Jabalia, Gaza Strip – In Jabalia, the joy of welcoming a newborn is marred, to say the least.
Marred by the pain of displacement, by mothers having to give birth as fighter jets streak overhead and by the uncertainty of what kind of future these babies will have.
Al Jazeera spoke to three women sheltering in a United Nations school in Jabalia in northern Gaza about their pregnancies and births, the losses they have suffered and whether they are able to derive joy from the arrival of their babies.
Aya Deeb sits in a corner of a room in a school run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). She speaks softly while her baby, Yara, sleeps beside her. The area around her is neat and tidy, and Yara is well looked after, covered tenderly with a pink blanket in the repurposed carseat she is sleeping in.
Adjusting her blue patterned isdal robe, Aya tells Al Jazeera how she feared losing Yara before she was born on Christmas Day.
For weeks leading up to the birth, Aya – who had long been displaced from her home in Bir an-Naaja in the northern Gaza Strip – had been moving from one precarious shelter to another, trying to outrun Israeli bombs.
“In the early days of the conflict, we had moved to my husband’s uncle’s house in Zawayda for safety. But then they targeted the house next door, and my husband died in that attack,” she says.
After that, the pregnant woman took her toddler son, Mohamed. back up north to stay with her family and kept moving from one spot to another until she and her parents ended up in the school with thousands of other displaced people.
“I was so depressed during those last months of my pregnancy. There’s so many things a pregnant woman needs in her last trimester, but there wasn’t enough food or clean water even,” she says, her face exhausted as she held back emotion.
“But the worst was my grief over my husband and not having him there with me during the birth.”
Aya’s labour started on Christmas Eve, escalating through the night until her parents took her to the shelter’s clinic at 2am and ran everywhere trying to find a midwife to help her with the birth.
Yara arrived shortly after, about 5am, Aya estimates – born on the floor of the clinic behind a sheet stretched across a corner of the room, the only privacy the clinic staff could provide.
“I was in labour, and all I could hear was the warplanes roaring overhead, the shelling. There was fear everywhere,” Aya says.
Yara did not get a birth certificate, and she has not received any vaccinations. Her mother has had no medical attention either.
Asked what she wishes for her daughter, Aya responds: “A long life, lived in peace without war. They see so much from such a young age.”
Aya is one of thousands of women in Gaza forced to give birth and care for their newborns under Israel’s war in retaliation for Hamas’s attacks on October 7.
The war has devastated Gaza’s healthcare system at a time when 180 babies are born each day, according to UN figures. From October 7 to January 5, the World Health Organization documented 304 Israeli attacks on healthcare facilities in Gaza, which have also killed more than 300 medical personnel.
Dire shortages of medics and midwives, coupled with Israel’s siege on Gaza, threaten the lives of countless pregnant women and babies.
Raeda al-Masry also wears an isdal, the ubiquitous garment that the women of Gaza wear to preserve their privacy.
She sits cross-legged on the floor of a classroom where she has taken shelter, holding her baby in the burping position, patting his bottom lightly as she speaks animatedly to Al Jazeera.
Raeda is from Beit Hanoon and was displaced to Jabalia in the early days of the war.
“The block we were sheltering in was bombed, and I was pulled out from under the rubble by the rescuers, me and my older son, who is 14 months old,” she says, explaining how they came to move to the school.
“Moath was born right here in the classroom about two months ago. When my labour started, we called for an ambulance or something, but there were no resources. Nobody came to help.
“Oh my goodness, it was such a difficult birth. There’s nothing here that can help during a delivery. I didn’t even have any clothes. People had to rummage around to find something for me to put Moath in.”
While Raeda managed to get to Kamal Adwan Hospital after Moath was born for checkups for both of them, there were no vaccines available. He remains unvaccinated.
“They told me there were no vaccines, … but look at where we are. The baby is here in the school where there are all sorts of diseases spreading. Right now, he has something happening with his chest. He’s having a hard time breathing, but there’s nothing I can do.
“I’m not eating enough either to be able to nurse him. Some people helped me by bringing me some formula.
“My wish for my son is that he lives, that he has safety, that he has food, diapers even. I don’t want him to grow up in want.”
Um Raed also sits holding her baby boy, swaddled in a fuzzy blanket and sleeping soundly, perhaps reassured by the sound of his mother’s voice and her rocking motions as she holds him.
He has been sick often since his birth, Um Raed says, her eyes wide and serious, the frustration of not being able to do more for her child apparent on her face.
“I reached full term here in the school shelter,” she recounts, “but my labour wasn’t starting, probably from the fear I was living in.
“So I would walk from here to the Kamal Adwan Hospital to get checked every day. I did that for three days – couldn’t understand why my labour wasn’t starting.”
Like thousands of other mothers in Gaza, when her labour did begin, she had to give birth in rudimentary, unsanitary conditions with no safety precautions in place simply because Gaza’s healthcare system has run out of everything.
“Since the birth, I’ve not known whether I should be focusing on my contractions or on the sound of warplanes overhead. Should I be worrying about my baby, or should I be afraid of whatever attacks are happening at that moment?
“You know, for such a young baby, he’s learned to recognise the sounds of bombing. Whenever there is bombing here, he startles and is frightened. I don’t think babies this young should recognise danger in this way.”
On October 9, Israel strengthened its siege over Gaza, denying food, water and medicines to its people, including one million children, about a third of whom are under the age of five.
Newborns are the most vulnerable because their mothers often are not getting enough calories to be able to nurse them and baby formula is in short supply.
Asked what she wishes for her baby boy, Um Raed replies “vaccines”.
In the longer run, she says, she wishes what any mother would wish for her child, that Raed grows up in a healthy environment, in peace and not suffering from want and not learning about war at such a young age.
However, the three mothers agree: This is the reality of war that thousands of babies are being born into, with no end in sight.
As much as they wish for the best for their babies, they also fear what may happen to them as Israel continues its assault on Gaza.