Israeli army forced the evacuation of more than 400 Palestinian villages), Israeli military forces drove the family out of Hamama to the Nuseirt refugee camp near Gaza City.

Amgad, 36, and his wife Qamer, 25, both former university students, married five years ago. They now have two young sons, Majd, 4, and Ibrahim, 2. They lived with Amgad’s extended family of about 50 people in a compound of houses near Gaza City. When the Israeli Defense Force ordered everyone to leave northern Gaza in the first week of the war, several of Amgad’s extended family were killed while trying to travel to the south. Amgad decided it was safer to shelter in the north rather than risk getting killed trying to go south.

“We left our house first to my aunt’s house, then to my uncle’s house, then to my wife’s family’s house, then to Al-Huda School in the Sheikh Radwan area, and after that, Ramez Luxury School, then Musab bin Omair School, and the finally to Umar bin Aas School,” he wrote. But each time they moved, shelling and bombing made them move again. The brutal reality was that there was no safe place to go.

The Umar bin Aas school was overcrowded, but Amgad found a 5-meter-square classroom on the third floor that seemed a refuge for the 55 people of his extended family.

The school seemed secure until Nov. 19, when the IDF moved into the area and started shelling.

“My brother, the shells were everywhere,” he wrote. “They were all around, next to the school. Many of the children who were in the school courtyard were injured and died. A shell came behind the school, and people began to flee under the bombardment.

“We said, ‘What do we do? Where do you go under heavy bombardment?’ We decided it was safest to stay in school.

“I was just outside the classroom door when, shortly after the afternoon prayer, at 3:20 p.m., a tank shell hit the classroom wall sending shrapnel throughout the classroom. The explosion blew me away from the door, and when I reentered the classroom, it was full of blood and screaming.

“My father is dead, my uncle’s wife was not moving, my sister’s neck was sliced open. My brother died while praying. My wife’s face is bloody, her whole body covered in blood. She and my children are crying and screaming. I was in shock, uninjured.

“The most beautiful people in the world died that day: my father, the most affectionate person in the world; my brother, who loved my children so much; my sister, who in my heart was more like my daughter; and my aunt, the fourth member of my family to die in that room.

“Thirty people were killed in the school that day, and over a hundred were wounded. Three shells hit the school while we were there, and a fourth exploded as we were fleeing.

“I carried my two children and took my wife, sister and brother to the nearest medical clinic.

“My older brother told me that he would bury my dead family members. I was unable to say goodbye to any of them. The bombs and shells were falling, and I had to try to get my children to safety.

“It was the worst day of my life.

“My boys had witnessed their grandfather, their uncle and their aunt being killed, with blood all over everyone in the classroom. My cousin had his hand severed, and shrapnel had destroyed both of my brother’s eyes. The boys were screaming, quaking in fear and peeing in their pants.”

I did not hear from Amgad for a month and a half and worried that he and his family had been killed in the bombing. But, miraculously, they had made their way, mostly walking, the 20 miles from Gaza City to Rafa on the Egyptian border. I finally got a message: “We are in Rafa. My family is tired, sick and cold. We do not even have a tent to live in.”

Amgad was able to buy a nylon tent for $400, but there was no heat, and food and water were very hard to find.

“The children became sick,” he wrote in January. “We need psychological support and food. We are very tired. We long to return to our homes, even though they are destroyed.

“The experience of that night in the bloody classroom has changed my boys. Najd now always wants to sleep with Amgad, and Ibrahim always wants to sleep with Qamer. When the boys hear bombing, they wet their pants and run terrified to their parents. If they see red, even a piece of clothing, they run away screaming, ‘blood, blood, blood.’

On Feb. 12 the IDF rescued two Israeli hostages in Gaza. To distract from the IDF operation to rescue the hostages, they bombed and shelled other areas of Rafa, killing at least 67 Palestinian women and children.

Amgad and his family were living in a nylon tent in Rafa that night.

“Tonight was very difficult,” he wrote. “Very strong bombardment.

“I saw my son Majd trying to hide from the bombing. He was trembling as he tried to hide his face in the ground, thinking that if no one could see him, he wouldn’t die. . . .

“Please pressure your government to end this war and the occupation.”

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