Oct 17, 2023

A member of the Palestinian Civil Defense recovers bodies and injured people from under the rubble after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, in southern Gaza, on October 17th, 2023.

Abed Rahim Khatib/dpa/Alamy Live News

Dispatches from Gaza

Three Palestinians describe life under constant Israeli bombardment—and lay out their visions for liberation.

As Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza enters its 11th day, communication between the besieged enclave and the outside world is quickly becoming impossible. “Given the scale of Israel’s assault—which UN experts have warned amounts to ‘collective punishment’ in violation of international law—journalists are facing unprecedented challenges in obtaining and sharing information,” The Washington Post reported on October 16th. These obstacles are reflected in the three dispatches from Gaza collected here. The first, which was written when Israel had just announced it would cut off water and electricity to the Strip, was sent to us via email on October 9th, accompanied by instructions for how to proceed “in case I am unable to reply because we are out of electricity, or because I am martyred.” One week later, written communication was no longer feasible, and the latter two dispatches came in as strings of WhatsApp voice messages on October 16th.

The first dispatch comes from Mohammed Zraiy, the Gaza coordinator for the One Democratic State Initiative, a Palestinian group that advocates for a secular democratic state in Israel/Palestine. The latter two come from Khalil Abu Yahia, a Gaza-based student, teacher, and activist for the Palestinian right of return, and Rania Hussein, a 51-year-old human rights worker in Gaza City.

As Abu Yahia points out, this week’s brutal bombardment is greater in degree than past wars, but not different in kind: Gazans are crushingly accustomed to being “deprived of our rights, blamed for our own suffering, failed by the international community.” Amid such assaults, they are often asked to testify in the media to the horror they have lived through, but rarely asked about their interpretations of the events that affect their lives, or afforded generosity when they explain their perspectives. By bringing their varying political aspirations to readers in their own words, we hope to cultivate the conditions for a shared conversation about a just future. In advocating an end to occupation, colonialism, and genocide, Abu Yahia says, he is calling for liberation “not only for the colonized people, but also for the oppressor, who is controlled by this ideology they wield to control us.” Zraiy, too, when asked what he would say to Israelis if given the chance, emphasized that by calling for a state where Palestinians and Jews could live together in freedom and equality, he is calling for Jews to support a course that “will free you—and us, its primary victims—from colonialism.” This shared commitment to freedom, he writes, is “the only way to peace.”

“A people under occupation has only three options: to resist, to resist, and to resist.”

Alain Alameddine: How is the situation on the ground?

Mohammed Zraiy: There’s no electricity, no internet, no medicine, no water, no food supplies, indiscriminate bombing—houses, hospitals, schools, mosques, churches, United Nations buildings, civilians, ambulances, paramedics, and reporters have been targeted, entire neighborhoods have been flattened, thousands have been martyred, including 10 people in my immediate family. It’s a massacre—and it is but one of many stations in Israel’s ongoing Nakba against us. For 75 years, we have been fighting for our liberation against occupation, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and settler colonialism.

AA: How does this make you feel?

MZ: It’s a constant weight; we all feel it on our chests. In Gaza, we are used to war. It’s been part of our lives since we were babies. As we grew into adulthood, stuck in refugee camps, without basic rights like work or freedom of movement or travel, everything felt gloomy. This military operation [by Hamas], however, felt different. Now we feel sadness, fear, and pride. Sadness for those who died in the massacres. Fear for those who will die here. And pride for having broken the hubris of an army that has long wielded the sword of genocide to tamper the spirit of resistance. A spirit of defiance burns in our hearts.

I come from Tell Jammeh, which was razed to the ground [in 1948] and supplanted with the colony of Re’im. [On October 7th], I followed the news minute by minute, as the resistance battled the occupying army and freed my grandparents’ town for several hours. I watched as Palestinians ran into the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948 shouting, “We got back home, we got back home!” I felt then that return is possible—but only through resistance. The spirit that has grown in refugee camps will blossom into freedom.

AA: You mentioned sadness and fear. Do you wish the Palestinian counterattack had never happened?

MZ: We are human—we don’t want to kill, we don’t want to die, we just want to live. Destiny so willed it that when deciding which land to colonize (to use Herzl’s frame), the early Zionist fathers chose Palestine instead of the other lands they were considering stealing (to use Ben-Gurion’s frame). For 75 years, agents of this settler-colonial project have been working to ethnically cleanse us from our lands, and couldn’t care less even about international law that is biased in Zionism’s favor, let alone about human rights (or, as the colony’s government described us, “animal” rights). A people under occupation has only three options: to resist, to resist, and to resist. It’s the settler colonization of Palestine that I wish had never happened, not our reaction to it.

AA: So, you don’t blame Palestinians for the counterattack?

MZ: Do you know that most inhabitants of Gaza are not from Gaza? We come from the Palestinian lands occupied in 1948, like al-Lyd, Ramla, Yafa, or Birsabeh. We were deported to the Gaza Strip and supplanted by hundreds of thousands of settlers. Now we wait for the UN to help us with basic necessities, which only reach us when Israel “allows” them to go through. Israel denies us the right to go home because we’re not Jewish, while it welcomes Jews who are living peacefully elsewhere. These settlers live comfortably on our lands, while the natives are segregated, dispossessed, and killed. This is the reality imposed by Israel and its supporters, especially the United States and United Kingdom. Which side did you ask if we should blame? How could this even be a question?

AA: So what are you proposing?

MZ: We want a solution that guarantees that Palestinians in Gaza will not be bombed in the “safety” of our homes; Palestinians in the West Bank will not be deported to Jordan as part of the ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing; Palestinians in Haifa will not be expelled for holding a Palestinian flag; Palestinians in the Naqab [the Negev] or Jerusalem will not fear eviction from their own houses. The settler colony is the cause of all this, so the solution is to dismantle it and establish its fundamental antithesis: an inclusive, secular, democratic Palestinian state that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or any other identity, and that protects its society from racist ideologies and movements like Zionism.

AA: What would your message to Israelis be?

MZ: Unlike what they’ve been told, we’ve never had a problem with Jews. Jews have been part of the fabric of our society way before the establishment of Israel. In fact, Jews escaping European persecution found refuge in Palestine. Gaza had a Jewish quarter. They were living peacefully, not with Arabs but as Arabs, right up until 1948. The establishment of Israel didn’t protect Jews; it caused the divide and danger. The solution is to roll back and dismantle the colony. My message to the colonizers who left their home countries to occupy our lands is simply to go back home. As for those who were born here, my message is: You are secondary victims of this colonial project. You are being used to occupy other people’s lands, and your Jewishness is being politicized for colonial means. Meditate carefully on the examples of South Africa, Angola, Algeria—they may not apply wholesale to the settler colonization of Palestine, but they hold lessons for you. Today you must make a choice: Either support this deadly colonial project, or side against it by supporting the liberation of Palestine and the establishment of a democratic state that liberates Palestinians, as well as Jews, from Zionism. A state that will honor the right of Palestinian refugees to return and compensation and that will welcome and protect its Jews as citizens of Palestine. This transition from Zionism to democracy will not cost anyone’s life; it will cost you your colonial privileges, and will free you—and us, its primary victims—from colonialism.

AA: What is your message to other Palestinians, and to their allies globally?

MZ: Refuse any proposal that legitimizes Zionism’s basic foundations such as the politicization of identity and the partition of Palestine. That includes the two-state proposal and calls for a binational or confederate state. I encourage all those reading this to take part in our efforts to work for a transition from Zionism to a single democratic state, the only way to peace.

—October 9th

“It seems like things can’t get worse—but when we reach the bottom, it turns out there is another bottom. It’s an abyss.”

Maya Rosen: How are you doing? What are you seeing and experiencing around you?

Khalil Abu Yahia: I’m physically fine, but I’ve lost a lot of family, friends, and neighbors. My surviving family members are disconnected from each other. Some of us are in the north of Gaza, others are in the south. My sister was injured last night in an Israeli airstrike that targeted a civilian building. People are being killed every minute, thousands of people are injured, tens of thousands are mourning. For many, there is no water, no electricity, no access to food, no access to medicine—a shortage of everything. It seems like things can’t get worse—but when we reach the bottom, it turns out there is another bottom. It’s an abyss.

We are experiencing genocide. Systematic, appalling. An apocalypse.

MR: Does this moment feel different from other Israeli attacks on Gaza?

KAY: This is the first war I’ve experienced where a vast majority of people are searching for water, bread, medicine. We are being treated like animals. But in other ways, it feels no different: In previous wars, we have lost beloved friends, neighbors, relatives. We’ve been deprived of our rights, blamed for our own suffering, failed by the international community.

MR: As a student of postcolonial studies, how has your study of other colonial contexts influenced your thinking about the future of Gaza?

KAY: It helps me to better see the tools at our disposal. We can say to the world: “You divested from apartheid South Africa. Why are you not boycotting Israel?” The context of other colonial experiences teaches us that liberation is possible—not only for the colonized people, but also for the oppressor, who is controlled by this ideology they wield to control us.

MR: Are there particular writers you find yourself turning to?

KAY: Writers writing under colonialism: Ghassan Kanafani, Frantz Fanon, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Steve Biko . . . They all contribute to my understanding of my own experience.

MR: What was October 7th like for you?

KAY: When I heard that the fence had been breached, I felt hope. It felt like a first step toward liberating Palestine. Contrary to Israeli propaganda and Western media narratives, it’s not impossible. When you have resistance, colonialism can be defeated.

MR: What do you fear?

KAY: I fear that I will die without achieving my dreams. I want to complete my PhD. I want to rebuild my family’s house, which has been destroyed. And I want—and this, for me, is the biggest dream—to meet my friends in person, to shake hands, to hug them. It sounds very simple, but colonialism disconnects a people from the rest of the world. I dream of a future where people are treated equally, where there is no occupation, no colonialism, no genocide, no ethnic cleansing.

MR: What is your message for the world?

KAY: Don’t leave us alone. We are making history now. What would you like your children to read about you? That you justified this oppression? Or that you stood on the side of the oppressed people?

Every single action counts. Don’t forget us. We are human beings who are losing our family members and our neighbors and our friends. If you believe in the equality and freedom of the Palestinian people, exert the maximum effort to ensure that your government stops supporting the colonial government. When every government boycotts this colonial system, it will be isolated. And that’s how it will end.

—October 16th

[Note: On October 30th, Khalil Abu Yahia was killed in an Israeli airstrike. Maya Rosen and Erez Bleicher remember him here.]

“We were reliving the Nakba: the same scenes, the same crowds walking and not knowing where to go.”

Julia: What is happening right now in Gaza?

Rania Hussein: Today is the 11th day of the siege, and it’s a very, very bloody day. There are a lot of attacks and bombings around us. A family only a few meters from me was hit inside their home. People are screaming in the streets. From my friends and relatives, I’ve heard of a lot of similar events in Deir al-Balah and Khan Younis. These are in the southern areas where it is supposedly safe. So I don’t know what we should do in order to not get killed. Where should we go? What are they planning to do to us? Are they intending to push us out?

Last night, my husband’s cousin was killed. There was shelling next to his house and he went to assist the injured. And then they shelled a second time, striking the people who gathered to help. In these times, I thank God for not having children. The only thing I can do right now is to tell the world what’s happening in Gaza.

J: I know you have had to move twice already within Gaza since this attack began. Tell me about that.

RH: We first left our house and moved to a relative’s house in Gaza City because they were bombing all around us. Every house around our area has since been razed to the ground. My house is probably destroyed, but I cannot go to check because it’s too dangerous. And then in the early hours of Friday morning, we started to hear about the Israeli forces telling people to move out of Gaza City to go south. That is where we are now—in a house in southern Gaza with nearly 30 relatives.

I didn’t know if leaving was the right decision. I watched other people leave and it looked like we were reliving the Nakba: the same scenes, the same crowds walking and not knowing where to go. We were already refugees. We fled from Isdud [Ashdod] in 1948. My father-in-law, who is an elderly man, was about 14 when that happened. He still remembers it, he still lives it. And now he is reliving it. And he believes that he’s not going to survive it. He says he prefers to die than to live this again.

J: What is the solution you hope to see to this long cycle of displacement?

RH: First, we need a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, and to secure international protection for the Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. Then, we need a political solution that assures self-determination—an independent state that assures the political and national rights of the Palestinian people.

J: At this point, what are the conditions in Gaza in terms of access to food, water, and electricity?

RH: The siege and the aggression by the Israeli occupying forces has blocked food from entering Gaza. It has also made it impossible for farmers to collect the crops from their fields, which were always in dangerous areas, and which are now completely restricted. And of course, the northern part of Gaza is now cut off as a source of food. The shops are still open, but I don’t know for how long. Plus, the prices are almost four times higher than usual. Even if people can find what they need, they aren’t able to afford it. Soon there will be no food left in the markets.

Also, because of the decision by the Israeli government to cut fuel to Gaza, there is no power at all, which then affects the water [which usually has to be pumped into tanks with electric motors]. We are already struggling to get water for drinking or for daily use. This particularly affects the ability to pump sewage, which could turn into an environmental crisis very soon.

J: Will you cross into Egypt if you’re given the chance?

RH: If we cross, it will only be out of necessity—a temporary solution to preserve our lives. It won’t be forever. We refuse this. The plan is going to be to return.

—October 16th

Mohammed Zraiy is the Gaza coordinator for the One Democratic State Initiative, a Palestinian group that advocates for a secular democratic state in Israel/Palestine.

Khalil Abu Yahia was a Gaza-based student, teacher, and activist for the Palestinian right of return.

Rania Hussein is a 51-year-old human rights worker in Gaza City.

Alain Alameddine is the Lebanon coordinator for the One Democratic State Initiative.

Maya Rosen is the Israel/Palestine fellow at Jewish Currents.

Julia, who is using a pseudonym, works for an international human rights organization.