I’m sitting at my desktop wondering when my friends will be killed. Across 7,400 miles separation from Gaza, I can feel my friend Samah Askar’s terror and grief in every post and picture she sends. Since I set up a GoFundMe for her and a few other Gazan families, others there, male and female, have sought to friend me. They need money, because Gaza lives under a 15-year military blockade and has suffered a series of wars that have wiped out their economy.
Unemployment in June of 2020 was 49.3%, according to Relief Web, and that was before COVID shutdowns. According to the US Central Intelligence Agency, 30% of Gaza lived in poverty in 2011. That was three wars and a pandemic ago, so it must be worse now. There are no jobs; staying alive is full-time work.
Because money is not my strong point, I can’t help my Gaza friends much financially, but I can learn from them and tell their stories. Samah has three beautiful children, age 2–7 and a husband disabled by an Israeli shell while attending an unarmed demonstration. Though her home in Gaza City is only about 50 miles from Jerusalem, where she has family and friends, she has never been there. The occupation’s travel restrictions and her lack of money have made it impossible for her to travel She reports on Gaza and takes pictures she shares with the world through internet platforms such as Facebook.
One way I try to help is through a web site called We are Not Numbers (WANN,) which pairs aspiring writers with English-language tutors and publishes some of their short pieces. The writers are amazing young people, creating beauty while living under military rule and fear of imminent death.
Shahd Safi of WANN wrote:
The voices of bombs and tanks
Shatter my peace of mind.
Children the age of my siblings
just 1 year and another 3 months,
are hit as if they were insects.
Buildings that are homes are targeted,
toppling as if in slow motion.
I wonder, is mine the next?–
With every explosion,
my heart beats fast.
For a moment I just stand,
Am I still on earth or have I died?
Several of the young writers talk about sitting at their computers, feeling helpless. One, Noha Saneen, in the town of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, wrote: “I sit at my desk, taking my pen as my sword and writing as my shelter. My little nephews and nieces are surrounding me, as if I can ensure them safety. Sadly, I cannot.”
In San Francisco, I don’t share their fear, but I do share their helplessness. I call government representatives and go to demonstrations on their behalf. I write letters to editors and articles on Medium. It feels nowhere close to enough.
I worry for them. Every time I see a post or IM from one of them, I sigh with relief, ‘They’re still alive, and there’s still electricity.’ In between, I feel guilty for not doing more and for being of the ethnicity (Ashkenazi) and the nationality (American) who punish them for existing.
Brief history of Gaza
Gaza was once a tourist destination with great weather and beaches. It has been coveted and conquered by Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, British, Israelis, and many more. Now it is largely ruins, destroyed by a series of Israeli invasions in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021, attacks sometimes called “mowing the lawn” by Israelis who don’t seem to recognize Palestinians as people.
Israel officially “withdrew” from Gaza in 2007, but maintains a total blockade of land, air, and sea, which makes them an occupying army under international law. No one and nothing gets in or out without Israeli government permission. So, it’s a very hard place to do business, even if your shop is one of the lucky ones that doesn’t get bombed. 37% of Gazans test as clinically depressed, according to Arab Barometer, which does quantitative research on the Middle East.
Most people in Gaza are refugees from other parts of Palestine, whose parents or grandparents were dispossessed of their homes by previous waves of Israeli expansion. The ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine goes unnoticed in the West except when someone fights back or when Israel decides to intensify their assaults, as they are doing now. Then the US government and media chorus, “Israel has a right to defend itself.” (As an occupier under international law, they have no such right. Their actions are far from “defensive,” and they are under no significant threat anyway.)
Their families’ repeated dispossessions cast dark shadows over my friends’ lives. WANN writer Afaf Al-Najjar wrote about friends in Jerusalem, the city of his ancestors: “There is nothing I can do to help them, no way even for my words of solidarity to reach their ears as they stand in the streets against the flying rubber bullets — How badly I want to go to Jerusalem, the place I call home but have never been allowed to visit. How much I miss the sand I have never touched, the trees I never sat under, the sound of birds and people I have never heard. I miss it all, I miss home.”
What’s happening there now?
Israel likes to claim that it strives to reduce civilian casualties, for example by giving apartment tower residents a few minutes warning before demolishing their homes. Israel’s supporters favorably contrast their missile strikes with Hamas’ unguided missiles into Israel.
But many families receive no such warning. Samah knows families in her own neighborhood wiped out while they slept. The New York Times reported May 14 that “Gaza City was silent with fear, except when it was loud with terror: the sudden smash of Israeli airstrikes, the whoosh of militants’ rockets arcing toward Israel, the shouts of people checking on one another, the last moans of the dying.”
The endless hours of terror have worn people down. My friend Amal Arafa, a nurse in a hospital damaged by Israeli bombing, wrote of “30 of my family huddled together in one room for 24 hours, walls shaking from explosions outside, not knowing if this breath will be our last.” And Samah Askar wrote that “My legs have given out from terror. I can barely walk.” These women are trying to care for children even more terrified than they are.
Israel government supporters use frankly racist arguments. WANN writer Abdallah alJazzar quoted a Palestinian friend who, while a student in the USA, asked an Israeli-born classmate, “How do you feel when Israel bombs Gaza and children die?” His answer: “We believe that the life of an Israeli is worth that of 1,000 Palestinians.”
The American activist group Jewish Voice for Peace released a statement saying, “What we are witnessing is not a “conflict,” a “clash,” or a “war.” For 73 years, the Israeli government has systematically stolen and demolished Palestinians’ homes, illegally seized their land, and separated them from each other. In this totalizing system of violence against Palestinians, no one is safe. We deplore the catastrophic loss of Palestinian life, and we grieve for the loss of all lives — Palestinian and Israeli.”
Let Gaza live
I have learned a great deal from my Gazan friends. Their endless patience and their courage teach me how much strength each of us has within, and the power of supporting each other. I kind of knew this, but watching how Gazans not only survive, but grow and love in such an insecure, impoverished environment inspires me to keep going and do more to help.
I am glad to have connected with these amazing people. I ask everyone to call and write their Congresspeople, the White House, the state department, and your local media. Demand the USA tell Israel to cease fire now, get out of Gaza and the West Bank. Support Rep. Betty McCollum’s Palestinian Children and Families Act (HR 2590), which prohibits US aid to Israel from being used to imprison children or dispossess Palestinians from their land and homes. Keep resisting and standing up for justice and peace.
Contribute to one of these places to donate.
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