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A 100-degree heat wave in Gaza offers a sweltering glimpse of a tough summer to come

Displaced Palestinians in Rafah sit in the shade of their tent on a 100-degree day in the Gaza Strip.
Anas Baba for NPR
Displaced Palestinians in Rafah sit in the shade of their tent on a 100-degree day in the Gaza Strip.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — For two sweltering days this week, as temperatures topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Mohammad Ayash's tent had become unbearable — so hot, he said, it was like "hell fire."

"Red-hot death. It's killing us," he said.

Like thousands of Palestinians, Ayash and his family have lived for months in a modest, hand-built tent after leaving their home to flee from Israel's seven-month military campaign.

But the tent Ayash erected — a modest triangle built against a cinder block wall, its outer walls made of blankets and cloth — was meant for the cold, rainy nights of a Gaza winter, he said. To keep him and his family dry, he had lined the tent walls with plastic, the sheets held in place by wooden boards nailed together.

In this week's heat, he said, wiping the sweat from his brow, it was even hotter inside the tent than outside. "The kids are falling apart. They can't stay inside the tents," he said. "We want to remove the nylon from it, God willing."

By Friday, the two-day heat wave had broken, and temperatures had returned to the 70s. But for Palestinians and aid workers alike, the high heat served as a preview of a summer to come — during which the punishing heat will weigh daily on every facet of what has become normal life in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Health organizations are also concerned about infectious diseases, which spread more quickly and widely in hot environments.

"With the hot summer and with high temperature, this is creating an atmosphere for all kinds of germs and pollution. And of course, this is the main driver for waterborne diseases and airborne disease," warned Abdelrahman Al Tamimi, the director-general of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, a nonprofit that focuses on water and health issues in the Palestinian territories.

At least one Palestinian woman has died due to the heat, a worker with the global relief group Mercy Corps told NPR. Lara al-Sayigh, 18, had received word that she would be allowed to exit Gaza, said Mahmoud Khwaider, the aid worker and al-Sayigh's neighbor. But she passed out from the heat and died before she could reach the border station at Rafah, Khwaider said.

At a field hospital Thursday, a doctor ran clean water over the faces of two wailing young girls, their eyes burning from lice medication that had run from their scalps down into their eyes due to heat and sweat.

The heat is dangerous for many Palestinians who lack ways to stay cool

Nowhere in Gaza is hotter than Rafah, at the territory's southern border along the edge of the Sinai desert. In summertime, daily high temperatures average in the mid-90s. Hot days regularly reach over 100 degrees.

More than a million Palestinians have taken shelter here, the United Nations says, as Israel's punishing military campaign forced people to flee from their homes further north.

Many lack air conditioning, fans or regular access to drinking water. And makeshift shelters like tents offer little respite from the heat.

"We didn't expect things to reach a stage where we sit until May and June, and so on," said Sharif Mazen Abu Odeh, who left his home in Beit Hanoun, a city in Gaza's northeasternmost corner, shortly after Oct. 7, and didn't anticipate being displaced this long.

Thousands of Palestinians took to the Mediterranean Sea to cool off on Wednesday and Thursday, as temperatures topped 100 degrees in Rafah.
/ Anas Baba for NPR
Anas Baba for NPR
Thousands of Palestinians took to the Mediterranean Sea to cool off on Wednesday and Thursday, as temperatures topped 100 degrees in Rafah.

The Israeli military's campaign of airstrikes and ground operations, a response to the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 that Israel says killed 1,200 people, has displaced most of Gaza's population of 2.2 million. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7, Gaza health officials say.

Many left their homes with barely more than what they were wearing, let alone a full complement of winter and summer clothes. Most have been displaced multiple times, including Abu Odeh, who said he has moved four times since October.

"May God send down a little mercy from himself to cool the weather," Abu Odeh said. "I don't believe anyone other than the residents of the Gaza Strip — no one in the world — is living the life we are currently suffering from."

Aid is also affected by the heat

Among aid workers, some were able to start their work before dawn in order to wrap up by the time the heat peaked in the mid-afternoon. But others worked through the heat, like those operating the Rafah and Kerem Shalom border crossings, where lifesaving aid enters Gaza daily.

UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency for Palestinians, reported several heat injuries among its staff Thursday.

"Everybody's a little slower. You have to take more breaks and drink more water, which is in short supply," said Scott Anderson, UNRWA's deputy director of operations in Gaza. "It does impact everything to do with manual labor, because it's so hot and there's not anywhere, really, to seek shade."

For the summer to come, UNRWA said it will look into the possibility of opening the crossings earlier in the day — as soon as there is daylight — in order to take a safety break during the afternoon.

Afraid of the summer to come

At a water truck, small children gathered directly underneath the spigots and danced in the drops that spilled as adults above them filled up their jugs. Women, in the privacy of their shelters, removed their hijabs to dip them in water before putting them on again. Along the rows of tents, people relaxed in what little shade they could find, hoping for a breeze.

And thousands flocked to the Mediterranean Sea to cool off — among them, a five-year-old boy named Zakaria, who told NPR that his swim in the ocean had made him happy.

But for his father, who gave his name only as Haitham, the heat wave had been "torture, in every sense of the word," he said.

Even worse would be the summer to come, he said. "We don't know what to do with our families, with our children. We don't know how to face this heat," Haitham said. "We are terrified."

Becky Sullivan reported from Tel Aviv. Anas Baba reported from Rafah. Aya Batrawy contributed reporting from Dubai.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]