War destroyed their homes and her big white dress, but Heba and Omar agreed nothing would stand in the way of their future happiness.
So they got married, refugees at a UN school in Gaza.
Decked with a cloud of multicoloured balloons and echoing with the joyful ululating of women, the school in Gaza City’s Shati refugee camp was transformed from a refugee camp into a party hall.
In the final hours before a 72-hour truce between Israel and Hamas, set to expire at midnight (2100 GMT), the young couple threw misery and mourning to the wind to celebrate their love.
“If somebody told me that I would be getting married in these conditions, I would not have believed them for a second!” said Heba, sitting in a salon in Gaza City the day before, a hairdresser darting around as she rearranged her long, brown hair.
“I had planned everything: the music, the guest list, my dress and my bouquet. And here I am today, I’m getting married in a school with thousands of refugees.”
Heba Fayad, 23, and Omar Abu Namar, 30, were due to wed next month in her family home in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza.
But then the war came, laying waste to their plans.
Heba’s family home was destroyed along with the items they bought for married life: dresses, accessories, flowers, everything went up in smoke when Israeli warplanes rained destruction on the tiny enclave, which is home to nearly 1.8 million Palestinians.
With reconstruction set to take years — Israel has blockaded Gaza since 2006 and restricts the entry of construction materials — Heba decided to speed things up rather than wait for her home to be rebuilt.
“If I don’t get married today, and in these conditions, then I won’t be able to get married for at least three years,” she said.
“My house was destroyed, I lost everything.”
But UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and other aid agencies, was keen to give the couple a break from the bloodshed, and chipped in to pay for the marriage and two nights in a hotel for the newlyweds.
– Starting a new life –
For Heba, the stay in the hotel is a godsend — the opportunity to get out of the UN school in Beit Lahiya where she is staying with 4,000 refugees.
“Over there, I will take a shower every hour, it will be a change from all these days without seeing a drop of water to wash in,” she laughed.
Part of Heba’s eagerness to tie the knot at any price is the fact that she has already seen several Israeli attacks, and her family has paid a heavy price.
Her mother Nabila, who casts a watchful eye over her in the salon, has been in a wheelchair since she was wounded in an Israeli air raid that struck her house in 2006.
Nabila also lost her son, aged nine at the time, in an Israeli attack.
“Heba is my life, I wanted so much for her to have a nice wedding ceremony in better conditions. It makes me sad to know that she is going to get married in a school for refugees,” she sighed.
“But what can we do? These are the conditions that have ben imposed on us. Our house was destroyed and her future husband wants to leave, once they get married.”
Omar waits at the door. He is just waiting for the moment to depart for a better life abroad.
“My family’s not in Gaza, I am alone here,” he told AFP.
“The celebration, the guests are not the important thing for me. Me, I’m happy because I am going to marry Heba.”
With no work and few job prospects in the Strip, he is placing his hopes in a new life outside Gaza and being able to join his family in the United Arab Emirates.
To do this, he will have to cross the Rafah border into Egypt. But Cairo keeps the border tightly sealed most of the time.
The crossing, which opens occasionally to let a trickle of casualties and dual citizens out of the enclave, is currently at the heart of the negotiations taking place in Cairo between Israel and the Palestinians.
But as the midnight deadline loomed, a rocket struck southern Israel dampening hopes there had been a breakthrough in talks to end the violence.
For Heba, leaving Gaza is an opportunity “to start a new life with Omar”.
“It will be like a long period of recovery to forget everything that we have gone through during this war,” she said.