A displaced Palestinian woman carries one of the cats belonging to the Harb family at a tent camp in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 8, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip: In a makeshift tent city in the southern Gaza Strip teeming with thousands of displaced people, three cats called Simsim, Brownie and Liza are giving rare moments of joy to children who have lost any semblance of normality in their lives.

The cats belong to the Harb family, who fled their home in a residential tower in the relatively affluent area of Al Zahra in central Gaza to escape from Israeli air strikes that flattened the building and much of their old neighbourhood.

Now, the family live under a tarpaulin, sleeping on thin mats laid on the ground and spending their days trying to find enough water and food to get by.

The cats provide a much-needed distraction not only for their owners but for other displaced children who take turns stroking them and picking them up in the dirt alleys in between tents fashioned from tarpaulins and cloth fabrics.

The children smile and laugh as they play with them. One child calls one of the pets “habibi”, or “my love” in Arabic.

Another uses a tennis ball to initiate a game.

“Simsim is a living thing that is like us, who is going through our suffering as well, has fears like we do,” said Sara Tamimi, 13, who belongs to the extended Harb family, as she cradled the fluffy ginger feline in her arms.

She said that at first the animal was so scared he did not want to leave a plastic cat carrier that is one of the few possessions the family took when they ran away from home.

Image Credit: Reuters

“A bit later, he started getting better. He started coming out of his carrier and eating, and became accustomed to it just like we did.” Riham Harb, Sara’s aunt, said the night they left home was terrifying. They were out in the open for the whole night, close to the border fence with Israel, hearing and seeing air strikes falling on their neighbourhood.

“This cat was in my backpack that I had beside me and he was shivering with fear. Even animals were not spared by them. We spent a night that is hard to forget,” she said, holding Simsim.


The next morning, the tower where the family used to live was nothing more than a pile of rubble, and they set out like so many others to find a place to camp in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Israel told residents of the northern part of the Gaza Strip to move south for their own safety after it began a military onslaught on the densely crowded territory in response to an attack by Hamas on Oct. 7. It has also been bombing the south, though less intensively than the north.

Hamas fighters killed 1,400 Israelis and took 240 others hostage on October 7. More than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s retaliatory strikes, according to health officials in the Hamas-controlled territory.

“Suddenly life changed drastically,” said Harb.

“We did not expect this huge number of families to become displaced, and for everybody to come here to this small place, where the bathrooms are barely enough for the people. It was a struggle for us to find a place where we can pitch a tent.” The family had a fourth cat, Caramel, but she was nowhere to be found when the family rushed away from their home.

“As for Caramel, I do not know if she is alive or dead. I leave it up to God,” said Harb.

“It is as though the memories that came from the Al Zahra towers remain in the Al Zahra towers.”