Glued to screens and mobile phones, they are on the lookout for any news about their families’ testimonies.
"Since the beginning of the bombings, I haven't been able to sleep. When I finally manage to get an hour of sleep, I have nightmares," says Selim Samara, 42. With his eyes fixed on the television, he watches the repetitive images of destruction, primarily of the dead and wounded. For him, it is the only way to find out if the airstrikes hit his neighborhood and family in Gaza.
Originally from the Jabalia camp, he left six years ago and now works as an electrician in Cairo. He explains that his family sought refuge in an apartment with seven other families when the area was bombed, destroying several buildings. He lost his four uncles, their wives, children, and grandchildren, around 35 people. Some of his wife's family members are seriously injured, and others are unreachable with an unknown fate. Anxious and stressed, he counts the days between each message from his family.
"Every time I try to call a relative or a friend, I have to try at least 12 times. When I manage to reach them, the voice of the person on the other end is barely audible due to the sounds of explosions. The call cuts off 3 or 4 times in the middle of the conversation. Sometimes, I receive messages late," Selim says, living in fear of suddenly losing contact with his loved ones. He recounts how he collapsed when the internet was cut off, and all communication became impossible on 29 October.
Even when the internet was restored, calls were very brief. Due to the lack of electricity, Gazans fear their phone batteries run out, unable to recharge them. However, Selim keeps recordings of all his conversations with them, knowing that one of them could be the last. He constantly follows social media, looking at photos of the victims.
He recognizes some faces and scrutinizes others to ensure his loved ones are not among them. "It's devastating. The city's landmarks have changed. I saw on television the extent of destruction in neighborhoods like Beit Lahiya, Al-Zaytoun, Tell Al-Hawa, and Al-Rimal, located in the center of Gaza, including offices, businesses, and residential buildings. Everything is unrecognizable," says Selim.
The last time he contacted his family by phone, they were preparing to evacuate the house. "All my relatives also evacuated their homes and went to live with other relatives. When I call these relatives to check on them, I find out that everyone is evacuating their homes again to go to a third destination. There is no safe place in all of Gaza," he explains.
Fear in the belly
Selim continually prays to God and recites verses from the Quran for the safety of his parents. "We will put a barrier in front of them and a barrier behind them. We will envelop them from all sides so that they see nothing (Surah Yasin, verse 9)," he repeats, recalling images of bombings and sometimes graphic videos broadcast repeatedly on television. "It's unbearable to see these photos of the wounded, corpses, and body parts. I think all the time about my family and all Gazans. They are in a dilemma. To die or wait to die," Selim rages.
Ironically, it is the people on the ground who console him. "My father and brothers accept reality; they know there is a very high chance that none of them will come out alive. They tried to comfort me, even though I should be the one doing it."
The same goes for Mona Nidal, a medical student, who remains glued to her phone, eagerly awaiting any news about her parents. At home, the television never turns off to monitor the situation. When asked if she communicates with her mother and two brothers in Khan Younes, her sparkling eyes darken.
"Initially, I had them on the phone almost every day, but now that there's no electricity, I can't reach them. The phones remain off. All I know is that they are doing very badly," she says, dejected. It has been six days since she heard from them. Mona wakes up every day unable to concentrate in class, worried about her family's fate. She sleeps no more than two to three hours a day. And as soon as she wakes up, her first move is to grab her phone to try to call her loved ones. She spends hours and sometimes days waiting for two ticks to appear on her WhatsApp, indicating that her message reached her family trapped under bombardments.
A simple wish, but for her, it is a matter of life or death. Yet, once the message arrives, another tense moment occurs: the wait for a response. "Sometimes I receive texts saying, 'We are alive.' But since there is no network, these could be messages sent the day before. If something happens to them, I don't know how I will live," Mona confides.
The last time she spoke to her mother, she mentioned leaving the house with her brothers to go to a training center of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). In this center, there are foreigners, European and American workers employed by NGOs. This is why many people went to this center: when there are foreigners, usually the site is not bombed. That is why, with each message she sends to her mother, Mona asks the same question: "Are the foreigners still with you or not?" "I fear they will be targeted once the foreign workers leave," says Mona, petrified by the images of the strikes on Gaza.
Anger and a sense of helplessness
Indeed, since 7 October, Gazans have been enduring the most intense and indiscriminate Israeli bombings ever recorded, devastating entire neighborhoods, markets, schools, universities, hospitals, mosques, churches, health services, and journalists, among others. Entire families have once again been wiped off the face of the earth. Over 11,000 Palestinians have been killed, more than 4,000 of them were children, and nearly one and a half million have been displaced. The UN now asserts that many people could die of dehydration as drinking water runs out, and UN experts sound the alarm on the use of famine as a weapon of war.
Faced with this genocidal war against Gazans, Palestinians cut off from their families in Gaza live in constant fear of losing their loved ones. Ziad Chafi, a 70-year-old Palestinian, recounts that he and his family have suffered all the consequences of the siege of Gaza since 2007 and witnessed all the previous wars, but this time is different. "In previous wars, there was a minimum number of hours of electricity per day and a minimum of fuel and food, and that is no longer the case today," emphasizes Ziad, consumed by a sense of helplessness, guilt, and anger at the silence and indifference of the world towards the massive massacre of the Palestinian people. "I feel guilty for eating to my satisfaction and drinking clean water. I feel guilty for living in peace, while mine risk their lives every minute."
Ziad angrily protests that the international community allows this massacre to happen. "We should not tolerate what is happening in Gaza. Why did everyone mobilize for Ukraine when it was invaded and occupied by Russia and not for Gazans massacred day and night by Israel?" he exclaims, summarizing the sentiments of many Palestinians and Arabs.
Hope, despite everything
But for Ziad, the concern of Palestinians for their families in Gaza is not new. The series of large-scale Israeli military operations and the blockade of the Gaza Strip since 2007 had already made the daily lives of their loved ones very challenging. He reminds us that 80 percent of Gazans are already refugees since 1948, originating from Haifa, Jaffa, Ashkelon, and Ashdod, driven from their homes to the south. "What we are experiencing today is the Nakba of 2023. Palestinians must once again flee to the south. The Israeli army wants to push us out, to the south, just like in 1948. By calling on us to leave Gaza, Israel is pushing refugees to seek refuge again. It wants to empty Gaza to annex it, claiming it wants to eradicate Hamas," he believes.
And although worry looms over him 24/7, hope in the cause of his people keeps him motivated. "Today, despite the fear and catastrophic conditions, Gazans stand firm and prefer to die with dignity rather than flee their land. What do you expect from them? To be killed every day and do nothing, not resist?" And to conclude: "Yes, Palestinians die every day, but our cause will never die."
* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Hebdo