Ibrahim Dahman and his family entered the hotel room and looked out toward the blue of the Mediterranean Sea. His two young sons were excited to spot a swimming pool below their window, but this was no vacation.
“But they don’t strike… they don’t strike hotels, right?” Dahman’s 11-year-old son, Zaid, asked nervously, as the family took the elevator down a short time later.
Exchanging an apprehensive look with his 30-year-old wife, Rasha, Dahman replied: “They don’t strike hotels, no.” A gentle white lie from a father trying to reassure his boys as the explosions, once distant, seemed now to be getting closer.
But for Dahman, this time feels different. While he wants to continue his work telling the stories of people in Gaza, he is now grappling with the reality of keeping his family safe at the same time.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians, including Dahman and his family, have been caught in the escalating crisis. Unlike across the border in Israel, there are no warning sirens, bomb shelters or high-tech Iron Dome defense system to intercept projectiles in Gaza.
Dahman has not stopped working since he was awoken by “the sounds of continuous rocket fire” from Gaza when Hamas launched its initial attack just over a week ago, signaling the start of what US President Joe Biden has called the largest massacre of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust.
Situated in the al-Rimal neighborhood in Gaza City, the office has been something of a safe haven for Dahman. It was in this area he began his career in journalism in 2005, when he covered the Israeli withdrawal from the coastal enclave.
The office building sits in what Dahman called a “beautiful, upscale neighborhood in which all press offices and foreign and international institutions are located.” The neighborhood was considered one of the “quiet areas.”
But by Monday, things weren’t so quiet.
Racing to his home a few minutes’ drive away, Dahman had expected to work remotely from there but, in yet another signal that this situation was different from previous fighting, “the surprise was that the house had no electricity, water, or internet.”
After hunkering down for a few hours, he began to see smoke and dust outside his apartment windows, and so he threw a few essential items – clothes, canned food, snacks and bottled water – into suitcases and the family made the short drive to a hotel.
“The evening hours began with the sounds of air raids and shelling from naval boats towards the seashore and the residential towers near the hotel,” Dahman said, adding that despite the chaos swirling around him, he “felt some comfort due to the presence of civilian families and some journalists.”
He added: “I felt somewhat safe, but danger exists throughout the Gaza Strip. There is no safety, and there is no safe area.”
Between Monday and Wednesday, he continued to look after his family while reporting the latest developments, exhausted both mentally and physically as he was only sleeping for a few hours each night – if at all.
“Thursday came and here the suffering begins,” he recalled.
Hotel management asked guests to relocate to the building’s basement due to an ongoing Israeli operation a short distance away. “It seemed that the Israeli army informed the hotel that there was a bombing,” Dahman said.
Families huddled together against the walls of the corridors downstairs, with young children sleeping or seeking comfort in their parents’ laps. In stairwells, people sat cross-legged on the floor as many anxiously typed on their cellphones, trying to get hold of friends and relatives.
Upstairs, loud booms could be heard and plumes of smoke edged closer and closer as Israeli warplanes continued to bombard the cramped enclave.
After witnessing an airstrike hit a residential tower opposite the hotel, Dahman was shocked to see one of his own extended family members being helped into the lobby by bystanders.
His father’s cousin lived in the building next to the tower that had been struck and he and his wife had been caught in the chaos as they tried to flee. His relative was clearly in shock, covered in a layer of dirt and dust, his shirt and skin torn by the blast, but he was alive.
Watching the scene unfold, Dahman knew he needed to get his family out.
“The airstrikes on the residential towers were very violent. I did not expect that I would be alive,” he explained. “These were very difficult moments because my wife is in her second month of pregnancy, and I was afraid that something bad would happen to her.”
As quickly as they could, they crammed their few possessions into their car – its back windows shattered by the blast and one of the wheels now damaged – and fled. “Seconds after we left the hotel, they fired a rocket or a barrel (bomb) that heavily damaged the entire area,” he said.
The family stayed overnight with Dahman’s sister as airstrikes continued to intensify in the streets around them.
On Friday, Israel told the 1.1 million people living in the north of the enclave to leave their homes and head south to get out of harm’s way as a possible ground incursion looms.
Dahman and his family used one of the so-called designated evacuation routes along Salah al-Deen Street to make the treacherous hour-long journey down to the city of Khan Younis.
Dahman’s immediate family made it through unscathed. While they haven’t entirely escaped the persistent airstrikes, they feel safer now that they’ve made it to a family member’s four-story house in Khan Younis, where more than 200 people, including women, children and the elderly, have sought refuge after leaving their homes in the north behind.
The humanitarian situation has been deteriorating rapidly for days. The healthcare system is on the brink and the siege has made it impossible to get aid into a place where there is a shortage of everything.
Dahman never expected to become part of a story, but he is now one of thousands displaced by the conflict, forced to flee with his family for their lives, leaving their home, loved ones and life behind. It is thought that approximately 500,000 people have left northern Gaza for the south following the IDF’s warning on Friday, according to the latest estimates from Israel.
As thousands move to southern Gaza, the UN has warned of “a very limited capacity” awaiting them.
In pictures: The deadly clashes in Israel and Gaza
“There aren’t shelters available in the south in terms of the numbers that are coming. Number two, because we don’t have water ourselves. Food, yes, there’s some food in distribution sites, but we can’t get to them because of the bombardment,” Lynn Hastings, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, said Sunday.
Dahman said: “This war is tougher and more difficult than all the previous wars, as I feel intense fear. I am worried about myself, my wife, and my children.”
He added that while the family has found a temporary shelter, they know it’s only a matter of time before they will need to be on the move once again.