Letters From Gaza, Part 4

In Partnership with the Institute for Palestine Studies

Gaza has gone dark. Hospitals, already under attack from missiles and white phosphorous, are shutting down due to a lack of fuel. Hunger and thirst are ravaging the population. Aid is trickling in, but it is never enough. Israeli tanks are entering the strip—the ground invasion, sure to bring more death, has begun. In an attempt to hide their atrocities from the world, Israel has been intermittently cutting internet and telephone communications from and within the strip. Every message that Palestinians manage to transmit may be the last.

The team at The Institute for Palestine Studies has been translating and publishing these messages so that the world can see the humanity buried under the rubble, and the spirit of resistance that has, does, and will continue to animate the Palestinian struggle. 

To help maximize their reach, we are republishing these messages here. This is the fourth post of letters—the third post in the series can be found here, the second can be found here, and the first can be found here.

From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.

Shahd Safi
To be Displaced at an UNWRA School in Gaza

October 26th, 2023
Shahd Safi is an Arabic/English translator and teacher, freelance journalist, social media coordinator, and human rights advocate based in Gaza. 

Have you ever wondered what it means to be a displaced person sheltering at an UNRWA school in Gaza?

Gaza is experiencing severe shortages of water, flour, electricity, fuel, and medicine, as a result of Israel’s complete blockade on the Strip. The aid that has finally been permitted to enter — after several bombings of the Rafah Crossing — covers practically nothing of what the population in Gaza needs to survive.

So, as a family who was forced to flee their home, escaping bombardment to seek refuge at an UNRWA school — all while experiencing these conditions — what does it look like in these schools-turned-shelters?

You have no bed to lie on at night; no pillows, no blanket. Your mattress is the classroom floor. Your blanket is the clothes you wear. Nothing warms your body when it’s cold. Your pillow is the small emergency bag you packed before you fled your home, stuffed with some clothes and important documents, such as your ID, birth certificate and passport (if you have one, it’s a luxury for Palestinians living in Gaza) as well as a few paracetamol tablets to treat headaches.

If you’re a female, you take pills to delay your period as long as possible, since you have no menstrual pads, due to a shortage caused by the Israeli blockade.

There is no water to drink, wash clothes or shower with. You scramble to find water for your family. You might be able to fill a tank or two from the mosque nearest to the school.

To use the bathroom, you wait in line behind hundreds of people. Because there is no water, you use wet wipes to keep yourself as clean as you can. You won’t feel comfortable in the bathroom: another hundred people are waiting outside for you to leave, knocking on the door and urging you to finish.

There is a shortage of flour in Gaza, so there’s not enough bread. You purchase the one bundle allowed per family, even if it is not enough to sustain them. You wait for hours in the bread line with hundreds of other people, sweaty, irritated, and afraid of being bombed. UNRWA personnel give you white cheese daily. It is not enough, but you are grateful for the charity.

There is no electricity anywhere in Gaza, because there is no fuel and the power was unreliable to begin with, so you can’t charge your family’s phone devices, unless you are lucky to find somebody living in the neighborhood near the school whose building is powered by solar energy.

There is no internet connectivity at all in the school, so you can’t assure anyone that you are still alive, and you can’t be assured about loved ones elsewhere in Gaza. You live in constant confusion and worry.

You struggle with anxiety, irritability, boredom, and quiet anger.

It is very much like being imprisoned. You are punished, although you did not commit any crimes. You are full of rage, unable to prove your innocence in a world that sees you as a terrorist, when all you fight for is freedom.

Being a displaced person at an UNRWA school means that you are constantly looking at the sky, praying that the place that shelters you will not be bombed; that you and your family will not be massacred. It is to constantly visualize your parents and siblings under the rubble of the school, your body torn apart, unable to help them, your soul departed.

[This testimony is based on conversations that the author has had with a family seeking refuge at her grandparent’s house in southern Gaza, after evacuating from their home to an UNRWA school. The author’s family also evacuated their home to the south, fleeing Israeli bombs.]

Hamada Nasrallah

October 26th, 2023
Hamada Nasrallah is a singer/composer and member of SOL Band. 

My name is Hamada Nasrallah, I am from Gaza. I am a traveling musician who has lived in Turkey, Egypt, the UAE and Jordan as well as some other countries. I decided to return to Gaza in order to pursue an artistic production for my band, SOL, but all our plans, dreams and everything we built has been bombed. The dream has become either to all survive, or we all die.

Two members of the band and I lived in Gaza city while our keyboard player, Abboud, lives in the south. My friends and I decided that to move to the south with Abboud. His family welcomed us warmly, a testament to the unity of the people of Gaza in times of adversity. Despite the hardships, the people of Gaza cherish life.

Before I became forcibly displaced to southern Gaza, I lived in the north, near the strip’s border. During escalations, we would relocate to the city center which we perceived as safer. But as the Israeli bombs rained down, they spared no one. 

The Israeli airstrikes began while we were asleep at home. The intensity of violence surpassed anything I had witnessed in previous wars. My family was scattered — I was in one location, my mother and siblings in another. My mother had urged me to find a safe place so that if our home was targeted, someone in the family would survive. The bombs did not discriminate between a child, a woman, an elder, a young man, or a civilian. We live in constant fear of whether the next bomb will fall on us or near us. I lost my home to the bombings — a sad event indeed but nothing compared to losing a family member. Like many others, we relocated to the south but bombings and death are omnipresent in the Gaza strip. Having narrowly escaped death twice already, I live in uncertainty about what will happen to me when the next bomb drops.

My brother’s wife was due to give birth during the last two weeks. We were all eagerly anticipating the arrival of my brother’s first child and my mother’s first grandchild. However, amidst all this joy was also fear for the unborn baby due to the ongoing bombings — a different kind of horror indeed. My nephew was born during these tumultuous times and our greatest fear is losing him at any moment.

We have had enough of being treated like animals! The bombing must stop; the genocide in Gaza must end. 

[Translated by  Diana H. and Laura Albast.

Marwa Abu Hatab

October 29th, 2023
Marwa Abu Hatab is a resident of Al-Shati (Beach) camp in Gaza. 

My name is Marwa Abu Hatab, a resident of the Al-Shati (Beach) camp in Gaza. As renewed Israel assaults on Gaza began, my heart became heavy with the memories of past wars that have wreaked havoc on our lives, claimed our loved ones, destroyed our cherished possessions, and left our hearts shattered.

Despite the shock and darkness brought on by the relentless attacks that have ravaged our neighborhood, displacing many and reducing countless homes to rubble, we remain steadfast. Our decision to stay in our homes is not a testament to our bravery or others’ cowardice, but rather a grim acceptance of the reality that no place in Gaza is truly safe. We’ve witnessed the horrifying fate of those who attempted to flee, their vehicles targeted and their lives extinguished in a blaze.

Our once Occupied area has now become a battlefield, subjected to violent bombings by the Israeli forces. Homes, clinics, and mosques have been reduced to debris. Innocent children have been robbed of their dreams in their sleep; we’ve been subjected to a massacre. Many of our friends and relatives have been forced to seek refuge in southern areas due to the incessant bombings.

Even if our homes remain standing, the psychological impacts of the Occupation weigh heavily on us. We feign laughter and suppress our tears because we’ve cried too much and there are no tears left. Fear has taken root in our hearts as we grapple with the senseless violence inflicted upon us.

I am deeply saddened by what remains of our world and by the deafening silence from organizations that continue to propagate the narratives of the oppressor. I yearn for our voices to echo across the globe with the truth, reaching out to those who seek it.

[This testimony was collected by Ahmad al-Batta, a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza.]

Sara Sbaih
Awaiting News of a Loved One’s Martyrdom

October 29th, 2023
Sara Sbaih is a research assistant at the library of the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut.

My name is Sara Sbaih, a Palestinian from the besieged city of Gaza, which is currently enduring the bombardment and massacres by the Israeli occupation.

As I pen these words, my eyes well up with tears. My heart quivers with fear and worry for my family, friends, and loved ones in Gaza, and for Gaza itself, which I hold dear. I currently reside in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, while my family is in Gaza. This is my first experience of being away from my family during a war waged on our homeland. It’s the first war that I’m not experiencing alongside my people.

I’m at a loss for where to begin: Is it when I lost contact with my family? Or when I anxiously awaited news from a friend trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building? Or when I heard about Gaza being deprived of water, food, and medical supplies? Or when I learned that classmates, friends, and relatives had been martyred? Or when I realized that another Nakba was being prepared by the Occupation? Or when I discovered that my family had fled our home, suddenly displaced, desperately seeking the safety they had lost? Or perhaps other moments of suffocation and guilt for being far away from our beloved Gaza.

The war on Gaza commenced on Oct. 7. From the moment the first airstrike targeted us, I felt a sense of betrayal towards my country due to my absence. However, I managed to rationalize the situation and convinced myself that all I could do was follow the news and share updates about the country that I’ve always dreamed would one day know peace without the sound of bombings or fighter jets overhead.

I maintained constant online contact with my family until 15:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 11, when their internet connection was cut off. Since then, I haven’t heard any of their voices. This was the first time internet access is cut off in Gaza during a war. At that moment, I feared that an Israeli strike had targeted the building my family resides in and they had all been martyred. After several failed attempts to reach them through various means, my sister, who is in Germany, managed to call them from Germany and reassured me that they were alive and that internet indeed had been cut off and communication systems are weak. But that was the last time we heard from them.

Since then, I’ve been a dead woman walking. After barely two hours of fitful sleep, I wake up to go to work and immediately check my phone for any news related to my family. The scale of death has led me to believe that I might lose them in this war. And so, I wait for the news of their death. I think this because I have already lost many colleagues, friends, and relatives. On my way to work, I listen to the news and try to distract myself once I reach the office. But the sounds of the news segments continue to echo in my ears.

I’ve begun to despise eating. Each time I see food, I reproach myself. How can I eat when I’m uncertain if my family has food? Drinking water feels like a transgression. How can I drink when my family is in search of clean water? I loathe myself for living a life that, while far from normal, is still more comfortable than what my family in Gaza is experiencing. They can’t even open a window to breathe air that’s now thick with dust from destroyed buildings, smoke from the missiles that caused the destruction, and the stench of blood and death.

My responses about my family have changed too. When friends in Lebanon ask about them, I used to answer with a smile, “They’re fine.” Now, I no longer smile; “We are still alive, thank God” is all I can say. It’s the only response anyone in Gaza can give right now: “I’m still alive.” All we can do is pray for our loved ones’ survival and close our eyes, hoping that when we wake up after an hour or two, our loved ones will still be with us.

I recall the day after my family’s internet was cut off. Israel launched a violent strike near my house. I tried various ways to check on my family. My sister in Germany also tried to contact them, but the communication lines in Gaza weren’t working. After nearly half an hour of excruciating pain and anxiety, my sister received news about my mother, father, sister, and little brother. But even my mother didn’t know if my older brother and his family were okay.

He wasn’t at home when the strike hit. He was with his wife, offering condolences to relatives over the martyrdom of a family member. The explosion was closer to where they were than our home. My mother didn’t know whether her son and his wife had been martyred or injured in this attack, especially since there was no way of contacting them.

After about an hour, I learned that my brother was alive. I truly felt that I was letting my brother — his soul — down; the person who had never let me down. I hated myself because I was not by his side. I began to wish that I would die rather than anything bad happening to him.

I never thought that one day I would be waiting for news of a family member’s death. This is where I find myself now; waiting for news of their martyrdom. I swear to all that is dear to me that waiting for death is worse than death itself.♦

[Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.]

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