Interview with Ruwaida Kamal Amer
Derek's interview with the Gaza-based journalist
This is a written interview conducted with Ruwaida Kamal Amer, a freelance journalist based in Khan Younis, Gaza. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
You reported late last month about conditions in Rafah. Since then the Israeli military has made it clear that, absent a ceasefire, it intends to direct its full force against Rafah as it has previously against Gaza City and Khan Younis. Let’s start with where things stand in the wake of that announcement. Has there been a notable increase in Israeli military activity in Rafah in recent days? Any noticeable change in the humanitarian situation?
Life in the city of Rafah is very difficult due to the large number of displaced people and the population density in the city, which amounts to 1,300,000 people there. Conditions are difficult and the crowding is great, and any bombing there results in dozens of victims. In the past few days there has been a large number of sporadic bombings in the city despite the large number of displaced people, the explosive humanitarian situation there, UNRWA’s warnings about the difficult humanitarian situation there, and the city’s inability to tolerate any Israeli bombing or incursion there.
How are people in Rafah responding to the confirmation that the Israeli military will be moving against that city? Was there a feeling that Rafah might actually be spared a full Israeli ground assault or were most people already resigned to the inevitability of this?
The citizens are very worried about this. They took refuge in Rafah because it was considered a safe place, as the Israeli army told them. Some citizens did not agree to go to their relatives’ homes and were forced to go to tents so that they would not be asked to move again. Everyone had faith that Rafah was exempt from the war and would not be attacked, but the repeated statements and threats of the Israeli army leaders to the city have kept the citizens in a state of extreme anxiety.
You’ve also been reporting on Al-Mawasi, a coastal town that the Israeli military designated as a “safe zone” for civilians fleeing Khan Younis. Can you give people a sense of the conditions people are facing there?
The Al-Mawasi area is a safe area, but there is bombing in this area, and it was bombed in the city of Khan Younis at the beginning of the Israeli incursion into the west of the city of Khan Younis. Everyone says that the area is barren and does not have the necessities of life. There is no communication or internet there. The sounds of bombing are heard continuously. In areas of the Israeli army incursion into the city, large numbers of displaced people are in tents made of worn-out nylon that do not protect against the cold of winter or rain.
At the time of writing, a ceasefire proposal had been presented to Hamas and its leaders had spent several days deliberating internally. They’ve finally sent back a response that Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani described as “positive,” but US President Joe Biden characterized as “a bit over the top.” Do you have a sense of how people in Gaza are feeling with respect to the possibility of another ceasefire? Is there a sense of optimism/pessimism? If the talks break down, what sort of reaction would you anticipate?
Citizens are waiting for any news of ceasefire talks and an end to this war. They feel a state of fear and anxiety that time will pass without an end to this war because the bombing and destruction are very violent. The conditions in the displaced persons’ tents are difficult and tragic. They are in great anticipation of this decision and hope for its implementation as soon as possible. The news speaks of progress in the negotiations, and there is optimism among citizens that the end of this time is approaching. A few days ago, they went out celebrating in the streets because of the imminent end of this war and the possibility of the success of the negotiations soon.
Absent a ceasefire, there has been some reporting suggesting the Israeli military might take a slower approach to assaulting Rafah than it did with, for example, Khan Younis, to give civilians time to get out of the way. First of all is there any indication they’re actually doing this? Second, most of the population in the territory has now been shunted into Rafah with only the Egyptian border to the south, and everything to the north has been pulverized. Where could they possibly go at this point?
The Israeli army asked the residents in the city of Khan Yunis to evacuate and they have not stopped doing so. Citizens leave their homes and shelters in hospitals and schools, and go to search for tents to shelter them in the city of Rafah. People go out to search for safe shelter, but this war did not exclude any place and all areas. Under bombardment, this is very frustrating for the citizens who spent the war days searching for shelter and food for their families.
How has the humanitarian relief effort been going? We’ve seen Israelis blocking aid trucks from entering Gaza via Kerem Shalom in recent days, reducing an already inadequate aid flow. Two weeks ago the International Court of Justice ordered the Israeli government to insure that adequate humanitarian aid gets into the territory but if anything it seems like the amount is decreasing of late.
The entry of aid is very slow and insufficient to provide relief to the large number of displaced people. Nearly two-thirds of the population of the Gaza Strip are displaced people who left their homes without clothes, money, or bedding. They are in need of complete relief, but the aid is not sufficient and there is very little intervention. This is something that causes the famine to spread significantly among citizens in Gaza.
In places like Rafah and Al-Mawasi the sudden influx of large populations of displaced civilians to areas without adequate utilities or other basic infrastructure has raised fears of rampant disease and/or starvation. Are you seeing indications that these effects are beginning to take hold among the displaced population? How serious is the threat they pose?
In the city of Rafah, there is no infrastructure due to the continuous bombing. Severe crowding led to the spread of epidemics among the displaced, including smallpox, hepatitis, and meningitis. The Ministry of Health and UNRWA announced this, and the lack of medicines led to the spread of infection further and the deterioration of their health condition.
The United States and several European governments have frozen funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency based on allegations from the Israel government that a handful of UNRWA workers may have participated in the October 7 attacks. Without adjudicating the veracity of those claims can you give people a sense of the role that UNRWA is playing right now in Gaza? What will happen if the agency is forced to shut down operations, as it has warned it will unless that funding is restored?
UNRWA is the main supporter of citizens in the Gaza Strip. Before the war, its work was focused on refugees only, but after the war it began to support and provide relief to all citizens in the Gaza Strip, and the lack of support for it will affect the medical, relief, and educational support for citizens in Gaza. Therefore, stopping UNRWA’s funding will have a disastrous effect on citizens in the Gaza Strip.