A MERE three months ago, we had the rare privilege of visiting our family in the Gaza Strip, a place I’ve always romanticised despite the more than 16-year-long blockade, preceded by 55 years of Israeli military occupation.
Even though we were displaced to Gaza as refugees from Ashkelon, it still represents home to me. As a Palestinian-American who holds a Gaza ID, I can’t enter Gaza through Israel and I can’t exit without Israel’s permission.
This summer, not sure if it would be my last visit for a long time, I relished the simple pleasures Gaza had to offer. Vibrant cafes buzzed all day. Evenings were filled with family and laughter by the Mediterranean beach.
We took memorable road trips with young nieces and nephews. My young daughters indulged in horseback riding lessons, music classes and traditional Palestinian dabke dances at summer camp. We savored seafood, fresh bread and Instagram-worthy cafe dishes with a Gazan twist. We found deep spirituality in historic mosques, surrounded by humble, grateful people.
Amid the bustling markets and notorious traffic, the faces of family members, who can’t visit us in the United States, made our visit special, even though life in Gaza is subject to a siege imposed by Israel and condemned as illegal by the United Nations and the majority of human rights organisations.
These were my Gaza memories before everything changed on Oct 7, when a Hamas attack on Israel resulted in unimaginable grief for Gazans who are caught in the crossfire.
More than half of Gaza’s 2.2 million population, over a million of whom are children, are displaced once more. Blocks upon blocks of homes are being reduced to rubble. An already scarce water supply has dried up. Endless queues for essentials stretch for hours. Overcrowded shelters mean an hour’s wait for a shared, dirty toilet.
My sisters were taking refuge north of Gaza City in a hospital and a school operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, but no place in Gaza is safe.
In a recent phone call with my mom in Gaza, a deafening explosion shook my phone speaker. The noise over the phone was so alarming that my wife, Roa, rushed downstairs fearing I’d been injured.
My mother and the rest of my family members eventually ventured out into the street in northern Gaza, not knowing what to expect.
This time, they were met by their neighbours, whose lifeless bodies dangled outside the building, limbs scattered about.
My mother was shocked yet moved by the courageous young Palestinian men who rushed to assist, covering and evacuating those who might still have a chance to survive into an ambulance. That family was one of the poorest in the neighbourhood and caring for children with special needs.
Palestinians can no longer hope to be spared from the horrors unfolding around them. Conditions have become so horrifying that my five-year-old niece, Nour, who just started kindergarten a few weeks before Oct 7, started reciting prayers that seemed beyond her years, reminiscent of an adult’s devotion. When the violence started, her primary concern was safeguarding her dearest possession, her kindergarten backpack with its colourful erasers.
What’s happening in Gaza – the rampant destruction of physical landmarks and countless families – is also erasing the cherished memories we once held of this place. (It has also been reported that Israeli forces have destroyed many cultural and educational landmarks in Gaza, including libraries and cultural centres.)
Will this cruelty ever end? I don’t know.
“We’re going to turn [Gaza] into a parking lot,” a US congressman said on Fox News recently. Right now, it feels as though we’re almost there. More than half of the houses are already gone.
The Gaza you see on TV and social media videos is not the Gaza that my family or I recognise. That Gaza, the one I love, is gone.
To salvage what remains, to avert an even graver disaster and to reignite hope, I implore President Joe Biden and the international community to truly see Gaza’s plight, seek a permanent ceasefire and provide more humanitarian assistance so that Gaza can live. — Los Angeles Times/TNS
Hani Almadhoun is director of philanthropy at UNRWA USA, an independent non-profit organisation supporting the humanitarian work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.