Even the Survivors Are Poisoned
A diary of wartime in Gaza
A Palestinian woman prepares maftool in Gaza.
On May 9th, the Israeli army began its latest round of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. The bombings lasted five days, killing 33 Palestinians and terrorizing the population, whose movement is severely restricted by the ongoing blockade. This article (which previously appeared in our email newsletter) is a diary of that bombardment by Kholoud Balata, a Gazan essayist who has previously written for Jewish Currents about the way Zionist brutality undermines Palestinian childhood and the ambivalence of celebrating Ramadan, when Israeli violence habitually mounts during Islam’s holiest month. In her latest piece, she documents her experience of last week’s attacks, chronicling her attempts to hold onto “a fragile normalcy” under siege.
May 9th, 2023
I’m snatched from sleep by the ringing of my phone. When I got married in March, my mom—who had always woken me up, since I slept too deeply to be roused by any alarm—started calling me early in the morning to make sure I wouldn’t be late for work. It’s only in these past few weeks that I’ve managed to convince her I can wake up on my own. Now, seeing Mom flash across the screen, I expect something urgent. But here she is asking: “Are you awake, Kholoud?” I feel a surge of annoyance, then take a deep breath: “Yes, Mama.” “There’s no work today,” she tells me. “The Zionists killed three Jihad leaders at dawn. It’s war.”
May 10th, 2023
It’s 9:10 pm. I’m at my in-laws’ in Rafah. My husband Adnan insisted it was safer to be here during a bombing campaign, so we left our apartment in Gaza yesterday afternoon just before the martyrs were buried. I wasn’t convinced; it’s not as though Rafah is free from Israeli violence. But as long as Adnan is by my side, it doesn’t matter to me where we are. Ten minutes ago, there was an air of celebration. It’s a ritual that’s now two wars old: When the Palestinian resistance launches their rockets at the ’48 occupied territories, Gazans take to their roofs to cheer. Now a deadly calm dominates again.
May 11th, 2023
I am making maftool with my mother-in-law. Before I got married, I relied on my mother in the kitchen, so I’m not a proficient cook. Fortunately, I am only the chef’s assistant. My mother-in-law begins preparations—mixing the white and black flours, rolling the flour around the bulgur grains to create little pearls. As I pour the maftool into the pot, several grains spill onto the counter. When it’s time for Maghrib prayer, Adnan accompanies me downstairs before returning to the living room to chat with a colleague on Zoom. Suddenly the boom of a nearby bombing penetrates my peace. I rush to the kitchen and find my mother-in-law sitting calmly at the table. I call my mom. I am so worried about my family—especially my little sisters Sara and Ghina. During previous bombing campaigns, I would push aside my own fears and distract them, bringing Ghina some crayons and watching cartoons with Sara. I wonder if Nour, my 20-year-old sister, does this now. The explosion reminds me what war feels like in Gaza: It’s an intoxicating terror—even the survivors are poisoned. Once my mom tells me they are safe, I hand the phone to my mother-in-law, and my two moms exchange jokes about my cooking; my mother-in-law tries to convince my mom that I was actually a help in the kitchen. I hear my mom laugh and a fragile normalcy is restored.
May 12th, 2023
News of more martyrs and killings. I join a couple of work meetings by Zoom. Adnan and my father-in-law are also working from home. It’s funny. We Gazans are supposed to be productive even while we’re busy burying each other.
May 13th, 2023
Tonight, on the fifth night of bombing, there is rumor of an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire. We’re all in the living room glued to our phones and computers, following updates on Telegram channels. Two offers have been rejected so far. At 8:55 pm, we receive word that both sides are studying the proposal. At 9:30 pm, they reach an agreement. We smile wearily: The ceasefire will come into effect at 10:00 pm. But at 9:45 pm, a spokesperson from Islamic Jihad refutes the news; they have not agreed to the terms. Ahmed and Amjad, my brothers-in-law, groan loudly. Islamic Jihad is shelling the occupied ’48 territories. At 10:20 pm, a report of a new Israeli bomb is broadcast. Adnan, who noticed how I fluctuated between hope and despair as the news came in, whispers, “Hey Kholoud, shall we go for a walk?” I’m scared but, yes, I want to leave the house; I need to feel what life is like outside—and besides, the ceasefire is still officially in place. All the same, the streets are empty, quiet except the buzz of drones. This Thursday, the Zionists will march with their flags in Jerusalem, an occasion that comes with the dire threat of a new war. On the road in Gaza, our two shadows stretch out. I find myself fantasizing about a third tiny shadow, nestled between us. I wonder if our tall shadows will be able to protect him.
Kholoud Balata is a 23-year-old lecturer, poet, and writer. She was born in Gaza, Palestine, where she lives.