For years, Mohammad Matar worked on constructing pipelines that moved water across the Gaza Strip — from northern Beit Lahia to southern Rafah. Now, he can barely access water himself.
Mr. Matar, a 35-year-old civil engineer, was reached by phone on Thursday evening in Gaza City, where he and his family have chosen to remain even as Israeli ground forces continue their relentless assault on Hamas.
In a city increasingly cut off from the rest of the world, Mr. Matar described days full of desperation and fear.
“I have watched a lot of horror movies, but I have never watched a horror movie like this one,” he said. “I am certain that what you see on the T.V. is not even 5 percent of what we are experiencing.”
Mr. Matar says his family, like many in Gaza, is coping with food shortages. They have not had vegetables for nearly eight days, and he can’t remember the last time he ate chicken or meat. On most days, his family cooks instant noodles over charcoal, and while one box typically lasts a week, he is rationing so that each will last up to to 20 days.
“We are trying to conserve what we have until the situation changes — until this sad story is over,” Mr. Matar said.
The Israeli military has for weeks ordered residents of northern Gaza to leave for their protection, and warned that those who do not “may be considered a member of a terrorist organization.” In just the past week, as Israel has begun to enact daily combat pauses, an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 residents have fled south by foot, according to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that helps Palestinians.
Videos posted to social media by the Israel Defense Forces show families, some with their hands held up, down a main thoroughfare as Israeli soldiers monitor them behind military vehicles.
But after fleeing, they remain vulnerable, according to Juliette Touma, UNRWA’s director of communications. “This assumption that the south is safe is wrong,” she said in an interview, calling Israel’s order “forced displacement” that had sent droves of people walking south, “dehydrated, exhausted and fearful.”
“There is nowhere that is safe in Gaza,” Ms. Touma said.
As a result of limited communication and disruptions in aid supply, Ms. Touma said it was impossible to estimate how many residents remained in Gaza City, adding that the north had become “the most dangerous area on earth.”
As Israeli troops engage in street battles with Hamas and their relentless attacks engulf more of the city, Mr. Matar and his family have remained.
“This is our fate,” he said. “But we hope God will change the situation.”
For 10 years, Mr. Matar worked on water infrastructure projects for Saqqa and Khoudary Contracting, a Palestinian construction company based in the West Bank. He said his projects, including building water tanks and the distribution systems attached to them, are now destroyed and estimates that it would take months to a year to restore water to the Gaza Strip when the fighting ends.
As for now, he said, “You are privileged if you can find water to wash your hands or face.”
On Friday, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, said that Israel’s siege of Gaza — which has limited access to food, water, medicine and fuel for the two million residents trapped in the enclave — had the potential to produce a “much larger catastrophe,” including starvation.
There is no fuel to operate Gaza’s underground pumps. And because there are also no bottles of water to be found in the stores, Mr. Matar has been relying on his neighbors’ reserves.
“I just take a bunch of buckets and have them fill those with water for me,” he said. “We don’t even know if this water is healthy or not.”
Beyond the fear of thirst and hunger, Mr. Matar is most worried for the physical safety of his wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 8, who cling to his side amid the stream of explosions. He tries to distract them with games and laughter, if only temporarily.
“When she hears the missiles in her sleep, my 3-year-old jumps,” Mr. Matar said. “She asked me, ‘Why is this happening?’ But what can I say?”
Mr. Matar is having a hard time falling asleep himself these days, unsure whether he will wake up the next morning.
“I sit and pray with my wife all the time,” he said. “What’s happening is beyond abnormal.”
He added: “I want this article to reach people who have the power to stop this war.”
Abeer Pamuk contributed from San Francisco.