GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The al-Astal family in the Gaza Strip is once again facing the horrors of war — air raids, food shortages, power cuts, frantic phone calls. But this time they are outside and looking inside.
They are among dozens of Palestinian-Ukrainian families in the isolated territory who have experienced several wars first-hand – the most recent last May – and are now watching another unfold in Ukraine, where many of them have loved ones. .
Oksana al-Astal has barely slept since the fighting began. His parents, in their eighties, live in a small Ukrainian village where food and medicine are already lacking. As soon as she returns home every day after working in her clinic, the gynecologist calls to see if they are still alive.
“There are constant air raids, so my parents have to hide in cold, damp basements,” she said. “The lights have gone out, there is no heating or electricity. It’s terrifying.
She knows what it’s like, having moved to Gaza with her Palestinian husband in 2008. They have lived through four wars between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas leaders. In each, Israel carried out waves of airstrikes that it said targeted military targets but also killed hundreds of civilians in the overcrowded territory that is home to 2 million Palestinians.
“I witnessed the death of adults and children. I saw how houses were destroyed, how ambulances rushed, how bombs hit hospitals and what happens to people after that,” she said.
Many Palestinians have ties to Russia and Ukraine that date back to when the Soviet Union championed their cause, offering scholarships and other opportunities. Palestinians are divided over the war, with some voicing support for Russia against Western countries that have always backed Israel.
On social media, many seized on a tweet by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from last May expressing his horror at the Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. They say he ignored the lopsided toll of the war, in which some 260 Palestinians, including 66 children and 40 women, were killed. Thirteen civilians, including two children and a soldier, were killed in Israel.
Other Palestinians echoed the widespread concern about the suffering of Ukrainian civilians. A handful of families in Gaza have hoisted the Ukrainian flag over their homes, while others are displaying Russian colors.
Israelis are also divided over the conflict, and their government is engaged in a delicate balancing act as it tries to mediate.
The al-Astals have always had a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag flying in front of their house. It’s a tradition that dates back to when Oksana’s husband, Raed, a pulmonologist, was studying in the Ukrainian town of Sumy. It is there that he meets Oksana, the daughter of one of his teachers.
Every time they visit Ukraine, including last summer, her father-in-law presents her with a new flag to make sure the colors don’t fade under the Gaza sun. Their three children have fond memories of the trip, and Oksana says they are now worried about the children they played with in Ukraine.
Motaz al-Halabi, who studied medicine in Ukraine and returned to Gaza in 2001 with his Ukrainian wife, helped organize the evacuation of Ukrainians from Gaza during last year’s war. He says there are currently about 1,400 Palestinian-Ukrainians in Gaza, up from 2,000 previously. Many have joined a wider exodus from the impoverished territory, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007.
“We have been through all the wars here and we have never left,” said Nataliya Harb, who moved to Gaza in 1998 with her Palestinian husband.
Recently, she nervously watched a news program from Ukraine with two other Ukrainian women in a house in Gaza where the electricity was switching on and off. All wore Islamic headscarves and long robes, the conservative attire worn by most Gazans.
“The situation was very difficult here for the children,” she says. “We know what ‘war’ is, what ‘fallen rocket’ is, what ‘children fleeing outside’ is.”
Akram reported from Hamilton, Canada.
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