Even after Israel agreed to a cease-fire, Palestinians in the United States worry about the long-term impact on their families.
Husam El-Qoulaq was about to board a plane home to Los Angeles last week when he received a text from a friend. The friend had seen names on a Gaza casualty list with the surname El-Qoulaq. He’d wondered if they were family.
El-Qoulaq began to frantically search through Arabic press on the Israeli forces’ recent bombing over Gaza. Then, he found the names ? 14 of them, all members of his extended family who died when airstrikes decimated their four-story apartment building.
The list of names has only grown since then, to 22. The youngest was 6 months old and the eldest, 90.
“When these buildings crumble, they bury entire families underneath them. And then the loved ones of that family arrive to dig through the rubble for hours and hours to try and locate anybody that they can find,” El-Qoulaq told HuffPost. “The number just kept climbing as people were converted from missing to dead.”
The death toll across Gaza continued to rise this week. Israeli forces carried out the deadliest single attack last Sunday, killing more than 200 people, including 61 children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Succumbing to international pressure, Israel finally agreed to a cease-fire in Gaza on Thursday despite initial resistance from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed to prolong the military attack for “as long as necessary.”
For Palestinians in the United States, the violence has been a reminder that the occupation hits close to home, even when they are thousands of miles away. Several Palestinian Americans described the turmoil of the last week: mourning the deaths of loved ones, waiting for news about whether family members had survived, and reliving their own trauma as displaced refugees. For some, it has triggered intense survivor’s guilt and a feeling of complicity as taxpayers. Many said the violence is a grim part of what it means to be Palestinian.
“For me as a Palestinian American, there’s a sense that I’ve failed my family,” said El-Qoulaq, who anguishes over taxpayer money used to fund bombings like the ones that killed his family.
Violence in the region has escalated over the last few weeks as Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in east Jerusalem, faced possible evictions if their homes were granted to Israeli settlers. During the holy month of Ramadan, which ended last week, Israeli security forces threw tear gas and fired rubber bullets inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque where Muslims were praying, sparking more outrage. On Eid, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, dozens of Palestinians, including children, were killed amid Israeli aerial bombardment over Gaza.
And for a second week, the Palestinian militant group Hamas fired dozens of rockets into Israel as retaliation, bringing the reported death toll in Israel to 12.
Survivor’s guilt has haunted Alaa Hammouda, a 30-year-old Palestinian from Gaza living in North Carolina.
Hammouda was in Gaza during the 2014 war in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, including nearly 500 children, during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a military offensive that drew international condemnation.
Hammouda was nine months pregnant when her house was bombed. She told HuffPost that she barely escaped. Her two cousins, ages 8 and 10, did not survive.
“It was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Hammouda said.
These days, she regularly texts her family back in Gaza, terrified that they won’t respond.
“Every night, I wake up in the middle of the night to just text them and ask, ‘Are you still alive?’ There is not much conversation beyond whether they are still alive or not,” Hammouda said. “I just need to make sure they did not die.”
Her husband’s cousin, a newlywed and a father to a 4-month-old, was killed Wednesday when airstrikes hit their house in northern Gaza. Her mother-in-law was also sent to the hospital due to injuries sustained from the bombs. And now, her father, four brothers, three sisters and dozens of nieces and nephews are all scattered, living with neighbors or other family members.
"There is no safe place to go,” Hammouda said. Schools, hospitals and shelters are all susceptible to strikes. “I wish that no one is in my position because it’s the hardest feeling ever when you’re watching your loved ones suffer and then you just can’t do anything about it. You’re just helpless.”
Children have borne the brunt of the violence in Gaza. Of the more than 220 people killed since Wednesday, at least 63 were children. Eleven of them were participants in an international program that helps children deal with trauma. In Israel, two children were also killed.
Eman Mohammed, a 33-year-old Palestinian American residing in Washington, D.C., remembers the day she almost lost her daughter.
She had been covering the war in Gaza as a photojournalist in 2014 when her neighborhood was bombed. Mohammed rushed back home to her children, where she found her 1-year-old bleeding in her crib. Mohammed frantically tried to find help, but hospitals in Gaza were overloaded. Mohammed and her daughter, who was suffering from internal bleeding, were only able to get help when Americans were evacuated to the United States.
She hasn’t been back to Gaza since, and she worries constantly about her mother, whom she was forced to leave behind. During their phone calls, she sometimes hears the bombs in the background.
“It’s one of the most inhumane mental torture for anyone to have to watch and hear their loved ones calling for help and calling for rescue. I know that the airplanes that are bombing around her are American-made and tax dollar-funded,” Mohammed said. “I feel like I’m almost part of the problem and part of what equips this war to keep going, and it just shatters my heart. It’s a difficult reality.”
I don’t want to fund the massacre of my family, and I hope other Americans don’t want that either.”Husam El-Qoulaq, a Palestinian American
Like many families and lawmakers, Mohammed is critical of the U.S.’s sale of weapons to Israel despite documented evidence of human rights abuses. President Joe Biden faced backlash from both activists and House Democrats after he approved the potential sale of a $735 million weapons deal to Israel earlier this week. On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a resolution condemning the sale.
“At a moment when U.S.-made bombs are devastating Gaza and killing women and children, we cannot simply let another huge arms sale go through without even a congressional debate,” Sanders said.
This also weighs heavily on El-Qouloq’s mind as a U.S. citizen.
“There’s a feeling of complicity,” he said. “I don’t want to fund the massacre of my family, and I hope other Americans don’t want that either.”
Tariq Haddad, a 46-year-old cardiologist who lives in Virginia, recalled so much about his childhood in Gaza ? including the time he had to hide in a chicken coop to dodge Israeli rubber bullets, and when he was strip searched at a checkpoint.
He lost 11 cousins during the 2014 war, including a 4-year-old. All of them died while they were running out of their home after a warning shot struck the dwelling.
“There were just beautiful, beautiful little children, and they just obviously didn’t deserve to go through what they went through,” Haddad said. “It honestly flavors everything that has happened since then. It’s just been very, very difficult.”
For Haddad, being a Palestinian in the United States comes with complications — dealing with their own trauma, constant worry for family left behind, and an exhausting cycle of hoping that with each presidential administration, change will come.
Nadia Hararah, a 34-year-old digital marketing manager, said she’s not hopeful much will change under the Biden administration but that she credits the social justice movement for sparking a national conversation about the Israeli occupation. Gaza is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and faces high levels of poverty, lack of access to clean water and frequent electricity shortages.
Israel restricts travel outside the Gaza Strip and also maintains an air, land and sea blockade that makes it nearly impossible for Palestinians to access basic food supplies and medical equipment. The Israeli government justifies this as an attempt to weaken Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip and is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel.
“I think [the U.S.] has gone through an awakening and we’ve gone through an education process understanding what oppression means and what it means to be an ally,” Hararah said. “People are familiar with terms like ‘apartheid,’ ‘oppression,’ ‘occupation’ and ‘discrimination.’”
Ahmed Mansour, a 29-year-old filmmaker from Gaza who immigrated to the United States in 2015 for college, said he has no choice but to be hopeful.
He lived through the second intifada, the 2008 Gaza war and the 2014 war. He lives in Maryland now, just outside of Washington, D.C., but for the past few weeks, he’s been traveling nonstop to join the Palestinian solidarity protests that have broken out across the country.
“I am only 6 miles from [the White House], where they are sending weapons to drop it on my family. I’ve never expected this scenario in my life,” said Mansour, who was once hopeful of a Biden presidency.
All of his immediate family members are still in Gaza. During group calls, he listens quietly as they discuss whose house was recently destroyed and which neighbors were killed.
“Something that Gaza teaches you is that you have to cling onto a string of hope, even if it’s not real,” he said.
By: Rowaida Abdulaziz