Two years ago, when I was in Italy, a Japanese friend approached me with her phone in hand, asking me to pinpoint my country on a world map. My Chinese friends didn’t understand where I came from either. Today, however, the world watches as the Gaza genocide unfolds, leading to global demonstrations in support of Palestine.
On Oct. 7, I woke up unusually early and I reached for my phone. I was greeted by a video from an Instagram friend working in Jaffa. The footage depicted cars driven by Al-Qassam fighters in Gaza encircle settlements, accompanied by the haunting wails of sirens. The surreal nature of the scene left me questioning its reality until, minutes later, sirens echoed in Jerusalem.
Then my father answered my uncle’s phone call and heard: “Alo, Joseph! Have you heard the news?”
On that day, Palestinians talked of nothing else and were glued to the TV. This may be hard for others to understand, but for the first time, we had a glimpse of what liberation would feel like. There was a fleeting sense of optimism – a belief that something significant was about to change in our favor. Palestinians have lived for decades under the boot of oppression, so being able to push back was a relief. However, the brutal Israeli response that followed just a day later shattered those illusions.
Being a Jerusalemite has suddenly become a source of terror. Fueled by anger, Israeli settlers broadcast death threats on social media. When I am home alone, I lock all the doors. I know settlers probably aren’t going to break in, but I still don’t feel safe, especially after the settlers were supplied with weapons by the Israeli government.
Still, since I have traveled multiple times and am connected to many international friends on social media, I feel obligated to raise awareness of the atrocities going on in Gaza. I post multiple Instagram stories every day. Plus, I feel helpless and guilty that I am not suffering as the people of Gaza are. I need to do something, no matter how humble. I have since learned that Palestinian students studying in Israeli universities are being expelled and employees are losing their jobs after posting content in favor of Palestine.
The risk escalated as Israeli occupation forces began storming homes in East Jerusalem and randomly searching people’s phones in the streets and at checkpoints, arresting them under the pretext of inciting terrorism. Now, every time I cross a checkpoint, I make sure I delete both my Telegram and Instagram apps, along with my WhatsApp conversations. Some people even leave their phones at home at all times. No one feels safe anymore.
I receive multiple messages and calls from friends and family members asking me to stop posting political content out of fear for my safety, but I feel like a traitor doing so, so I disregard their pleas and continue posting, just less frequently.
The West Bank aches
The situation in the West Bank mirrors the despair in Jerusalem. On Oct. 7, the Israeli occupation forces closed all checkpoints, and therefore all West Bank exits. Palestinians living in the West Bank and working in Jerusalem can’t reach their workplaces anymore. Settlers, driven by animosity, have terminated jobs for thousands of Palestinian workers.
In addition to checkpoints, roadblocks are now set up between different cities and neighborhoods within the West Bank. Thus, schools and universities have shifted to online learning. In addition, the operation of institutions, shops and businesses are disrupted due to successive strikes motivated by the numerous massacres committed by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza.
In Bethlehem, for example, where my paternal family is originally from, many families have lost their income, since the city thrives on tourism. Since Oct. 7, tourists and pilgrims no longer come to the Holy Land, prompting hotels to close and send their employees home. My fiancé, cousin and cousin’s husband work in hotels, and my uncle and two aunts own souvenir shops that are now closed. My fiancé’s parents used to make handicrafts from olive wood to sell to pilgrims. In addition, two of my fiancé’s close friends who worked in Israeli settlements are no longer allowed to cross checkpoints or work outside of the West Bank anymore.
I grapple with guilt over every shekel spent, witnessing the economic suffering around me, with no hope in sight.
Prisoners released, hope crushed
Since Oct. 7, Israeli occupation forces have repeatedly invaded the Palestinian territories, arresting 3,580 and killing 263 in the West Bank and Jerusalem. At first, I used to check Telegram daily to make sure none of the people I know have been arrested. But the list just got longer.
Ironically, many of these arrests took place during the temporary “truce” with Gaza. During the first four days of the truce and prisoner exchange, Israeli forces arrested almost as many Palestinians as it released, according to Aljazeera. They arrested 133 Palestinians while releasing 150.
The heartache of Gaza
I realized in the last couple of months that having friends in Gaza is a curse. Helpless, I can only watch the news and hope my friends are still alive, feeling that every ordinary act, from eating to sleeping, is inappropriate amid their suffering.
Being a member of We Are Not Numbers since 2021, I have made multiple friends from Gaza, among whom are a couple of my closest friends, Maram and Raed. That is why, since Oct. 7, I have been checking WANN’s WhatsApp group more regularly, just to make sure they are all alive. Whenever we lose a member, his/her name is announced there. No news means good news.
Then came the fourteenth of October. As I was styling my hair, my sister walked in and didn’t have the usual childish look she has whenever she follows me after my showers, wanting me to make her some milk. She looked at me with a very solemn face and asked: “Do you know a Yousef Dawas?” I immediately froze, not wanting to know what came next. There’s a song by one of my favorite bands, Glass Animals, called “It’s all so incredibly loud,” which is about the few petrifying seconds of silence before an agonizing piece of news is announced. This was one of these moments.
“Y..y..es,” I answered. “Why?”
She wanted to make sure, so she asked again, “Does he have curly hair?”
“YES!” I answered, a little impatient now. “Why?”
“He was killed.”
I have never in my whole life started crying that fast after hearing terrible news. I found it hard to gasp for air. My sister, who usually doesn’t like physical touch, felt the need to give me the biggest hug she’s ever given anyone.
For days after, I cried before going to sleep, and every time someone posted his photo on social media, I found myself remembering our conversations on Instagram.
I have never met Yousef in person, but he was a good friend. We had one thing in common, our curly hair, and therefore most of our conversations revolved around that. He usually asked me what products I use and how I style it. The last time we texted, we spoke about our mothers, who encouraged us to stop straightening our hair and enjoy it the way it is. The last message I received from him was: “Well, your mother has good taste.”
I will never have the chance to find out what else we had in common. May your soul rest in peace, my friend.
“My dear friends, are you still alive?”
It is excruciatingly difficult not to be able to check on a close friend, knowing he/she isn’t safe. I have been feeling that since the start of the aggression, with nightmares of missiles and bombings haunting my sleep. Messages to friends go unanswered, leaving me emotionally drained. I don’t even know some of their last names, so I am unable to search for their them among those killed.
Maram Faraj is one of my dear friends from Gaza. I’ve known her since 2021. She was one of the first members to reach out when I joined WANN. Since then, we’ve been so close that we texted and called on almost a daily basis. That was, of course, before Oct. 7.
Now, I can barely communicate with her. Most of the time, she has no internet connection and no electricity. Sometimes, it’s impossible to have a phone call due to communication network outages. However, when I get the chance to talk to her, ironically, it is usually her that offers me comfort.
Maram had to evacuate her house in the al Karama neighborhood in Gaza City. Since then, she hasn’t found a place to call home. She has had to evacuate twice more, without ever being any safer.
Then, on Oct. 24, Maram’s house was bombed. It was the first time I heard desperation in her voice. Her house was empty, thankfully, but she still lost every precious item she owned. “I wish I was inside when it was bombed. I wish I was killed. I have nothing left, Layal,” was all she said.
The second time she wasn’t herself was on the fourth of December, the last time I had a phone call with her. Unusually, her voice was shaky, and I could hear her fear. She was distracted and I knew she had been crying. “Sorry, Layal,” she said, “I will talk to you when I feel better, ok?” I have never felt as scared and desperate in my life. I wish there was something I could do to so I hear her laugh again.
Churches console mosques
It has become clear that the aggression doesn’t discriminate between religions. As of Nov. 18, 192 mosques and three churches have been bombed, including the Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrios, which is said to be the third oldest church in the world.
On Oct. 19, my father received a phone call from Gaza. I couldn’t make out what was said, but my father’s tone got higher, and his eyes started tearing up.
We found out the church of Saint Porphyrios was hit, that there were martyrs and that some people were still stuck under the rubble. TV news channels had not yet broadcast the news, so we didn’t know how many people were killed and who they were.
As a Christian and regional director of the Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem (he has visited Gaza on work trips multiple times), my father was worried for his employee in Gaza, Sami Tarazi, because we knew he was taking refuge in the church, along with all of his family members.
Since Oct. 7, Sami hasn’t stopped working, making sure to provide food and water to everyone taking refuge in the church, even though he himself was not safe.
As we awaited Sami’s call, the tension in the air was palpable. It was as if I could hear everyone’s heartbeats, including my own. Sami’s survival was a bittersweet relief, overshadowed by the tragedy of him losing his parents and niece. I immediately felt a lump in my throat; my father and mother were sobbing.
Eighteen people were killed in the church that day. This was the saddest moment for me personally, since I met Sami last year in Jerusalem on Christmas. I still cannot fathom his pain, nor can I possibly understand what he felt that day.
No hope in sight
Two months have passed since Oct. 7. When the temporary truce was declared, we had some hope. But now that the aggression against Gaza has resumed, and more severely than before, we ask, “When will this nightmare end? When will the world wake up and choose to put an end to this madness? How many more must die before the world realizes we’ve had enough?”