Letters From Gaza, Part 5

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—reports are beginning to trickle in of the first deaths from starvation and dehydration, and health officials on the ground are sounding the alarm over the potential for a cholera outbreak. Aid is trickling in, but it is never enough. The resistance is engaging with Israeli forces inside the strip—what is sure to be a protracted struggle has entered a new phase. 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 fifth post of letters—the fourth post in the series can be found here, the third 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.

Mahmoud Shawa: Voice Notes From Gaza City

November 9th, 2023
Mahmoud Shawa is a Palestinian in Gaza. 

On Oct. 17 at 8 p.m. in Cairo, Fayrouz Ibrahim and Amina Khalil reached out to Mahmoud Shawa in Gaza and shared excerpts from their conversation in an Instagram reel. The Institute for Palestine Studies was granted permission to translate Mahmoud’s voicenotes into English and we were granted permission to publish them as part of our ‘Letters from Gaza’ series. Mahmoud has not replied to the young women’s texts since the beginning of November. 

We remain in Gaza, like everyone else. When the [Israeli Occupation Forces] asked people to move south due to impending bombardments in the north, my family and I complied.

Many of those who moved south had no homes to return to, many homes were destroyed.

Entire neighborhoods in Gaza have been erased. Many people, including myself, have lost their jobs — my company is gone.

Upon arriving in the south, we found that the situation was dire. Gaza has no electricity, no water, no internet… it’s a miracle that I’m sitting here sending this message right now. We’re cut off from the world, unaware of global events or even what’s happening within Gaza. The airstrikes are everywhere, but no one knows where the bombs are falling exactly.

After we moved south, we found that airstrikes were also happening there, so, my family and I decided to return to our home in the north, in Gaza City. We are currently in the area that Israel has warned us to evacuate. But we thank God for everything. We are okay for now. Thank you very much for your support. Thank you for asking and checking on us. We truly don’t know what is happening in the world and can’t post or publish anything from here. Most of the internet and telecom companies were destroyed. You can get updates on Gaza on the news through Instagram channels for Alaa Hamdan or the journalist Muna Hawwa, they post content in different languages on the Palestinian cause. Through their pages, you can find a lot of content you share, that can help us. Thank you very much. Thank you, thank you. Your messages will remain with us always. they make us feel better.

As Biden visits [Israel on Oct. 18] you will see news showing support and solidarity with Israel. I feel that this is the right time for you to spread the message and truth about what is actually happening in Gaza and Palestine. The situation is not only difficult in Gaza but also in the West Bank. Almost all the settlers have been armed. There are 60 martyrs in the West Bank so far, killed by settler gunfire. They kidnap people and then kill them. The situation is bigger than just Gaza. It is an ethnic cleansing of Palestine with Gaza as the main focus. They aim to trap the entire population to either expel or kill. Unfortunately, we feel the whole world is idle, content with what’s happening. But we thank God for everything. All we ask is for your prayers. That’s all we want. I hope to see and speak to you again during better times. Peace. 

Excerpt from text messages:

Fayrouz and/or Amina: All we can do is to share everything, is it okay to share your texts and the voicenotes to reach as many people as possible?

Mahmoud: Your support and concern makes us stronger. We would never accept nor wish for these circumstances to befall you. If our steadfastness keeps evil away from you, we have no problem with that. God protects us all. Thank you for standing with us. You can use anything from our conversation freely. We are saddened by the silence of the Arabs and the racism and double standards of the West and the rest of the world. But we thank God.

Fayrouz and Amina: Of course, God’s mercy is grand. God protect you all and keep you patient.

Mahmoud: O’ God. 

Fayrouz and/or Amina: The world is cruel, [we] don’t know how to help. God protect you and your family and all Palestinians.

Mahmoud: Pray for us and share our stories and what is happening to us. This is how you help us.

[Translated by Malika]

Fayrouz Ibrahim is a Senior Program Specialist at the Center for Development Services. Fayrouz holds a Master of Arts in Sociology and Anthropology. Fayrouz has been published in various journals, with articles on technological advancements in the field of women’s health, women empowerment and inclusion, and other humanitarian topics.

Amina Khalil is a Social and Economic Specialist and Researcher. She holds a Bachelor’s of Economics and Political Science. Amina has worked on multiple visual projects, from documentaries to producing a music video. As a self-taught analog and digital photographer she also likes to experiment with different artistic mediums bringing her love for the arts and humanities together.

Feda Ziad

November 7th, 2023
Feda Ziad is a cultural activist in Gaza.

Nightfall during wartime is fear personified. It’s hard to conjure up an image of wartime nights or imagine what it is like. After a long struggle for water and bread during the day, we received instructions to evacuate the house we were in due to the impending danger, though we couldn’t figure out the location of the danger or even its general area. An entire residential block received the evacuation notice, and people began leaving with their belongings in hand. We watched from the window.

In wartime, you cannot make decisions on your own. You are the casualty of majority decisions, and you must abide by it, or you will die alone, or at most, you will die with those you managed to convince to stay with you. It’s an instinctual belief, that “Death in a group is a mercy.”

If you are a displaced guest in someone’s house who has made the decision to flee, then you also, once again, have to flee along with them. We had walked around 36 kilometers to “remain” in this house.

I write these words as the clock strikes 8 p.m., and we must head to the street with around 33 other people. There, the question emerges: “Where do we go?” We don’t have the luxury of an answer. We’re on the street, and we must set aside our fear and anger in order to help others. I am occupied with two wheelchair-bound women, while the children in the group let out their anxiety in screams. I deal with mine by helping the two women as we look for a place to stay. After that, we will find out if it is safe.

The doors of the UNRWA center in Khan Younes opened at 8:10 p.m. It was a food storage center with offices and furniture as well. The bathrooms were out of service, filthy, and waterless. At 8:30 p.m., after a great deal of negotiation, we were able to secure a place for the women to stay. The question still hung in the air, like a child who has lost his mother’s hand: “Where do we go?” The answer now was, “to the storage room.” We did not have the luxury of deciding where we would sleep either. A storage room with a big door, a cement floor, and high walls where food goes to expire. 50 women and 30 children spread out on the floor.

My anxiety started spiraling until a security guard’s order stopped it in its tracks: “Please mind the furniture.” What furniture? The offices were smeared with sardine oil and tuna, and there were stacks of paper files, and bags of supplies. “Sir, we left our houses, our furniture and memories, we have no desire to destroy a flour storage room.”

I relieved my stress by transforming into a leader and organizing people in their sleeping quarters. What right did I have to bark out these orders? We are all displaced from Gaza City to Khan Younes, together. The question dissolved and was replaced by feelings of loss and yearning. The hours passed. I kept checking on things. Everyone cooperated to exert some modicum of control over the night that brought us to this UNRWA storage facility. We all sang parts of the song “The Ballad of Yearning,” specifically the lines: 

 walked under the rain,
and the rain drenched me,
and when night came,
it set me ablaze,
my life remains a price I would pay for freedom

We know this feeling well in Gaza, often expressed as, “Sing, maybe you will feel better!”

When everyone was settled, I lay on a wooden coffin-like office table with a white blanket. I covered my body and used my evacuation bag as a pillow. We used the glow from our phones for light since there was no electricity. To complete the sensation that my surroundings were a grave where I lay a coffin, we all had to listen to the Quran on the phone of a mother whose crying child would only be soothed by those sounds. And to press that feeling of impending death, we listened to the passage, “O reassured soul, Return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing to Him.”

It was like a joke fate was playing on me, as I experienced the feeling of natural death on the wooden coffin in a shelter center, telling myself to sleep like a corpse. In the morning, we discovered that we had survived. As long as you see the light of the full moon in the sky and feel the sting of the cold on your body, there is plenty of time to survive and walk “under the rain.”

On the morning of Oct. 30, there was no rain, but another evacuation order and a decision to return to the host’s house. The way back was empty because it had begun to rain, and the moon was full at 5:30 p.m.

Warplanes and wartime are so terrifying that you must be careful, dear displaced guest. Don’t take photos of the moon with your phone as was your habit, because a plane might think you are documenting its crimes and bomb you and whoever you are with. Then it is you who becomes its next war crime.

[Translated by Rasha Moumneh. This testimony first appeared on The Institute for Palestine Studies’s arabic language blog on November 2nd, 2023.]

Walaa M. Alfarra

October 30th, 2023
Walaa M. Alfarra is a student of English language and literature. She is a writer with We Are Not Numbers. 

Since Oct. 7, 2023, maintaining communication from  England — where I currently live and study — with my siblings, relatives, and friends in Gaza has proven to be a challenge. The conversations we now have are brief, because we do not have the privilege to indulge in normal, lengthy ones. Our conversations mainly revolve around checking whether my siblings have a sufficient supply of food and access to water.

With them living amid these harsh conditions, I have become increasingly apprehensive about their mental health and overall state. Yet all I feel is a sense of helplessness, unworthiness, and powerlessness now that distance and borders are tearing us apart.

My brother continuously brings death into our conversations as though it is a commonplace topic. He thinks of the pain he would feel if, God forbid, the house gets bombed. He holds the hope that if the bombing is inevitable, it will take place whilst he is asleep, sparing him from the ordeal of being a helpless witness amid the rubble.

These thoughts have preoccupied him lately, and I cannot do anything to block them from going further. Thus, it has become second nature for me to treat every conversation or call we have as if it might be the last. But I have never told him this, because we both cannot afford to appear vulnerable; one of us has to fake strength.

Because leaving the house is dangerous, walking is dangerous, and engaging in all outdoor activities is now fraught with risk (not that staying at home is not risky), my brothers keep mentioning how privileged I am to have a life which forges ahead whilst they are at standstill, stuck with life being suspended. They continually voice desires for an end to life, deeming it a preferable option to living the terror of ongoing bombardments, the uncertainty of who might be the next target, and surviving in total seclusion, with no interaction with the outside world.

Even though it tears me apart to hear them expressing their yearning for death at this age, I draw comfort and feel relieved that I still can hear their voices, speak to them, and know they are alive. With every message I send on WhatsApp, I heave a sigh of relief when those two ticks appear, a signal that confirms their presence.

Amid the 24-hour bombing, it is nighttime that fills me with fear. I find myself frequently messaging my brother meaningless texts only to see the appearance of those two ticks. In the absence of the internet, I resort to scanning local news, assuring myself that for now, they are at least alive.

Sometimes I wonder if I keep them awake so that the comfort of their presence calms my anxiety, only to remember that the longer they stay awake, the more they are exposed to scenes of devastation and destruction, the more the scent of blood pervades, and the more they endure relentless bombardments. Opting for sleep might grant them and their worn-out bodies a momentary rest from the madness encircling them. I cannot determine who is greedier—them, yearning for an end to life and escaping the ongoing genocide, or me, yearning for their presence and the comfort it brings.

In the past few days, I have lost all communication with my friends. I have stretches of days without hearing anything from them. I get to know they are alive either through reading local news or by reaching out to other Gazans whose phone network is functioning to inquire about the welfare of my friends. With all these heartrending conditions, it is surreal to fathom that we are in the 21st century already.

The events unfolding in Gaza keep bringing to mind a seminar I attended in which the instructor raised the question of our responsibilities toward distant nations, inviting us to ponder whether distance should hinder these obligations. This question keeps recurring in my thoughts, causing me to contemplate if humanity truly recognises any boundaries. I, anyway, have lost hope in humanity. Now I am waiting for a miracle to save my siblings, my loved ones, my people, and my Gaza.

While the ethnic cleansing and slaughter of Gazans continues unabated, the world is rejoicing over the arrival of 20 trucks filled with humanitarian aid, mostly food, to Gaza. When will it become evident that Gazans are not seeking mere humanitarian aid, but rather, we yearn for liberty?

How many more Gazans must be sacrificed for the world to recognize the insignificance of humanitarian aid in the face of ongoing bombardment and colonialism? Humanity at large seems to also be complicit in the dehumanisation of Gazans.

I have never seen my siblings and loved ones this depressed. With every passing hour, Israel’s aggression is on the upswing, the death toll is on the rise, and the siege enforced on Gazans is intensifying.

This leaves me with no choice but to proceed in projecting strength, faking hope, and forcing a smile, assuring my siblings and loved ones that a resolution is in sight, although I myself need assurance myself that there is a glimmer of hope.

[This testimony was first published by We Are Not Numbers on Oct. 23 with the title ‘Far apart, surviving together.’ It is republished with permission. We Are Not Numbers is is a youth-led Palestinian nonprofit project in the Gaza Strip. It tells the stories behind the numbers of Palestinians in the news and advocates for their human rights.]

Ayham al-Sahli: Scenes from Gaza

November 9th, 2023
Ayham al-Sahli is a Palestinian journalist from the city of Haifa. He was born in the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, and currently lives in Beirut.

The title of this article suggests that what follows are observations. In reality, these are testimonies from people —  some of them entirely helpless — that have been displaced from various areas of the Gaza Strip. These testimonies were pieced together from many conversations with and voice recordings of people who volunteered their words among the other tasks they have been carrying out. The stories may seem like the sorts of stories that emerge from a war, but in an area so small such as Gaza they sound uncanny; they are doubly painful, especially since those fleeing death aren’t able to escape to places that will shelter and protect them. Some of them wait for death alongside their families. Others, who aren’t in Gaza, wait for the phone to bring them the news of their family’s death. 

Muhammad apologizes to his son 

I was at home in Mashrou’ Beit Lahia. Relatives from Beit Hanoun had moved into our house. A house in our neighborhood was bombed, and most of our street resembled a “sieve,” it was a massacre. We left the house after the bombing resumed, and found refuge in a shelter in northern Gaza. The day soon came when Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets calling for people to leave the north to the south. UNRWA [staff] left the headquarters in the north and headed toward the south, and the schools that had been turned into shelters were left with no administrative staff, so popular committees were formed to self-manage. My family, my relatives who were displaced, and I also headed south, walking a distance of around 40 km to reach Deir al-Balah.

7,000 citizens were crowded into an UNRWA school that had been converted into a shelter there. I had never experienced humiliation in my life, until now. We were humiliated in every sense of the word. The provision of water and the distribution of aid was all carried out by the people themselves. UNRWA [staff] only appeared at our school after two days of us staying there. Those who did eventually come were teachers. I don’t believe the agency had a contingency plan. If it did, we would have felt it. 

I’m unable to use the bathrooms because of overcrowding. The school can only house 7,000 people. 

I can’t tell what the difference is between what’s happening now and what happened in 1948. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m displaced between cement walls, while my grandparents were in tents. As we speak, tents are being put up in Khan Younis. 

I have a child named Ghaith, and I owe him a huge apology.

WissamAbdul Rahman and their families

For two years Wissam has been living with his wife and children in Beirut, where he came to study. Around two months ago, he sent his 12-year-old daughter with his friend and his family to the Gaza Strip to see her grandfather and grandmother. She returned to Beirut, and when friends asked him about his decision [read: audacity] in sending a child to travel alone, he said: I want her to feel her strength. 

About a week ago, I met Wissam, along with two friends. We asked him about his family, and how they were coping in this war. His answers were full of sadness and composure. He said: “I spent more than a week without any information about my family until I was able to speak to my sister, who told me that they were fine. As for my brother, I haven’t heard anything since the beginning of the war. 

On Monday, Oct. 30, Wissam’s phone rang. This time it was from Gaza. The news: his mother was martyred along with a number of his family members. Wissam’s father survived because the house they were sheltering in was targeted [by Israeli airstrikes] at prayer time, and his father was at the mosque. 

Days before Wissam’s family was martyred, the family of Abdul Rahman, who also studies in Beirut, was also martyred. His uncle first. Two days later, his brother and his wife and their two daughters were martyred. His two sisters, his sister’s husband, and his sister’s three children were also martyred. His father was seriously injured. 

Wissam and Abdel Rahman received mourners in Beirut. They, like other Gazans abroad, live in heartbreak and pain. It would not be more difficult if they were in Gaza, they said in unison.

Bahaa, communications and his mother 

Communications were cut off in the Gaza Strip on the night of Friday, Oct. 27. There was no longer anyone in Gaza communicating with the outside world. This remained the case more or less until Sunday. I sent my friend Bahaa a message to make sure he was alive. His reply: “When Bahaa disappears, he doesn’t disappear to decieve. When Bahaa disappeared, he learned that modern life isn’t good. I’m fine. I got to know these people who are with me here at home, since they’re my family.” 

After reading what he wrote, I asked: “what is it that you want?” He said: “I want the Palestinian prisoners to be released. I swear, I’m speaking seriously. I witnessed Wafa’ al-Ahrar [the prisoner exchange deal between the resistance and the Israeli Occupation] in 2011. I kept crying for six years. I’ve never been as happy as I was that day.”

I also asked him: “What do people want? What do you hear them say?” Bahaa, who is also working as a volunteer to help people between the shelters and hospitals, answered: “People need a moment to return to their homes, get their things, and carry on in shelters.” 

Baby milk 

“Gaza has become a graveyard for thousands of children,” announced UNICEF spokesman James Alder. “It is a living hell for everyone else.” 

These reports from UNICEF, along with other accounts, prompted me to ask some of those I know in the Gaza Strip about infant formula. Their answers, for the most part, indicated its lack of availability. 

One of my friends said to me: “Today I went to four pharmacies to get milk. I also need essential medications that I take daily that I am starting to run out of. The reason for my search for milk is that one of my friends in the shelter has a three-month-old child, and said the last time he’d managed to find any was a week ago. His child hasn’t eaten since. I found myself searching for milk instead of my medicine. I couldn’t find any. You can find this stuff in malls sometimes, but they too have run out of it.”

What this friend told me confirms that there are victims who are killed not by shells, but rather by malnutrition. Given the current conditions in the Gaza Strip, it is very possible that hospitals will not be able to save them.

Burial in graves 

During one of my conversations with Bahaa, I asked him about graves and burials, given the increasing number of martyrs. He shared with me what he saw in Deir al-Balah: “We started removing stones from the cemetery wall, placing them as headstones on the graves, so that we could [at least] identify those buried… there are no more stones left. There’s no longer any room to bury each person in an individual grave. That’s when the mass graves started. Even the spaces between graves — horizontal and vertical — are now used to bury the dead. When we enter the cemetery to bury our martyrs people are often standing on other graves.”♦

[Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.]

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