These Palestinian mothers in Gaza gave birth Oct. 7. Their babies have known only war

NUSEIRAT, Gaza Strip (AP) — Rockets streaked through the morning sky in Gaza on Oct. 7 as Amal Al-Taweel hurried to the hospital in the nearby Nuseirat refugee camp, already in labor. After a difficult birth, she and her husband, Mustafa, finally got to hold Ali, the child they spent three years trying to have.

Rola Saqer’s water broke that day as she sheltered from Israeli airstrikes in Beit Lahia, a Gaza town near where Hamas militants streamed across the border hours earlier in the attack that kicked off the war. She and her husband, Mohammed Zaqout, had been trying to have a child for five years, and not even the terrifying explosions all around would stop them from going to the hospital to have their baby that night. Saqer gave birth to Masa, a name that means diamond in Arabic.

The families emerged from the hospitals to a changed world. On the babies’ second day of life, Israel declared war on Hamas and its fighter jets swooped over the neighborhoods where Ali and Masa were supposed to grow up. In the six months since the children were born, the couples have experienced the trials of early parenthood against the backdrop of a brutal conflict.

The families’ homes were leveled by airstrikes, and they’ve had no reliable shelter and scant access to medical treatment and baby supplies. The infants are hungry, and despite all of the plans the couples made before the war, they fear the lives they had hoped to give their children is gone.

“I was preparing him for another life, a beautiful one, but war changed all of these features,” Amal Al-Taweel told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “We barely live day by day, and we don’t know what will happen. There is no planning.”

Saqer recalled the hope she had before the war.

“This is my only daughter,” she said, rocking Masa gently in a cradle. “I prepared many things and clothes for her. I bought her a closet a week before the war. I was also planning her birthdays and everything. The war came and destroyed everything.”

FROM NUSEIRAT TO RAFAH

The Al-Taweel family spent the first days of Ali’s life going between their home and relatives’ houses in search of safety. Nearby buildings kept being struck — first one next to Amal’s sister’s home, and then one next to her parents’ place.

As the family sheltered at home on Oct. 20, Israeli authorities issued an evacuation order warning that a strike was imminent and residents had 10 minutes to leave.

“I had to evacuate. I couldn’t take anything; no IDs, no university certificates, no clothes for my child — nothing,” Amal Al-Taweel said. “Even milk, diapers, and toys that I bought for my child.”

The family found temporary refuge at Amal’s parents’ house in central Gaza, where 15 family members took shelter.

Not far away, Saqer, her husband and daughter crammed into a relative’s two-bedroom house where more than 80 members of her extended family were staying. It became so crowded, she said, that her male relatives built a tent outside so that the women and children could sleep more comfortably indoors.

As Israeli ground troops advanced on central Gaza in December, both young families headed to Gaza’s southernmost city, Rafah, which is now home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians.

TENT CAMPS, NO FOOD

Like many who have sought refuge in overcrowded Rafah, the Al-Taweel family lived in a tent, where they stayed for over a month.

“It was the worst experience of my life; the worst conditions I have ever lived in,” Amal Al-Taweel said.

Israel has severely restricted aid deliveries of food, water, medicine and other supplies into Gaza during the war, which began with Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which militants killed about 1,200 people and took roughly 250 hostages.

Israel has exacted a terrible toll: More than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Palestinian health officials whose death count doesn’t distinguish between civilians and fighters. Israel’s offensive has pushed Gaza into a humanitarian crisis, displacing over 80% of the population and leaving more than 1 million people on the brink of starvation.

Ali, who was diagnosed with gastroenteritis before the family fled to Rafah, had chronic vomiting and diarrhea — signs of malnutrition that the U.N.’s main health agency says are now common in one of every six young Gazan children. He is underweight, at just 5 kilograms (11 pounds).

“I can’t even feed myself to properly feed my child,” said Amal Al-Taweel. “The boy is losing more weight than he gains.”

His parents fretted about the rashes on his face, trying to shield him from near-constant sun exposure in the tent.

Mustafa Al-Taweel spent months waiting tables at a Gaza City cafe to save up for baby food, toys and clothes. Now, he can’t buy his son even the simplest foods in Rafah. The war has brought shortages of the most basic necessities, with diapers and formula hard to find or unaffordable. They’ve had to rely on canned food provided by the U.N.

“His father was working every day to provide him with milk, diapers, and many other things he needed,” said Amal Al-Taweel. “Even the toys are gone. There’s nothing we can afford to provide him.”

Needing help, the Al-Taweels decided to return to Amal’s parents’ home in central Gaza in February.

Not far from where the Al-Taweels lived in Rafah, Masa and her parents found a spot in the Shaboura refugee camp. They lived in a small tent the couple made by stitching together flour bags, Saqer said.

Muddy water pooled around the tent when it rained, and the area always smelled of sewage. Doing anything involved waiting in line, meaning a trip to the bathroom could take hours.

Masa grew sick. Her skin turned yellowish and she seemed to have a perpetual fever, with sweat beading on her small forehead. Saqer tried to breastfeed but couldn’t produce milk because she, too, was malnourished. Sores broke out across her breasts.

“Even when I endure the pain and try to breastfeed my daughter, what she drinks is blood, not milk,” she said.

Desperate, Saqer sold aid packets the family received from the U.N. to buy formula for Masa. Eventually, she decided to go back to central Gaza to seek medical treatment for her daughter, leaving her husband behind to mind their tent and setting off in a donkey-pulled cart.

BACK TO CENTRAL GAZA

Both mothers tried their luck at the Al-Aqsa hospital once they arrived in central Gaza. Saqer was lucky — doctors there told her that Masa had a virus and gave the baby medicine.

But they told Amal that Ali needed surgery for a hernia that they couldn’t perform. Like most other Gaza hospitals, Al-Aqsa is only conducting life-saving surgeries. After nearly six months of war, Gaza’s health sector has been decimated. Only 10 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are still partially functioning. The rest have either shut down or are barely functioning because they ran out of fuel and medicine, were raided by Israeli troops or were damaged by fighting.

As the families ponder the future, they can’t imagine that their babies’ lives will be close to what they had envisioned. Saqer said that even if her family were able to return to their home in northern Gaza, they would find only rubble where their house once stood.

“The same I suffered in Rafah; I will suffer in the north,” she said. “All of our lives will be spent in a tent. It will certainly be a hard life.”

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