“We’re gonna die…” is becoming the first common, grim, and indescribably guilting thing I hear from the many people I cherish in Gaza, uttered almost subconsciously at the start of each conversation. “This is pure madness” is the second. And even “madness” falls critically short of describing what my family and friends have to endure.
Thursday night was the worst so far in the latest escalation between Israel and Hamas that had, by Saturday, brought the tragic and unforgivable death of some 139 Gazans and eight Israelis. In terms of scale and intensity, my Gaza contacts say that night was worse than anything in Israel’s prolonged military operations in 2014, 2012 and 2008-9.
“Living through three wars was less painful than living through those 30 minutes last night,” said a cousin who lives in the north of Gaza, where the assault was concentrated, on Friday. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
Thursday night was Eid Al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In one half-hour, Israel pounded 150 proclaimed targets in Gaza with 450 bombs and missiles from 160 warplanes and dozens of artillery units. This came hours after Hamas had launched its new “Al-Ayash 250 rocket” more than 100 miles, towards the north of Israel.
What made this attack feel different is that so much destruction was inflicted in so little time.
“Between one second and the other, our neighborhood became unrecognizable,” my cousin said in anguish. He and his wife were too afraid to glimpse out the window when it happened, or even make a run for their lives. They squeezed their eyes shut and froze in place. Airstrikes seemed to be everywhere; in the dead of the night, the skies were momentarily set ablaze.
“Unrecognizable” is the word my sister used to describe the street where our house is located. It’s a word that echoed widely across Gaza to describe several of its iconic sites.
Like the Rimal District in Central Gaza, where Israel flattened three of its top residential towers, Hanadi, Al-Shorouq and Al-Jawhara. “Capital Mall, the only place we can go to when the electricity is off and the heat is unbearable, is now destroyed,” my sister lamented.
What is most frightening for Gaza’s population is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his security cabinet seem uninterested for the moment in a ceasefire. Netanyahu declared on Monday that “Israel will respond with great force” and that “the current conflict may last for some time,” while his Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, said “there are a lot of targets in line, this is just the beginning.”
I am watching all this unfold from Lund, Sweden, where I have been studying Security Risk Management since 2019. I both know exactly how it feels because I was there during all three previous wars in 2008, 2012, and 2014, and don’t know, because I’m not there, instead following every Tweet and WhatsApp message wondering the fate of literally hundreds of relatives and friends.
I desperately try to calm my loved ones from afar. I make a call or two every hour, to whoever I think will have electricity and internet to pick up. The deafening sounds of Israeli drones and F16 jets as we talk, the trauma my relatives express and the unspeakable fear they share are all unbearable. But hearing their voices, knowing they are still alive and physically unharmed, fills me with gratitude and calm.
Until I hang up. Then I’m back to being glued to my computer screen, TV and phone. Restlessly updating and refreshing taps on my browser to make sure I won’t miss where the next airstrike hits, or the names of whom it killed or wounded.
The more I see, the worse my survivor’s guilt becomes. There’s an extreme feeling of powerlessness towards sparing my loved ones this agony. My mind strays and wonders why do I deserve to sleep the night in my bed while they cannot?
When I talk to my sweet grandma, who is in her 70s, I can sense in her voice that she’s getting weary of me repeating the same empty words while airstrikes keep her up each night wondering if it will be her last.
I stopped saying “stay safe,” because there is nothing Gazans can do to be safe from this; no shelters, no escape routes, no Iron Dome to block the missiles and almost no safe areas that haven’t suffered destruction.
What comfort can my saying “It will be OK, this will be over soon” have when grandma sees Gantz on TV saying “Gaza will burn” or “Towers will continue to crumble.”
My family, and most of my friends, live in such residential towers, almost a norm in a highly densely-populated enclave. My late father put everything we have into our apartment. My mom always says, “We built it together brick by brick with love and hard toil.”
They were meant to grow old in it together when they become empty-nesters, but my father died of respiratory failure in May, 2008,, unable to get the treatment he needed because of Israel’s blockade.
At any minute, Israel could decide to bomb another residential tower, calling on its inhabitants to evacuate within minutes before an airstrike renders them homeless amid the pandemic. What could one possibly pack of their memories and life in that short time?
Almost everyone I talk to in Gaza has already packed a small bag with their most important yet light-weight belongings and placed it by the front door in case they abruptly need to make a run for their lives.
One memory haunting me is of a university classmate whose house was bombed in 2014. Afterward, his facial expressions were almost permanently frowning in depression. “Four walls and a roof are my top wish in life right now,” he said. He would sometimes harangue us about how we have homes waiting after each lecture, while he went back to a temporary shelter, using a concrete brick as a stool.
“If your home is destroyed, you will forever feel a sense of oppression and defeat, even if you get another one,” a childhood friend told me Friday afternoon while contemplating what would become of him if his house were next.
Becoming homeless after an airstrike, losing everything in a glimpse of an eye, would still be a less grim fate than ending up under the rubble, like the Abu Hatab family, which lost 10 members — eight of them children — when Israel attacked the al-Shati refugee camp overnight Friday. A 5-month-old baby, now parentless survived.
And there’s virtually no way to tell when the next airstrike hits if my family and friends will be the spectators watching the frightening smoke, the ones just rendered homeless, or the tragic casualties.
Bombing towers and civilian infrastructure, rendering people homeless, inflicting traumas on Gaza’s entire population, deliberately or incidentally, might offer future campaign material for Gantz or Netanyahu to announce that they’d sent parts of Gaza “back to the Stone Age.” But it won’t make Israelis any safer.
It would only “punish, humiliate and terrorize” Gaza’s civilian population, as the famous Goldstone Report about Israel’s 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead put it. And that would only fuel more hate and vengeance, entrapping us and Israelis in an endless yet preventable cycle of pain and grief.
There are no winners in this escalation, and civilians are certainly the ultimate bearers of the heaviest price._Muhammad Shehada is a Forward contributing columnist. _