Yousef Hammash with his wife and children, Elia and Ahmad.

‘I don't know what's waiting for us in the next minute’: A father tries to protect his family in Gaza

Israel has signaled that it's planning to expand operations in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza. About a million Palestinians are crammed into the city near the Egyptian border after repeatedly being told to move south, and now they say they have nowhere left to flee. The World’s host Carolyn Beeler speaks to Yousef Hammash, who works with the aid group the Norwegian Refugee Council, and moved there months ago with this family.

The World

Washington's top diplomat is once again in the Middle East. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is trying to find a way to pause the bloody war between Israel and Hamas.

Yousef Hammash with his 5-year-old daughter Elia and his 2-year-old son Ahmad.

Yousef Hammash with his 5-year-old daughter Elia and his 2-year-old son Ahmad.


Courtesy of Yousef Hammash

That effort hit another obstacle on Wednesday, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected demands from Hamas for a ceasefire.

"We are on the way to an absolute victory," Netanyahu said. "There is no other solution."

Israel has signaled that it's planning to expand operations in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza. About a million Palestinians are crammed into that city near the Egyptian border after repeatedly being told to move south.

And now they say they have nowhere left to flee.

"We are literally trapped between Israeli tanks and the Egyptian border in a very narrow piece of land," said Yousef Hammash, an aid worker and resident of Gaza who's now sheltering with his children in the southern city of Rafah. 

"So, what are the options that we have now? What is the solution for us when we are trapped here?"

Hammash, who works with the aid group the Norwegian Refugee Council, moved to Rafah with his family months ago. The World's host Carolyn Beeler spoke with him about the conditions they are facing.

Carolyn Beeler: What is life like in Rafah now?
Yousef Hammash: Last night was really heavy night. [The whole] night, the Israeli army was doing, as they call it, the "Fire Belt," which is continuously bombing in one area, which is literally an earthquake. Israeli tanks are less than 1 kilometer away from us. So, I can clearly hear the clashes, the bombing and the airstrikes are very clear. Every day, continuously there is house targeting or yesterday, for example, they attacked members of the police who were escorting the aid truck. After the delivery, they attacked them on their way back. Just one among many, many other attacks came into Rafah.
That must be terrifying to live through.
It is. It is. But where are we going to go? On one side, we have the Israeli tanks and on the other side we have the Egyptian border. So, what is the solution for us, when we are locked here and all of the Israeli media and Israeli spokesperson who are talking about the ground operation that is going to take a place in Rafah as a next step, that's a huge concern for us, because we've run out of solutions. We were running from one place to another, from one place to another. So, where we are going to go now?
What are your options? I mean, if strikes become increasingly intense, what will you do?
Imagine a situation of a household, a head of a household, who doesn't have the ability to find bread for his children. Since the Israeli media and everyone start to talk about the next step as a military operation in Rafah, I'm thinking how I'm going to provide safety and shelter. And unfortunately, I don't have options. Either I have to go back to the middle area, where the bombing is more intense or, I don't know, should I find a solution to go back to the north or be killed by the Israelis on the way back, while 85% of the housing units in the north and Gaza City were totally destroyed. So, the other option is that Israel is going to start this ground operation in Rafah, and they will push everyone towards the Egyptian border. And I don't think we are welcome there.
How old are your kids and how are they doing?
I have Elia, 5 years old, and Ahmad, 2 years and a half. I also ran out of lies in front of my children of justification for what's going on, why we are here and when we are going to our home, because we don't have a home anymore. We don't have a house anymore to go back to. I still have that feeling in front of my children, somehow I'm useless. [The only thing] I can do [is get] some some food, something to drink. If we are lucky, I will have biscuits. As a father, this is the only role that I can play. Even in terms of safety, I cannot protect them from airstrikes. And imagining my son who is 2 years and a half, now can understand the difference between a tank shell or an airstrike, My son understands the noise of an airstrike if there is bombing, that's an airplane. What our children went through, I don't think that anyone on this planet can handle it. And they are children. And all we can do as a father is to keep trying and trying to convince them that we are safe here, to provide them whatever we can. But unfortunately, it's not enough. And the feeling that you are useless in front of your children is very painful. We need years to recover mentally from this war.
So, when they ask you, "What happens next?" or "Where can we be safe?" or "When does this end?" what do you say to your kids?
I am lucky because they are young, 5 years old, Elia is just always asking about when we are going to our home. I hope they are not going to grow up under these circumstances. It's not only about the war itself, it's what's coming after. Before the war, Gaza was having one of the highest unemployment rates on this planet. We need years and years to recover.
When you do think about where you and your children will be in, say, 5 or 10 years, you know, so much of Gaza, as you say, has been destroyed. So, even after this ends, do you still see yourself in Gaza?
I will be honest with you. A few days ago, there was news that was misquoted by one of the media outlets about a ceasefire. Everyone in Gaza thought that both [sides] agreed and we have a ceasefire. Everyone started to shout, scream, whistling in the street, because people are starving to have such news. I had a different opinion toward that. I didn't have internet connection, I thought [the news was true] and thousands of people were whistling and shouting in the street. So I thought, OK, there is a truce or a ceasefire. I started to think about what I have and what's coming next after this war. It was shocking, even just to think about it. We do not have anything left for us. There is nothing remaining for us to build on. We have to start from scratch. And it's not only about having a house. There is no infrastructure. There is no sewage network. There is no water network. There is no electricity network. It's an unimaginable situation that even I personally I avoid thinking about that because now I am in survival mode. I keep on convincing myself. Now my role is to secure my family's needs, trying to survive, then we will think about that. But I when I heard the news that it's over, I sincerely believe that I'm not ready. I'm not ready. Mentally we are not ready to start recovering or restoring our life. Somehow, unfortunately, we adopt that this is our reality now. In a war zone, all of my family is living in a tent. Now, the Israeli army is announcing areas block by block, and it feels that we don't have any future meaning for us as Palestinians who are trapped now in Gaza.
You've said that there's nowhere left for you and the million other people crammed into Rafah to go. You're up against the Egyptian border. If there are increased strikes, what is your plan?
I don't know literally what's waiting for us in the next minute. I don't have any option or any idea what I am going to do if the ground operation starts in Rafah. And I have no solutions. It's really crazy, honestly, when you think about it, you feel that the world is collapsing.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

This interview is part of a segment on The World that spoke to parents about how they are coping during this current war between Israel and Hamas. Click here to listen to the story of an Israeli couple whose son was kidnapped on Oct. 7 and is being held hostage by Hamas.

Related: Dire conditions in Gaza's few functioning hospitals, UK doctor says

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