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War in Gaza drove them from their homes. Now, many Palestinians can't even find tents

Displaced Palestinians take shelter in a makeshift tent camp by the beach in Rafah near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
AFP via Getty Images
Displaced Palestinians take shelter in a makeshift tent camp by the beach in Rafah near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

RAFAH, the Gaza Strip — The tents and makeshift shelters have sprung up everywhere in recent weeks: on the streets, in the courtyards of hospitals and schools, on once-empty patches of desert that are now full.

A desperate few have even set up on top of destroyed buildings.

"I felt this was a safe place because it has already been targeted. They won't hit it again," said Samir Salah, who evacuated Gaza City in October and now lives with his family in a tent atop a flat piece of rubble.

As the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas enters a fourth month, combat in Gaza has advanced farther south, and Palestinians fleeing the violence — many of them for the third, fourth or even fifth time — have packed themselves into Rafah, Gaza's southernmost major city.

More than a million displaced people are estimated to be taking shelter in the city, on top of its prewar population of 270,000. Apartments and other dwellings are housing dozens, even hundreds of people, as Israeli airstrikes continue. Shelters operated by the United Nations in Gaza are full far beyond their capacity, the U.N. says.

With nowhere else to turn, Palestinians are now living in tents or makeshift shelters made of wood beams and sheets of nylon. And the swelling demand for shelters and the lack of supply has sent prices for materials skyrocketing.

Fears that 'opportunists' are taking advantage of war

Satellite imagery provided to NPR by the company Planet shows the rapid expansion of the tent camps since mid-December.

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"You look outside the window of one of our facilities, and all I could see was the sea of these makeshift structures," said Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinians. She returned Tuesday from a trip to Gaza.

After Israel's ground invasion began in October following Hamas' cross-border attacks, Mohammed Abu Salah and his family fled from their home in Absan, an area near Gaza's eastern border, heeding Israel's urging to seek shelter in Khan Younis. But the fighting has since come to Khan Younis, forcing them out yet again, this time into a tent.

Before the war, tents in Gaza were mainly used for recreation, such as family gatherings at the beach. A high-quality tent might have cost 200 shekels, or about $50.

This month, a small tent cost Abu Salah 700 shekels, or about $185, he said. That's cheap, he added: People occupying nearby shelters paid double, or more.

"Opportunists are making use of this war. They hope this war continues so they can keep making money," Abu Salah said.

Some people have posted on social media offering tents for rent or sale. Some may be trying to make money, Palestinians told NPR, while others say they were forced to sell shelter materials in order to pay for food and water.

Mohammed Abu Salah and his family relocated multiple times before building their tent in Rafah. "These tents are not for humans and there is no dignity here," he said.
Anas Baba / NPR
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NPR
Mohammed Abu Salah and his family relocated multiple times before building their tent in Rafah. "These tents are not for humans and there is no dignity here," he said.

Without enough tarps and nylon, Palestinians have resorted to using cloth and rugs for tent walls. Others have repurposed the large tarps that cover the truckloads of aid that enter each day from Egypt and Israel.

A man with a sewing machine, working on the streets of Rafah, sewed together nylon bags used to deliver aid. (The bags cost two shekels apiece, plus the cost of sewing them together, the man said.)

Why more tents aren't coming in

Palestinians living in the tent areas say aid workers have collected personal information and asked occupants about their needs. Some reported receiving tents or materials after a waiting period, while others say they have been waiting for weeks and have received nothing yet.

Asked how many tents the U.N. has disbursed, UNRWA's Touma said, "We've given some. But we ran out early on, and we're not getting enough in. We should be getting more in."

Bags that were used to transfer aid into Gaza are now being repurposed into tent walls.
Anas Baba / NPR
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NPR
Bags that were used to transfer aid into Gaza are now being repurposed into tent walls.

Aid of all kinds has been in short supply since the war began. The U.N. reports shortages of at least 50,000 family-sized tents, along with more than a million mattresses and blankets.

Some badly needed tents may be waiting just on the other side of Gaza's borders. Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, visited the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, where aid is subjected to exhaustive inspection by Israelis before it enters Gaza.

There, he visited a warehouse full of humanitarian goods that had been rejected at Israeli inspection points, he told NPR.

Workers told him the rejected aid included tents, Van Hollen said. "The speculation was that some of them had metal poles in them, and somehow those could be used by Hamas to fashion weapons, despite the fact that you have thousands and thousands of Gazans without shelter as the weather gets very cold," he said.

The modest interior of the shelter where displaced Palestinian Yaser al-Amor is staying with his family.
Anas Baba / NPR
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NPR
The modest interior of the shelter where displaced Palestinian Yaser al-Amor is staying with his family.

Israel says it must inspect aid to keep out anything that could be appropriated by Hamas for military use. The U.N. and other aid groups have called for a smoother inspection process in order to allow for greater amounts of assistance to enter Gaza.

Conditions in Rafah are 'not meant for human beings'

The living conditions have escalated concerns about health and sanitation. The tent areas are crowded, and there are no bathroom or bathing facilities. Fresh water must be purchased.

"These are not conditions meant for human beings," said Touma.

"There is no water here, and toilets are another source of suffering," said Awni Nejem, who fled to Rafah from the Nuseirat refugee camp, where Israeli airstrikes have hit repeatedly since mid-November. Trash is also an issue, he said. He and his new neighbors collect garbage at a single spot, but the man who takes it away can only come by every third day.

"My neighbor told me he did not eat for two days. Can you imagine?" Nejem said. "I understand people can take in suffering, but not this much. This is unbearable."

Awni Nejem and his family came to Rafah from Nuseirat, a refugee camp that has been hit repeatedly by Israeli airstrikes. "It is very difficult to get a tent. Those who have cash can afford it, those who don't will have to suffer," he said.
Anas Baba / NPR
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NPR
Awni Nejem and his family came to Rafah from Nuseirat, a refugee camp that has been hit repeatedly by Israeli airstrikes. "It is very difficult to get a tent. Those who have cash can afford it, those who don't will have to suffer," he said.

Nighttime temperatures have dipped into the 40s this month. Tents are not winterproof or waterproof, and the wintertime rain has soaked people's limited belongings. Tent occupants described pests, including ants and snakes.

"You can see worms already here. Bugs and lizards are everywhere. I killed a snake inside the tent the other day," said Ayman Bar, who has spent 500 shekels so far on a tent to house his family. He is still hoping to find metal for a roof, he said.

Ayman Bar has 13 children. One tent for his family has cost 500 shekels so far and doesn't yet have a quality roof. "It's been 10 days since I last had a shower," he said. "All I want is to live in dignity and freedom and be back home, if only it is still standing."
Anas Baba / NPR
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NPR
Ayman Bar has 13 children. One tent for his family has cost 500 shekels so far and doesn't yet have a quality roof. "It's been 10 days since I last had a shower," he said. "All I want is to live in dignity and freedom and be back home, if only it is still standing."

Nearly 1 in 4 Gaza residents don't have a home to return to

The Israeli bombardment has left much of Gaza in ruins, especially in the north, where up to 80% or more of buildings are thought to be damaged or destroyed, according to an analysis of satellite imagery by researchers at the City University of New York and Oregon State University. The U.N. estimates that at least 500,000 Palestinians — nearly a quarter of Gaza's population — no longer have a home to return to.

Before the war, nearly six in 10 Palestinians were poor, and 80% were already dependent on aid,according to the World Bank. Unemployment stood at 45%. The average daily income was only $13 in 2022,the State Department reported.

And even for those with means, the struggles of displacement have been humbling.

Access to the banking system in Gaza is extremely limited. Bank locations are closed or inaccessible. ATMs are frequently offline or out of cash. (During the seven-day cease-fire in November, the Bank of Palestine and the U.N. embarked on a secret operation to move some $50 million worth of 200-shekel bills to alleviate the cash shortage in the south,the Financial Times reported in December.) And many Palestinians do not use the banking system, preferring instead to keep cash savings at homes that have now been abandoned or destroyed.

Samir Salah, the man who set up his tent on a destroyed building, said he was wealthy before the war. He owned a house in al-Mughraqa, a town just south of Gaza City, along with apartments in Juhor ad-Dik and Shijaiyah.

But the bombardment arrived quickly and intensely, he said. "We had to run only with the clothes we were wearing, and I only had 400 shekels with me," or about $100, he said.

He doesn't know what the condition of his homes are now. Instead, he lives in a simple shelter made of eight planks of wood and nylon. He lacks even a mattress, sleeping only on a blanket he received recently from an aid group. A cousin gave him a blanket to use to stay warm.

Becky Sullivan reported from Tel Aviv. Anas Baba reported from Rafah. Abu Bakr Bashir reported from London. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Anas Baba
Abu Bakr Bashir