After a recent visit to the coastal enclave while pregnant, the author reflects on an unfolding tragedy for children
It is Dec. 1, exactly a week before I am due to give birth, and the temporary pause in fighting in Gaza, which some called a cease-fire, is over. I feel a slow, tight, cramping sensation crawl across my belly, and although I had promised myself that today I would finish sketching an outline of my birth wishes, I put it aside and reach for my phone. It is flashing, indicating distress signals from Palestinian colleagues and friends — and in reading them, I weigh the insignificance of the twinges in my body and the triviality of my hospital logistics. Leaflets are falling like confetti from Israeli war planes in southern Gaza, telling people in the area to go even further south. I know the layout of the strip from many journeys there, and quickly grasp the impossibility of another such evacuation.
My last visit to Gaza was in August, when I was in my sixth month of this pregnancy with my second child. Gaining access to the small coastal enclave under Israeli siege proved to be as precarious as the early stages of carrying my son. I worked from my home in Mallorca on bed rest, the threat of placental abruption from a bleeding hematoma looming. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Mediterranean, authorities negotiated our team’s entry into the Gaza Strip. When we finally obtained the elusive permits to cross into Gaza, I decided I was already feeling better and ready for the journey. Upon my arrival there, Palestinian colleagues greeted me with joyful tears and enveloping hugs. I felt a rush of gratitude — and a healthy kick from deep inside.
Throughout the chain of events that led to the military blockade on Gaza in 2007, I was living in the occupied West Bank as a young international development professional. Then as now, bloodshed was inextricably tied to history and regional struggles for territory and sovereignty. I observed as segments of the separation wall were fast-tracked through rural villages, and learned the difference between cluster bombs and thermobarics when the Israeli military fired missiles into the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon.
This past summer too, before going to Gaza, I had crisscrossed the West Bank for weeks with my nearly 2-year-old daughter in tow. She played with Palestinian children in herding and farming communities, while their parents recounted the effects of increasing settler violence and theft of land and water resources. My toddler ate from shared plates of fragrant rice in refugee camps, and danced to traditional oud music far past her bedtime. The night before my partner took her home and I made my way to Gaza, I lay awake next to her — contemplating the layers of privilege under which she had unknowingly been born. All the while, I was unaware that in just a few months, Palestine as I knew it would irrevocably change.
Our first stop in Gaza City was the offices of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, a group that my organization, Grassroots International, has partnered with for years in order to make trauma support and services more widely available. Over a hot lunch, we carefully filled in the remaining gaps in our calendar for the coming week — we would travel from north to south along Salah al-Din street, Gaza’s main artery, visiting the organization’s network of crisis intervention clinics that prioritize the rights and well-being of women and children. “Since we are trapped in Gaza by the siege, it means so much to us that you traveled all this way,” said Dr. Yasser Abu-Jamei, the director general. He paused, then added, “Soon there will be another slope in our history, and we don’t know if it will take us up or down. But we have to lead with hope.”
That hope now feels lost, as if engulfed in the silent depths of the sapphire abyss that divides two very different sides of the Mediterranean. About a week into the offensive, we heard from the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme as their staff tried to make their way down Salah al-Din street with tens of thousands of urban Palestinians — a panicked 21st-century Trail of Tears, bombs raining from above, despite Israel’s promise of protection along the so-called “evacuation” route. Islam, a young woman who was a colleague from an organization that works with farmers and fishers, was killed by a missile while making the journey. Other colleagues left voice messages and sent photographs, documenting in vivid detail the scenes of scorched earth around them. A dear friend, Ayman, lost 18 members of his extended family when their home in southern Gaza was targeted, while Feda’a, a staff member from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, with whom we work closely, grieved the murder of her young daughter. I feel the weight of my own daughter’s small body in my arms and weep for a child I never knew.
Children abound in Gaza, making up more than half of the population of over 2 million. The majority are descendants of refugees, and most have already lived through several Israeli attacks on their territory, knowing nothing beyond the confines of walls, razor wire, no-go zones and naval blockades. Art is a common form of children’s therapy in Gaza, and when a Palestinian child is given a set of crayons, horizontal stick figures dotted in red often appear under fighter jets and tanks. Some 95% of Gazan children were already living below the poverty line before the current offensive, 80% of them dependent on rations from UNRWA, the United Nations branch dedicated to supporting Palestinian refugees. “Our situation is unprecedented beyond our worst nightmare,” shared Dr. Raji Sourani, the founder of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, in August. “And while we work from a point of strategic optimism, we think the worst is yet to come for Gaza, which will be a permanent effort to push us south,” he warned, glancing out the window over the northern expanse of Gaza City.
The kinds of updates we are getting from Palestinian colleagues and friends in Gaza today eclipse the worst of our premonitions. Those who have — at least until now — survived erasure by bombardment say that they fear a slow death trapped beneath the rubble, or from starvation, thirst or disease. They confide that the idea of their children suffering such a fate would be incapacitating if they were not so preoccupied with actively trying to prevent it. From the outside, we have the option of conveniently looking away, or of livestreaming the horrors while hours turn into days and then weeks. Within these spaces of time, innocent lives collapse — a Palestinian child has been killed every 10 minutes in the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7, and their most common age of death is 5. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has lamented that Gaza is becoming “a graveyard for children.” My mind replays the scenes of preterm babies suffocating when hospital incubators shut down, because the Israeli government refused to provide fuel for lifesaving generators — and I imagine my own child succumbing to such a cruel and preventable death. A mother’s pain is primal.
Certainly, my trauma is vicarious, yet it is deeply felt and close to home. I flashback to a previous visit to Gaza, long before I became a mother. It was just weeks after the 2008-09 attacks that Israel refers to as Operation Cast Lead, and Palestinians know as the First Gaza Massacre. The frigid winter air was punctuated with intervals of strong maritime gusts, as the Egyptian authorities allowed our delegation to cross the Sinai Desert and opened the Rafah border. Once on the other side, the aftermath of the three-week bombing campaign was unmistakable. Buildings had been leveled, obliterating entire families in the process. Then, too, I spent time with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. Both groups were in full recovery mode, tending to the physical and emotional needs of Gaza’s most vulnerable, which included more than 100,000 newly displaced people.
One night, I was invited to the home of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a prominent Palestinian physician from the Jabalia refugee camp who practiced medicine inside Israel. He poured cups of steaming sweet tea with cardamom, and sat with a small group of us to tell his story. A few weeks earlier, at the height of the Israeli ground invasion, Dr. Abuelaish’s home was shelled by tanks — killing three of his daughters and his niece. He led us up the stairs to the room where the girls died, small pieces of bone in pools of dried blood on the floor, mattresses ripped open by jagged chunks of concrete wall. Even with a shaky voice and hollow eyes, Dr. Abuelaish had a clear message: “I shall not hate.” He later published a book by that title, which expressed in unequivocal terms that peace for Israelis would never occur without dignity for Palestinians. And he insisted that both were possible.
On our last day in Gaza this August, our small group was hosted by a network of young and aspiring writers called We Are Not Numbers. They fed us and rented a bus so that we could see the beauty of Gaza City and experience Palestinian joy before making our way home. It was a welcome switch from days of learning the extent to which the Gaza Strip had become unlivable — scarce water, dwindling food and few opportunities for youth. We toured the Old City, marveling at ancient stone archways, doused cold water over our faces from a well in a hidden bathhouse and compared biblical and Quranic history from the nave of Saint Porphyrius, one of the oldest Orthodox churches in the world. Despite my multiple visits to Gaza, I had no idea this place existed. A young man named Yousef slowed down to walk with me, worrying about how my pregnant body was holding up in the sweltering heat. We bonded over a love for writing.
Yousef was recently killed with his family in an Israeli airstrike, one of more than 15,000 Palestinians whose lives have been cut short at the time of writing. As the death toll continues to rise, it is imperative that we see the humanity behind those numbers — because they are not numbers. The vast majority are civilians — someone’s daughter, someone’s son — made invisible by the inhumanity of living and dying in an open-air prison. I understand that my children’s future is braided together with that of the survivors of this genocide. Although my young daughter doesn’t know it yet, Palestine will always be a part of her. Once again, I feel my unborn son move inside me, just about ready to make his way into this world. I am flooded by an awareness that midwifing hope for his generation is the most urgent birth wish I have to offer.
New Lines Magazine, 2023