The Ceasefire Doesn’t End the Suffering of Palestinians in Gaza

The author’s cousin Besan with her husband and daughter.

By Fidaa Elaydi

Ceasefire. It may seem like a success of international diplomacy, and though Palestinians are celebrating, it is also a moment of mourning, reflecting, and reckoning. For the first time in weeks, Palestinians in Gaza can finally exhale the breath they held in tight, bracing for earth-shaking, soul-crushing explosions. And Palestinians outside of Palestine can also take comfort in the fact that Gaza’s skies are quieter.

Before Israel’s offensive, Palestinians in Gaza were in the midst of their second wave of COVID-19; in their fourteenth year of the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt and 73rd year of Israeli military occupation; suffering unfathomable rates of unemployment and widespread poverty; and the longstanding issues of lack of fuel, potable water, electricity, and waste treatment plants. After eleven days of Israeli bombardment by land, air, and sea, each crisis was compounded with 248 deaths; five thousand injuries; and demolished infrastructure, including roads, schools, news media offices, residential towers, a sponge factory, an ice cream factory, and power lines. Israel’s merciless tirade left 65 Palestinian children dead.

Now that there is a momentary hush of the warplanes, Palestinians are able to grieve and reflect. My cousin Layan told me on the first day of the ceasefire, “What do you think the first thing I did was? Shower! And it was a good shower, not a terrified one. I took a shower without being afraid. Oh my God I finished all of the hot water.” During Israel’s bombardment, Layan was petrified to leave her children, even for a moment, out of fear that an air strike would take either her or them and leave the survivors to mourn the slain. She was not afraid of dying, she was afraid of having a fate different from her family’s.

My other cousin, Mariam, and her entire family had to flee their home after the explosion of a nearby airstrike shattered all of their windows and partially damaged their home. She told me they had to split up so as not to burden relatives. She said the worst part was that she and her family were not together. Even if she went on an endless cycle confirming each was safe, there would be moments of uncertainty — when someone misses her call, their phone dies, or they have poor service. There is always fear.

And being far from Gaza was torturous for me too, albeit incomparable to the torment my relatives faced. After speaking to my cousin Rana during the war, also in the US, she told me she couldn’t reach her siblings in Gaza and was worried. The following day, I was watching the news when the reporter interrupted coverage of the Israeli military shooting live bullets at protesters in the West Bank to announce an airstrike. The airstrike was in Rana’s siblings’ neighborhood in Gaza and there was a death. At the exact same moment, Rana texted me an image, and from the thumbnail, I knew it was a black square that included Arabic text, the same format our community uses for digital death announcements. My heart stopped, my hands were shaking, and all I could think was “Don’t panic. No bad news yet, stay calm.” My cousins were fine. But those moments in which I let myself live my worst fear were devastating.

Just before 3:00 am one night, my cousin Besan sent me a frantic message. It began, “Fidaa, you are among the few people who I know outside of Gaza.” She wrote that she was in death’s grip. She was powerless to stop the Israeli warplanes flying over her home, illuminating the night sky with explosions promising death and destruction. She was sending me her final will and testimony. I sobbed as I read her words, imagining the degree of horror that compelled her to register her terror and fear in the public record, in case her entire family is slain like the Abulouf, Hadidi, al-Masry, Kolak, Abu Hatab, and about a dozen more families. It was a desperate plea for help, a final attempt to appeal to the humanity of the world.

The house across the street from hers had just been leveled by an Israeli missile. It was so close and so powerful that she believed it had hit her. She wrote, “We live real-life horror and death every second. You can communicate my message to the world, show them, clear up the misconceptions… Our energy is almost depleted. I swear, I swear every hour and every minute we say the Shahada* and are shocked how it is we are still alive.” I carry the weight of her request every moment. In her most vulnerable moment, she chose me to deliver her final legacy. And every day since, I felt as though I had failed her in every moment she was afraid.

Besan told me “we the people of Gaza feel fear and horror. I mean I am writing to you and my hands are shaking. Do not think we have grown accustomed to airstrikes and destruction. Do not think that this is typical for us or we are living normally.” When I called her later to offer what comfort I could, she told me “We have not grown accustomed to this, we will never grow accustomed to this, I refuse to accept this life of horror and fear for myself or my kids. I can’t.”

A couple days later, my phone rang and it was Besan. Besan normally texts, she does not call. The line went dead before I could answer. I called back. Twice. No answer. I texted her. Direct messaged her. Every moment I did not know she was safe, I died a thousand deaths. I called her sister. Direct messaged her sister. Her sister called their mother. They’re fine. Besan’s toddler daughter was playing with Besan’s phone while Besan slept.

My other cousin, Khawla, who is a young attorney and mother, also sent me her final will and testimony. She spoke of her ambitions of one day being able to practice her trade, putting her kids in the best schools, and how much she loves life and wants the opportunity to reach her potential and be more than a number added to the Palestinian death count.

After the ceasefire, Layan’s husband and son went for a drive. Her son saw the residential towers Israel leveled to the ground with their civilian residents still inside. He told his mother “Mama, these aren’t towers, they look like you took a stack of crackers and then crushed them,” before he asked a million questions, as young schoolchildren often do.

Besan recently posted about resuming her pre-war life, “we have begun taking small steps toward our ordinary life and the routine we learned to appreciate during the war. I have resumed waking up early and making plans for the day, the week, the month, and years from now… But I am always thinking ‘has the nightmare of the war ended for the mother of the martyr, the wife of the martyr, the daughter of the martyr, the families of the martyrs, those who lost their homes, those harmed and displaced from their homes during the war?’”

Even those physically unharmed carry with them the weight of Israel’s collective punishment inflicted on Gaza’s population.

*A declaration of faith (there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger) Muslims often recite but one they also hope to utter in their last breaths before death.

(some of the names have been changed to protect the privacy of my relatives)

Fidaa Elaydi is a Palestinian lawyer living in Illinois.

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