Vancouver man’s family in Gaza ponders whether to stay together so they die together

Vancouver man's family in Gaza ponders whether to stay together so they die together
Omar Mansour (left) visits with family members in Gaza in a handout photo.

Bombs had scarcely started falling on the Gaza Strip last month when Omar Mansour’s family realized they had a crucial question to resolve: would it be better to face death together or apart?

One day after Hamas fighters stormed into Israel — slaughtering at least 1,400 people, seizing roughly 240 hostages and triggering a war that rages on to this day — Mansour’s parents, brothers and sisters gathered in one of their homes to discuss the dilemma.

After connecting with Mansour in Vancouver on Oct. 8, the relatives passed the phone around the group to debate the merits of moving to cousins’ houses, seeking shelter in United Nations-run schools or simply staying put.

They’ve tried both options in the following weeks, but the core question persists as the war intensifies in the besieged enclave where local authorities say at least 9,700 people have died amid a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

“So far the discussion is still the same but we are really running out of options,” Mansour, a permanent resident in Canada since 2014, said in a telephone interview. “It’s extremely unsafe. So even this option of distributing ourselves into different groups to go to different locations is invalid at this moment. But there’s no other options.”

Two of Mansour’s sisters — along with their husbands — initially opted to heed advice from Israeli authorities and move from their family home in the northern Gaza Strip to the southern part of the enclave. But Mansour said they got injured and decided to return to the family home.

Newly reunited, the group of 11 decided to stay in the northern Gaza Strip as long as they could.

They held out until Nov. 1 when the house next to theirs was bombed, prompting the family to pack up and seek safety en masse.

Mansour said they sought shelter in the home of one of his sisters, located between the borders of north Gaza and Gaza City. But bombs flattened the neighbourhood the night they arrived, forcing the group to flee on foot. Mansour said they barely escaped.

The group made its way to the vacant home of another relative who was out of the territory when war broke out.

The nearly three-kilometre journey took several hours and was fraught with peril, Mansour said. His family members reported dodging Israeli drones and struggling to navigate rubble-strewn streets.

He noted the trip was a particular ordeal for his parents, who are in their 70s and don’t have enough strength to walk after going without adequate food and water for the past month.

Their current house, meant for two people, is now home to 11.

Mansour said water is still the most precious resource, adding at one point the family went without much to drink for nearly 10 days.

“They finally got some water, but they haven’t showered for the whole time,” he said. “They can’t flush toilets.”

A phone call like the one the family shared at the beginning of the war is increasingly difficult to arrange.

Mansour said recent attempts to connect with loved ones yield only an Arabic message that the parties can’t be reached. And as of late Sunday, Gaza fell under its third total communications blackout since the start of the war. Palestinian communications company Paltel announced that all of its “communication and internet services” were down.

As the conflict enters a new phase, Mansour said he is wracked with worry about what comes next.

Israel’s military announced late Sunday that it had encircled Gaza City and divided the Gaza Strip in two.

“Today there is north Gaza and south Gaza,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told reporters, calling it a “significant stage” in Israel’s effort to stamp out Hamas. The group governs Gaza and is classified as a terrorist organization by many countries, including Canada.

Israeli media reported that troops are expected to enter Gaza City within 48 hours. Strong explosions were seen in northern Gaza after nightfall on Sunday.

Israeli officials have argued Hamas operates using an elaborate, 500-kilometre network of underground tunnels.

But Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry said more than 9,700 Palestinians have been killed in the territory in nearly a month of war, and countries around the world have increasingly been calling for either ceasefires or humanitarian pauses in the fighting to allow food, fuel and other critical supplies into the territory.

And so, the debate among the Mansour family has come full circle as they consider whether to stay put as a unit or move and risk dying alone and afraid.

“They will have to distribute themselves in the streets in different locations, which means that even the communication between each other is going to be completely done and gone, and we might lose some people,” Mansour said. “If someone dies, we will not be able to hear any news.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

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