Originally published at mondoweis.net
After 11 days of pure horror, on May 21, 2021, a ceasefire was announced between Israel and Hamas. I, like everyone else in Gaza, waited for the clock to strike 2:00 a.m., the time the detente would take effect. In the countdown, I pressed my jaw and held my breath. Past escalations have shown in the hours leading up to a ceasefire, airstrikes can increase in frequency. I have learned it is necessary to stay cautious.
Finally at 2:10 a.m., early on Friday morning, I heard the sounds of people pouring into the streets and celebrating. It was over. Palestinians declared victory—Israelis did the same—and for the first time in almost two weeks I noticed that the sight of crowds wasn’t because people were fleeing from airstrikes, or homeless after a recent bombing. The celebration was a moment to rejoice: we were alive.
That evening of celebrating the ceasefire, I could see the questions written all over the faces of the whole neighborhood. Firstly, we all were shocked to see so many spill out of their houses now that the warplanes were gone. Aside from during airstrikes, the streets had been quiet most of the time. Looking at the damage, I wondered how is this even considered a win?
In the weeks leading up to hostilities, I saw on the news crowds of Israeli extremists chanting “death to Arabs” in Jerusalem. For many, surviving the war, and defying the erasure of our communities is the victory.
After every ceasefire, I tried to imagine myself leading a normal life. In Gaza, the bar is set low and means not living under raining bombs. In a more relaxed state of mind, I flirt with the idea of taking a cosmetology class to learn how to professionally apply make-up. Yet, who has time to dream about eye shadow when you are navigating, making it out alive, and keeping your family safe.
If the daydream is a bit more ambitious, I visualize myself being granted freedom of movement. In my head I travel to countries with vast natural views, really anywhere outside this open-air prison, as Gaza has been under a suffocating and dehumanizing blockade since 2007. This has left us with limited electricity and basically no clean piped drinking water. We are trapped behind checkpoints and are hemmed in by a buffer zone, a wall, a fence, and a sea manned by the Israeli navy.
If the siege lifts, perhaps I could once again access the outside world, one that I easily forget even though it never stopped existing. I think about this as people are starting to patch their lives together again.
I recently saw my friend Maysa Abu Al-Ouf who is 23. I went to see her to pay my condolences for the loss of her mom and two sisters. Maysa put on a formidable facade, but I saw right through it. “I was stuck under the rubble,” she told me, “along with my little sister Maram and my little cousin, Ahmed. I kept screaming and clawing trying to find a way out.”
“It must’ve been two hours before the civil defense finally heard us and dug us out,” she said.
The destruction of my own neighborhood, al-Rimal, located in the heart of Gaza City is indescribable. I have searched for the language, and heart, to explain it.
Two days after the ceasefire I took a walk down my street. I braced myself for what was waiting. Mountains of rubble on what used to be a building housing Abu Al-Ouf family was the first pile I saw. I thought about all 14 members of the family. Gone. My emotions were numbed by the shock of it. I visualized how it all tumbled over their heads as they slept.
The street itself had a line of massive craters and was closed off to cars. This street was on my daily commute. Now I am faced with fathoming the enormity of this horror. No one should have to acquire the emotional endurance to witness these types of losses. What’s more, if I struggle to process this, how will my daughters? I have 16-year-old twin girls, Nada and Huda.
“Mama, Deema al-Faranji, the girl in our class was killed in the Abu Al-Ouf building,” Nada said to me pale-faced holding her phone. “She was at her grandparents’ house that night.”
I sank inside. I had the gut-wrenching realization that Nada is now old enough to fully comprehend the death of her friends. All I could say was “May she rest in peace.” I know that did not ease her pain. This classmate haunts her. Nada later told me about a dream she had where she saw Deema was, “alive and in a very beautiful and vast green land.”
My daughter came home one day and told me how she saw a girl who looked exactly like Deema. One day while shopping, she nudged me to look ahead and I saw Deema’s father. There he was, once a father and husband, and today a childless widower, and us, afraid at the thought of being in his place.
People here joke that those who lived through the last escalation with Israel got a Bachelor’s degree in war. Unfortunately, this concurrence is not limited to adults. Anyone born after 2009 has this distinction, meaning anyone the age of twelve. Bear in mind, children aged 14 and under comprise around 40% of the population.
My neighbor’s three-year-old wouldn’t sleep the other night. When he heard shelling in May, he was confused and thought someone was outside their home banging on the building. Their windows were blown out from the impact of a nearby airstrike. “Mama, who broke our house?” they told me he asked. His mother ignored his question. The following day the toddler announced, rather triumphantly and pleased that he had figured it out, “The Israelis broke our house.”
This is what parents here are confronted with. We try to protect our children from the harsh realities of life under occupation or blockade, but even three-year-olds learn to comprehend the world around them. A lot of us feel as parents we have failed to shield our kids from these brutal realities.
When my own kids were young, it was easier to distract them. Sometimes I would lie to them when there was a huge explosion from a bombing. By the time they reached nine, there was no use in concealing the truth. They had become experts in the sounds of munitions and could identify a blast.
Still, I can attest that my family and Palestinians more broadly are resilient. I don’t say this to romanticize us. I’ve seen friends and family bury their loved ones and manage to rebuild their lives numerous times. We want to live freely and with dignity. Living is a non-negotiable right. We are exhausted from simply surviving one war to the next, we want to live vibrant lives. I should not have to convince anyone that I deserve this.
In Gaza City, where I live, residential neighborhoods are mixed with commercial buildings. Apartments are often in multi-story buildings or high rises crammed next to each other. Ordinarily, the streets are claustrophobic. Hardly any open spaces exist.
During this latest escalation, when Israeli missiles hit residential complexes, the debris damaged nearby homes. Sometimes there would be an ominous and distressing warning call from someone in the Israeli military. On one of the occasions weeks ago, a friend told me the sight of throngs of people fleeing in all directions “was like the ‘Taghreeba,’” the name of a dramatic series about the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 when people were displaced from their homes during the war around Israel’s creation. I realized then that the Nakba had never really stopped. Scenes of bewildered women, men, and children, older and younger people, all running not knowing where safety lies, could have been from 70 years ago or seven weeks ago, the only difference was the style of their dress.
Rana Shubair is a Palestinian author and activist from the Gaza Strip.