Having children in Gaza can be very stressful. I know that from my own experience.
When I got married in 2016, I very much wanted to become a mother as soon as possible. A year passed and, to my great disappointment, I was not yet pregnant.
I went to see a few doctors who specialized in fertility issues. One told me I may have a uterine problem, but that was not confirmed.
I felt scared. When Israel subjected Gaza to a major assault in 2014, the area where I was then living came under heavy bombardment.
A house next to ours in Gaza City was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike.
Gas lingered in the air following the bombardment. I was exposed to that gas; avoiding it was impossible.
My mind kept returning to that horrible incident.
Had inhaling that gas caused long-term damage to my health? Was it preventing me from having children?
I kept asking those questions until one day in March 2018.
For the first time ever, I visited al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem that day. At noon, I entered the courtyard beside the mosque and suddenly fell to the ground, nauseous.
It took a few minutes before I regained some strength. With the help of colleagues – I was on a business trip – I went to Al-Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem.
There, I learned that there was a simple explanation for why I was feeling weak: I was pregnant.
Hearing that news – on a day I had fulfilled every Palestinian’s wish of seeing al-Aqsa mosque – was the happiest moment of my life.
But the tension quickly returned. I had problems sleeping for most of the pregnancy.
I was worried that I would either miscarry or that my baby would arrive with a congenital disorder.
To my relief, my fears were not realized. My son Khalil was born without complications.
Khalil is now 3 years old. And I have a second child – his sister, Seba, 2.
Both are in good health, thank God.
Many other people in Gaza have been less fortunate than I have.
Salma and Hussam have been married since 2015. Soon after they wed, Salma was examined by a gynecologist, who told her that in all probability she would be unable to have children.
The couple nonetheless decided to keep trying. Salma, now aged 31, attempted to become pregnant through artificial insemination on three occasions over five years.
Each attempt cost $4,000. None of them was successful.
Then – in January this year – Salma underwent in vitro fertilization in a specialized clinic. Hussam borrowed the money – a few thousand dollars – needed for the procedure.
A month after the IVF procedure, Salma went for a check-up.
To her delight, she learned that the treatment had been successful. She was pregnant with twins.
Further examinations revealed that the twins were a boy and a girl. The couple decided to call the boy Ziyad and his sister Rima.
“When I was three and a half months pregnant, I could feel them move inside me,” Salma said. “That might be the happiest moment for a pregnant woman. I was completely focused on getting ready for their birth.”
That happiness was obliterated by Israel’s latest major offensive against Gaza.
Salma and Hussam live in al-Rimal, the commercial hub of Gaza City. Numerous businesses and residential buildings in al-Rimal were damaged or destroyed by Israel in May this year.
Early on 12 May, Israel targeted an area that was just a few hundred meters away from Salma and Hussam’s apartment.
Israel had conducted airstrikes in other parts of Gaza the previous night.
Salma could not sleep with the sound of explosions but she eventually nodded off. Her sleep was quickly disturbed by a horrendous noise that was obviously coming from somewhere nearby.
“I woke up terrified,” she said. “It felt like the walls could collapse on top of us at any moment.”
Two days later, Salma had a distinct impression that the twins were moving less inside her womb. Because Israel was still bombarding Gaza, it was too dangerous for her to visit a doctor.
A ceasefire eventually brought an end to Israel’s attack on 21 May.
A few days after that, Salma woke up covered in blood. She was taken to hospital by ambulance.
Tests confirmed that she had miscarried.
Since then Salma has lost her appetite. She seldom sleeps.
“Israel killed my children,” she said. “And it killed me psychologically.”
Dr. Said al-Hadidi, a gynecologist with al-Quds hospital in Gaza City, holds Israel responsible for a large number of miscarriages during its May offensive.
“Psychological factors are key to the health of pregnant women and babies,” al-Hadidi said. “Extreme fear and trauma can cause miscarriages.”
Unable to breastfeed
Many women who succeeded in giving birth after Israel’s May offensive have encountered difficulties.
Siwar, 27, had a baby girl in August. The girl, named Rida, is Siwar’s first child.
Siwar lives in Beach refugee camp, one of the areas in Gaza City where Israel carried out a massacre during May. Although Siwar was not displaced, reading news about the violence had a marked effect.
“When I checked Facebook, I was extremely terrified,” she said. “The sense of terror lasted a long time.”
Siwar blames the attack for the fact she has been unable to breastfeed her daughter.
According to Helena Musleh, a psychologist with al-Awda hospital in northern Gaza, such problems can result from trauma during pregnancy.
“Some women who have experienced grief or psychological pain are unable to breastfeed their children,” said Musleh. “We have noticed that many mothers find that they are crying persistently.”
“I still have nightmares”
Dina, 23, was seven months pregnant when Israel fired dozens of missiles toward her neighborhood in Jabaliya refugee camp on 14 May.
One of the missiles landed approximately 10 meters from her home. The explosion was so powerful that it smashed windows and doors in her home, which caught fire.
Dina lost consciousness and only regained it after she had been evacuated from the area. She was brought to a relatives’ home.
A week later, Dina and her husband Muhammad visited a clinic run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA. They were told that despite the ordeal their baby seemed fine.
On 10 June, Dina was examined by Said al-Hadidi, the gynecologist.
Dina learned dreadful news during that appointment. She had miscarried that day.
Dina and Muhammad had planned to call their son Abd al-Karim.
“My baby was killed by fear,” Dina said. “I still have nightmares about the attack. The doctor told me that fear was the reason I lost my baby.”
Dina and Muhammad were married last year. They remain determined to have children.
“My baby should have been five months old by now,” Dina added. “I keep looking at the clothes I had bought for him in the hope that I will get pregnant again.”
Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza.