Ghada al Natour, by Katrine Dige Houmøller

Witnessing Homeland War: Reflections from a Palestinian Refugee

In southern Beirut’s Al Kadam, the air blends scents from cleaning products and the tempting aroma of homemade falafel from Ghada al Natour’s kitchen. After meticulously scrubbing the kitchen walls, she prepares a heartfelt lunch. Her voice echoes, inviting, “There’s a feast awaiting, come and eat!” 

Her husband, two sons, and a nephew gather around the table in the living room.

This appears to be a typical family meal scene in Lebanon, and in many ways, it is. But Ghada grapples with an inner turmoil that adds a layer of concern to her everyday life. The turning point of which came on October 7th. 

Ghada is Palestinian, and for the last 150 days, she has witnessed her homeland crumble and experienced the loss of family members in Gaza. She saw her people become victims of the assault from Israeli bombings and snipers.

“My nerves are worn out. I can’t bear the sight of seas of blood and destruction anymore,” she said.

As she carries plates speckled with beans and falafel crumbs from the living room to the kitchen, her story intertwines with a broader narrative. Ghada is part of a collective experience, where Palestinians balance life in Lebanon while witnessing their neighboring homeland unravel. 

According to the UN Refugee Agency, around 250-300,000 Palestinians reside in Lebanon, although various local sources estimate this number to be much higher. The updates from neighboring Gaza manifest tangible signs of stress etched on Palestinian faces and lingering in the air.

After spending hours in the kitchen, cleaning, and cooking, Ghada is ready to enjoy a satisfying meal. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Hearings shaped by Palestine

In Lebanon, some elderly refugees feel connected to a saga that mirrors the unfolding tragedy in Gaza. For them, it’s a haunting revisit to the chapters of their history, largely shaped by the 1948 Nakba. 

Back then, they fled villages and towns that were once integral to British-colonized Palestine, now occupied by Israel. 

Ghada’s story, like that of many Palestinians in Lebanon, doesn’t commence in the scenic landscapes of Palestine’s rolling hills. The stories of about 14.5 million Palestinians worldwide intertwine. 

Ghada’s journey begins in the bustling streets of Damascus in Syria, where she was born. Although she has never walked on the land of her ancestors, the spirit of Palestine courses through her veins – a facet of her identity that she cannot separate from herself.

“I am of Palestinian descent. My hearing is shaped by Palestine. I am woven into the fabric of Palestine. I carry the essence of a Palestinian, and I am the embodiment of the land. I am rooted in the Palestinian narrative,” Ghada smiles.

Surviving on rainwater

Ghada’s roots extend to Acre in the northern part of Palestine, yet her heart is with her family in Gaza. During the war, she finds solace in daily conversations with relatives in Gaza and receives updates from family in Lebanon. However, internet access in the Strip is sometimes elusive. The latest news she received about the family was two days ago at the time of her conversation with Beirut Today.

After an Israeli bombing in Gaza, the tragic loss of Ghada’s beloved aunt occurred. Mansourya, once a home for another aunt, was abandoned as they fled impending airstrikes. They navigated from Khan Younis to Rafah, yet found no sanctuary from the ravages of war. Upon returning to Mansourya, they were greeted only by ruins. Currently, their makeshift residence is in a camp within the same city.

“Why did they [Israel] take Palestine from us? Because Palestine is a good land. A blessed land. Better than any other land in this world,” Ghada says.

Ghada’s son, Saleh, eagerly absorbs the tales his mother shares about their family in Palestine. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

In its effort to “eradicate” Hamas, Israel launched an air and ground offensives on Gaza, causing widespread hunger and significant destruction throughout the territory.

In the confines of Mansourya camp in Gaza, where Ghada’s family resides, scarcity prevails. There is no food, not even a crust of bread, and a shortage of water forces them to rely on drinking rainwater – a meager lifeline. 

Each passing day inflicts not only physical, but also mental wounds. Fear, phobias, and stress. The parents of Ghada’s family live in dread, fearing the possibility of waking up to find their children’s lifeless forms entombed in the rubble.

“They [the Israeli army] are killing civilians and children. Targeting elderly and women. I mean, no one is helping the Palestinians,” Ghada expresses with a sense of despair in her voice.

Since October 7th, more than 29,782 people have lost their lives in Gaza due to Israeli bomardment, as reported by the Gaza health ministry. UNICEF estimates that 67 percent of the casualties are women and children. 

Catherine Russell, the Executive Director of UNICEF, has labeled the Gaza Strip as “the world’s most dangerous place to be a child.” She highlights that an alarming 40 percent of the total deaths in Gaza have been children.

Return to homeland

Arab host states assert the Palestinians’ right to return to their homeland. They dismiss suggestions for resettlement in the host countries the Palestinians fled to in 1948, as reported by Reuters.

A large number of people in Gaza now find themselves displaced once more. It is a slender strip of land measuring just 40 km (25 miles) in length, with a population of 2.3 million people. The majority of the population consists of Palestinian refugees from the now Israeli-occupied territories in Palestine.

The US government asserts that Gaza’s internally displaced residents should have the right to return to their homes – a right protected by international law. 

However, many Palestinians may lack homes to return to, with over 60 percent of housing units in the Strip damaged according to the United Nations.

“God says that one day, Palestine will be restored, and we will return. This belief is crucial for me,” Ghada says. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Back in Ghada’s living room, she holds a steadfast belief that the Palestinians will persist, and Palestine will be restored to its former state and returned to its people. A conviction rooted in the teachings of the Quran. In the sacred text, she finds the strength and faith that sustain her. 

To Ghada, this war is more than just a war. It is a divine trial from God. In the crucible of Gaza’s harshest battle, Ghada witnesses the unwavering resilience of her people. Though she has never felt the soil of Palestine beneath her own feet, the idea of returning sparks no doubt in her heart:

“I would run like this,” her feet lightly tapping the ground in rhythm with her arms. A radiant smile spreads across her face, and her eyes light up with joy. The rest of the family is nestled in their armchairs.

The reason why Ghada instinctively points her feet towards Palestine, a land she has never been to?  The answer lies in pure simplicity:

“Because I have Palestinian blood in my heart,” Ghada says without hesitation.