Fleeing war zones, from Gaza to Ukraine and back

In Gaza, Palestinians with Ukraine ties watching with empathy as Russian attack continues

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The al-Astal family in the Gaza Strip is once again confronting the horrors of war — air raids, food shortages, power cuts, frantic phone calls. But this time, they are on the outside looking in.

They are among dozens of Palestinian-Ukrainian families in the isolated territory who have experienced several wars firsthand — the most recent last May — and are now watching another unfold in Ukraine, where many of them have loved ones.

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Oksana al-Astal has barely slept since the fighting began. Her parents, in their 80s, live in a small Ukrainian village where food and medicine are already running low. As soon as she gets home every day from working in her clinic, the gynecologist calls to see if they are still alive.

“There are constant air raids, so my parents have to hide in basements that are wet and cold,” she said. “The lights cut out, there’s no heating or electricity. It’s terrifying.”

She knows what it’s like, having moved to Gaza with her Palestinian husband in 2008. They have lived through four wars between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers. In each of them, Israel carried out waves of airstrikes that it said were aimed at military targets, but which also killed hundreds of civilians in the crowded territory that is home to 2 million Palestinians.

“I witnessed the deaths of adults and children. I saw how homes were destroyed, how ambulances raced off, how bombs hit hospitals and what happens to people after that,” she said.

Many Palestinians have ties to Russia and Ukraine that date back to when the Soviet Union championed their cause, offering scholarships and other opportunities. Palestinians are divided over the war, with some expressing support for Russia against Western countries that have always backed Israel.

On social media, many have seized on a tweet from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from last May expressing horror at Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. They say he ignored the lopsided death toll from the war, in which some 260 Palestinians, including 66 children and 40 women, were killed. Thirteen civilians, including two children and a soldier, were killed in Israel.

Other Palestinians have echoed the widespread concern for the suffering of Ukrainian civilians. A handful of families in Gaza have raised the Ukrainian flag over their homes, while others are flying Russian colors.

Israelis are also divided over the conflict, and their government is engaged in a delicate balancing act as it tries to mediate.

The al-Astals have always had a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag waving outside their home. It’s a tradition that harks back to when Oksana’s husband, Raed, a pulmonologist, studied in the Ukrainian city of Sumy. It was there that he met Oksana, the daughter of one of his professors.

Every time they visit Ukraine, including last summer, his father-in-law presents him with a new flag to ensure the colors don’t fade in the Gaza sun. Their three children have fond memories of that trip, and Oksana says they are now worried about the children they played with in Ukraine.

Motaz al-Halabi, who studied medicine in Ukraine and returned to Gaza in 2001 with his Ukrainian wife, helped organize the evacuation of Ukrainians from Gaza during last year’s war. He says there are currently around 1,400 Palestinian-Ukrainians in Gaza, down from 2,000. Many have joined a wider exodus from the impoverished territory, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power in 2007.

“We’ve been through all the wars here and never left,” said Nataliya Harb, who moved to Gaza in 1998 with her Palestinian husband.

On a recent day she nervously watched a news broadcast from Ukraine with two other Ukrainian women in a Gaza home where the electricity flickered on and off. All wore Islamic headscarves and long gowns, the conservative attire worn by most Gazans.

“The situation was very difficult here for the children,” she said. “We know what the word ‘war’ is, what a ‘fallen rocket’ is, what ‘children fleeing outside’ is.”

Akram reported from Hamilton, Canada.