The Gaza Strip is densely populated with high levels of poverty and tight controls on entering and leaving. But al-Zahra was a neighbourhood of large homes and bright outdoor spaces, of groves with almonds and figs, of sports grounds and parks.
Al-Zahra was established in the 1990s by the late Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat as a place for staff and supporters. Locals say it still had strong connections with the PA, which is based in the occupied West Bank and is a bitter rival of Hamas.
It sits just north of the Wadi Gaza river – a point that Israel ordered civilians to move south of on 13 October. This followed days of bombing, Israel’s response to hundreds of Hamas gunmen rampaging across the border killing more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians including many children, and taking more than 200 hostages. The brutality of the attacks in southern Israeli villages and the massacre of young people gathering at a music festival has traumatised the nation.
Everyone we spoke to insisted that, to their knowledge, this area was as far removed from Hamas and its operations as it is possible to be in Gaza, which Hamas has ruled since 2007. “There was no military here,” one told us. “I don’t even think there were Hamas supporters living here.”
For Nashwa Rezeq, who had lived in al-Zahra for 18 years, it was the “greatest city of all”.
Heavily involved in neighbourhood committees and a local youth council, Nashwa has also been one of the keepers of a community Facebook group for more than a decade. If you ask her about a particular resident, she is likely to know them and perhaps even their phone number.
The Facebook page has about 10,000 followers. On the eve of the war there were posts about a billiards tournament at a local cafe and a message of congratulations to a graduating student.
Now the Facebook group is where they share updates on the destruction of their neighbourhood and mark the deaths of those who lived there. It has never before kept Nashwa this busy.
A recent post mourns a family killed in a strike that hit their Italian restaurant.
When war was declared, Nashwa headed south with her husband and four children, as the family always did during escalations. She gave her neighbour a key, asking them to tend her beloved house plants while she was gone.
Two days after the first bombings, her own building – the tallest in al-Zahra – was destroyed at dawn.
“Somebody called me and said ‘I just walked by your tower and it’s all on the ground’,” she recalls.
She describes her fifth-floor home as being “very big and spacious”. Her family bought it and improved it over the course of a decade – they had recently bought a new air conditioning unit, a television and furniture.
“A lot of people say it’s only money, but to me my home was my soul.”
Now in southern Gaza, she says her family are still in danger. “Three days ago, they bombed the house next to us. The smoke from that bombing suffocated us.”
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