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War on Gaza: Palestinian women forced to shave their heads due to water shortage

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War on Gaza: Palestinian women forced to shave their heads due to water shortage

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are cutting their hair to prevent diseases as most of the Israeli-besieged population has no access to clean water

Walaa Sabah

Tue, 02/06/2024 – 12:51

A displaced Palestinian woman, who fled her house due to Israeli strikes, looks on inside a tent camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, 22 January 2024 (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Nisreen, a Palestinian mother of six, had to leave her home in Khan Younis on 13 December, as the Israeli ground invasion of the city intensified.

She has since sought refuge at a nearby UN school, and later to a makeshift tent, with little access to drinkable or cleaning water.

“I had to shave my head, because I have no water to wash my hair,” the 49-year-old told Middle East Eye from her tent in al-Mawasi area.

“I also did the same to my 16-year-old daughter and my 12-year-old son, to protect them from scalp diseases as their friends developed scalp ringworm,” she added.

“Shaving our head is a painful decision for any woman, but we are forced to do it.”


The ferocious Israeli bombing campaign on Gaza, now in its fifth month, has killed at least 27,500 and displaced more than 1.9 million Palestinians, who collectively have no access to clean water and essential hygiene facilities. 

Even before the war, more than 96 percent of the water supply in Gaza had been considered “unfit for human consumption”, due to the Israeli blockade on Gaza since 2007.

But the situation has been exacerbated after the Israeli government’s decision to cut off the water supply to the Gaza Strip at the orders of Energy Minister Israel Katz on 9 October.

Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, 16 January 2024 (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Additionally, the Israeli army seized the majority of water desalination plants in the northern part of Gaza by 30 October, and in the southern part of Gaza City by 1 November, according to satellite images from Planet Labs PBC

“We have no running water essential for cleaning, bathing, and washing clothes,” said Nisreen.

“I used to spend three or four hours in line, waiting to fill a gallon of water from a well at our neighbour’s home to use for cleaning,” she told MEE, describing her life before the war.



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At the UN school of Sheikh Jaber, where she had been sheltering before moving to her current tent, the situation was dire. 

“We queued for hours to use toilets,” she said. “But we didn’t have enough water for showering and no shampoos.”

But Nisreen was forced to flee the school after Israeli tanks approached the area and dropped leaflets for the displaced to evacuate the school.

Now, when she secures some water, Nisreen says she uses it for cooking or drinking.

“Drinking and surviving is of course a higher priority than washing our hair,” she added. 

Meanwhile, the only water available for washing and bathing is seawater, she explained. 


Water ‘a weapon of war’

Zainab al-Shawwaf, a general practitioner based in Rafah, clarified that the lack of hair care and washing may give rise to conditions like alopecia, scalp ringworm, and bacterial infections, ultimately leading to the development of hair abscesses.

“These diseases stem from inadequate hygiene and hair care practices, a deficiency in essential nutrients like folic acid and cortisone, and a decline in the psychological and mental health of the affected people,” she told MEE. 

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“These diseases cause itching, leading to lymphopathy and creating a damp environment conducive to bacterial growth, resulting in pus on the scalp and further hair loss,” she added.

Al-Shawwaf also highlighted the shortage of medicine in the Gaza Strip, which compounds the problem.

“We only have broad-spectrum antibacterial drugs available for various diseases. We do not have any medications for treating lice spread among children, for example.”

The World Health Organisation has warned of the risk of the spread of infectious diseases in Gaza as a result of consumption of contaminated water, along with the overcrowding at displacement shelters and overall collapse of the health system.

Israel’s decision to cut off fuel supplies to the strip led to the shutting down of desalination plants as well as disrupting all solid waste collection, creating a fertile environment for insects and rodents that can transmit diseases, the WHO said.

Juliette Touma, spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa), has warned that “water is being used as a weapon of war” during the current conflict.

“Many people are resorting to unsafe sources of water…Clean water in Gaza is either unavailable or available in very, very small quantities.” 

Gaza, occupied Palestine
Palestinian women forced to shave their heads due to water shortage in Gaza

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