The Line Between Gaza and America

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Last week, an Israeli air strike killed Mohammed Abu Hatab, a television journalist, along with eleven members of his family, in his home in southern Gaza. He was the thirty-sixth confirmed member of the media to die in the current conflict, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That number steadily ticks upward. An overwhelming majority have been local Gazans trying to cover the crisis amid continual bombardment. Until recently, no new foreign journalists or independent organizations have been allowed in to witness what is happening.

Since early October, I’ve tried to capture fragments of life in Gaza from afar, largely through WhatsApp conversations with people there and with Palestinian Americans. It seemed that every other person knew someone who had died.

Hossin Shaqur, an insurance broker who lives in Santa Barbara, California, was born in the Jabalia refugee camp, in northern Gaza, after his family was displaced in 1948 from a village that is now part of southern Israel. In 1967, some of the family moved to Qatar and eventually to the United States, but his sister, his nieces and nephews, his cousins, and his aunts and uncles remained in Jabalia. Since Israel’s bombing campaign began, Hossin told me, he has been able to confirm that nearly seventy of his relatives have been killed. The neighborhood his mother’s family lived in was levelled. The last he heard, his sister was still alive. “But I don’t know if she’s alive right now,” he told me over the phone. “We are glued to the TV. You watch the news for a couple of hours, do something, and you come back and something new has happened. It repeats itself.”

A few days after the bombing started, many Gazans thought they might find safety in the south. Noor Harazeen, a young journalist based in Gaza City, left her home and travelled with her husband and their children to Deir al-Balah, in the middle of the Strip. When Noor messaged me from there, she had not had a drink of water for more than twenty-four hours. There were almost no potable sources; she and her family had been subsisting on juice.

Soon after Israel launched its war on Gaza, in response to Hamas’s October 7th attack, military planes dropped leaflets in the north, including in Gaza City, warning residents—about a million people—to evacuate. Families struggled to decide what to do. Almost immediately afterward, an air strike hit a road in Gaza City that was considered a “safe route,” reportedly killing seventy people. (Hamas blamed Israel for the attack, though the Israel Defense Forces has denied responsibility.)

Even in the south, bombings seemed random. One late afternoon in the first week, Alaa Zaher Ahmed, a third-year medical student, was designing a poster for breast-cancer awareness in her room in Khan Younis. “Suddenly, everything started shaking and I found myself in darkness,” she told me over voice notes. “Couldn’t see anything.” First, she noticed that she was still breathing, and then that she couldn’t move one hand, and then that her head hurt. She touched it and felt on her fingertips “a viscous fluid.” Blood. Alaa tried to move, but her legs were pinned down and she couldn’t feel them. Above her was something mysterious, heavy, concrete.

It may have been ten minutes, she guessed, before she heard muffled voices that seemed to grow louder. Alaa started to scream and knock on the concrete above her. A neighbor pulled her out of the rubble. Rescue teams and relatives continued to dig through the wreckage. After several hours, they unearthed most of the rest of her family: her mother, brother, and nephew, all dead. Her home, which was three stories, “went down like biscuits,” she told me. Amid the caved-in remnants, the few things that remained recognizable—a mattress, sofa, pink cloth—were blanketed in dust.

The United Nations estimates that more than half of Gaza’s population has been displaced since the beginning of the war. People have been scattered into preëxisting refugee camps, or to homes of friends or relatives in different cities, or to schools or hospitals. Adnan Sawada’s family is one of the scattered. Adnan, fifty-five years old, runs a transportation company and lives in Maryland. His family, who live in Sheikh Radwan, in northern Gaza City, decided to move after the leaflets sprinkled down. They took a mattress, some clothes, toys for the kids, food, and ended up, like Noor, in Deir al-Balah.

Adnan hasn’t seen any of his siblings in thirteen years. Months ago, he spoke to his eldest brother, Shaban, over the phone. Shaban was giddy with excitement; his son was to be married, and soon he would have a grandchild. “I’m old and enjoying life,” Adnan remembered him saying.

What Adnan knows, as relayed to him by his nephew, is this: On the afternoon of October 16th, Shaban and another brother were talking outside a house. The brother went inside. Suddenly, there was a blast, and everything shuddered. When the brother emerged, he found Shaban on the ground, bloodied, one leg gone. Shaban was rushed to the hospital, but by the time the doctor could see him, he had died. “He died from bleeding, obviously,” Adnan told me, “but the whole reason was the bomb.”

The long wait to be seen by a doctor had become common by then. Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital, the largest in the Strip, was buckling under an inflow of injured men, women, children, and babies. Tarneem Hammad, a writer based in Gaza who works with humanitarian-aid groups, told me that doctors were describing the hospital as a “slaughterhouse.” There were too many dead people arriving, or unable to be saved. With supplies running low, some people were cut and sutured without anesthesia.

“Journalists are sleeping on the floors of the hospital,” Noor told me, on the morning of October 17th. “It might be at least safer than other places.” That calculation changed rapidly. Later that day, a blast at Al-Ahli Arab hospital, also in Gaza City, killed around a hundred people; the cause remains unclear, though evidence suggests a rocket launched by a Palestinian militant group. Recently, a doctor in Gaza sent me a video of smoke ballooning into the sky after an Israeli strike near Al-Quds hospital. Last week, Israel hit near the entrance of Al-Shifa hospital. (A spokesperson for the I.D.F. said it will “strike Hamas wherever necessary.”)

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