Letters From Gaza

“I yearn for our voices to echo across the globe with the truth, reaching out to those who seek it.”

Sherell Barbee


The genocide that Palestinians are facing in Gaza is being captured in almost real time on social media, where many Palestinians continue to share videos and photographs in detail and high definition. It’s angering and heart-wrenching to see people desperately kissing their martyred loved ones goodbye, to watch panicked groups running away from airstrikes, to see premature babies who took their last breaths alone in Al-Nasr Children’s Hospital as the Israeli military forces hospital staff to leave, to look on as a father continues searching for his child in the rubble though he is too exhausted to lift more concrete. 

Meanwhile, the Israeli military continues to drop thousands of bombs on Gaza—18,000 tons and counting since October 7, more than 150% the amount of explosive force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

Through that flood of devastating public accounts, I can’t help but cling to tiny slivers of hope when they appear on my screen: the video of a swaddled baby whose eyes miraculously blink after being pulled from beneath rubble; the smiling children with mouths wide open as they embrace Gaza’s first rainfall after October 7; the exuberant dancing from a wedding celebration in a United Nations shelter; a young girl hugging her mother for the first time after being released from Israeli prison.

The Institute for Palestine Studies and We Are Not Numbers have been diligently translating and publishing dozens of first-hand accounts of people in Gaza, some of which In These Times has the privilege to publish here. In one letter, Marwa Abu Hatab says, I yearn for our voices to echo across the globe with the truth, reaching out to those who seek it.”

I wake up. I’m still alive. And I ask myself, is that a good thing?

The windows are always open, to avoid the danger of shattered glass. Every morning I am woken by an obnoxious fly buzzing around the room. It gets louder the closer it is to my ear. Sleep is very precious because I get so little. Therefore, it is annoying to be deprived of it by an insect. I get up and feel irritated. I wonder how I managed to sleep at all through the sound of my grandpa’s annoying radio. Every Gazan family has the same battery-powered radio. It is our source of information when there is no electricity or internet. I really hate that radio because of what it represents. It makes me feel so tense, because we only use it during times like these: when we are under attack and when people we love are dying.

I go to the bathroom. I wash my face using a Coca-Cola bottle that I filled with water. Then I go to the kitchen to make coffee with the small amount of water I have left in the bottle. I sit there in the kitchen alone and drink it with feelings of guilt — because water is very scarce and some people are going days without drinking anything.

Next is the hardest part of my daily routine. I contact my friends one by one to check if they are still alive. I have to prepare myself mentally before I start messaging them. I do this out of habit, although I know it is in vain. I feel very anxious wondering whether I will ever get a response back.

I get up to face another day of heartache and listening to my grandfather’s radio.

I keep calling my best friend Maimana because I heard that there had been a bombardment where she is staying. I try again for the 30th time but her phone is still not ringing. She has no connection. I feel afraid for her safety and my heart starts pounding. I repeatedly tell myself that it will be okay and she will call me back when she has a connection. Eventually, the rest of my family wakes up. I am no longer alone. We sit together and have our daily conversation about which neighborhoods Israel bombed last night. It is our morning ritual to catch up on what happened during those precious three hours of sleep.

There are 14 of us staying together in a relative’s house. Each of us has a chore to perform in the morning. The men go to the bakery to try and find some bread. Then they take the empty bottles and tanks to the well to fill them with water. Meanwhile, the women start doing the dishes, cleaning the floor, and preparing lunch.

Lunch depends on whether there is bread or not. Mostly there is not. Our options are limited, but at least we have options. Some aren’t so lucky and we hear about people suffering from malnutrition.

My mom calls and sounds like she has been crying. I ask if she’s okay and she tells me that she is. I know she is lying to me. My uncle takes the phone and goes into another room. I immediately know that something is wrong. My heart feels heavy for the rest of the day. I have a feeling that my family is acting weird and holding something back from me.

We receive an internet connection just for limited periods throughout the day. Each time we are reconnected, I rush to text my friends, check the news online and post on social media about what is happening to us. We are bombarded with the same questions about Hamas and the seventh of October. This shows a complete lack of understanding from the Western media about what is happening to us. 

The internet is disconnected again. So like every other normal Palestinian family living through this struggle, we play cards while the stupid radio tells us what is happening via news reports.

We all sleep together in the same room, because it feels safer. I try to sleep through the noises of heavy bombing sounds and news reports on the radio. My eyes get heavier and heavier.

I have the urge to ask my family if they know something that I should know about. But I hold back because I am scared that the news will break my heart. Instead, I go to the balcony so that I can listen to my favorite song, Hymn to Gentrification” by Faraj Suleiman. This song feels like talking to someone who understands my agony.

My solitude is interrupted by a phone call from a friend. I pick up but it doesn’t connect so I leave it. I keep listening to the song and telling myself that everything is OK. I know that is a lie. I have a dreadful feeling in my stomach.

My phone rings again. It is the same friend. I pick up and this time we are connected. Is it true that Maimana and her family have been killed?” My heart falls and shatters into a million little pieces. No, no. Who said that?” I reply, while tears fill my eyes. Everyone,” he said back to me. I scream and the tears start falling from my eyes.

She was my very best friend. I loved no one like I loved her. At that moment I feel like I have lost everything. It hurts how you can be talking to someone and they get killed the next day. The memories we shared start playing back in my mind. I can hear her laugh. I remember singing in the car with her mum. It is all too much, and I break down.

This is the second time in as many weeks that I get the news about losing a loved one. The first time was my dear friend Abraham. He was unlike anyone else: funny, clever and with such a big heart. I can’t describe the feeling when you get this type of news. It’s shattering — like when you drop a
plate and it breaks into many pieces.

It always gets worse at nighttime. That is when the horror begins. We all sleep together in the same room, because it feels safer. I try to sleep through the noises of heavy bombing sounds and news reports on the radio. My eyes get heavier and heavier. And then my mind eventually gives up and I drift off to sleep.

The next morning I wake up. But this time there is no annoying buzzing around the room. The fly had been scared away by the bombing overnight. And I get up to face another day of heartache and listening to my grandfather’s radio.

NOWAR DIAB is a student at Al-Azhar University.

To Be Displaced in a UN Relief and Works Agency School

Gaza is experiencing severe shortages of water, flour, electricity, fuel and medicine, as a result of Israel’s complete blockade on the Strip. The aid that has finally been permitted to enter — after several bombings of the Rafah crossing — covers practically nothing of what the population in Gaza needs to survive.

So, as a family who was forced to flee their home, escaping bombardment to seek refuge at an UNRWA school — all while experiencing these conditions — what does it look like in these schools-turned-shelters?

You have no bed to lie on at night; no pillows, no blanket. Your mattress is the classroom floor. Your blanket is the clothes you wear. Nothing warms your body when it’s cold. Your pillow is the small emergency bag you packed before you fled your home, stuffed with some clothes and important documents, such as your ID, birth certificate and passport (if you have one; it’s a luxury for Palestinians living in Gaza), as well as a few paracetamol tablets to treat headaches.

If you’re a female, you take pills to delay your period as long as possible since you have no menstrual pads, due to a shortage caused by the Israeli blockade.

You are punished, although you did not commit any crimes. You are full of rage, unable to prove your innocence in a world that sees you as a terrorist, when all you fight for is freedom.

There is no water to drink, wash clothes or shower with. You scramble to find water for your family. You might be able to fill a tank or two from the mosque nearest to the school.

To use the bathroom, you wait in line behind hundreds of people. Because there is no water, you use wet wipes to keep yourself as clean as you can. You won’t feel comfortable in the bathroom: another hundred people are waiting outside for you to leave, knocking on the door and urging you to finish.

There is a shortage of flour in Gaza, so there’s not enough bread. You purchase the one bundle allowed per family, even if it is not enough to sustain them. You wait for hours in the bread line with hundreds of other people, sweaty, irritated, and afraid of being bombed. UNRWA personnel give you white cheese daily. It is not enough, but you are grateful for the charity.

There is no electricity anywhere in Gaza, because there is no fuel and the power was unreliable to begin with, so you can’t charge your family’s phone devices, unless you are lucky to find somebody living in the neighborhood near the school whose building is powered by solar energy.

There is no internet connectivity at all in the school, so you can’t assure anyone that you are still alive, and you can’t be assured about loved ones elsewhere in Gaza. You live in constant confusion and worry.

You struggle with anxiety, irritability, boredom and quiet anger. It is very much like being imprisoned. You are punished, although you did not commit any crimes. You are full of rage, unable to prove your innocence in a world that sees you as a terrorist, when all you fight for is freedom.

Being a displaced person at a UNRWA school means you are constantly looking at the sky, praying that the place that shelters you will not be bombed, that you and your family will not be massacred. It is to constantly visualize your parents and siblings under the rubble of the school, your body torn apart, unable to help them, your soul departed.

This testimony is based on conversations that journalist and Arabic/​English translator Shahd Safi had with a family seeking refuge at her grandparents’ house in southern Gaza, after evacuating from their home to an UNRWA school. Safi’s family also evacuated their home to the south, fleeing Israeli bombs.

Orange, red, black and grey illustration showing six drones flying above a building. One is a large, unmanned plane. To the right of the drones is a kite showing the Palestinian flag. The silhouette ofa person stands in the window of the building. There are cracks in the windows next to the person.

Burial in Graves

During one of my conversations with [my friend] Bahaa, I asked him about graves and burials, given the increasing number of martyrs. He shared with me what he saw in Deir al-Balah: We started removing stones from the cemetery wall, placing them as headstones on the graves, so that we could [at least] identify those buried … there are no more stones left. There’s no longer any room to bury each person in an individual grave. That’s when the mass graves started. Even the spaces between graves — horizontal and vertical — are now used to bury the dead. When we enter the cemetery to bury our martyrs, people are often standing on other graves.”

AYHAM AL-SAHLI is a Palestinian journalist from the city of Haifa. He was born in the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, Syria, and currently lives in Beirut.

Drones Above Gaza

Always, always, there is the buzzing.

The incessant whine of drones hovers over Gaza skies 24 hours a day, every day.

Drones are not new to Gazans. They have been routinely used by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], or as I call them, the IOF — Israel Occupation Forces — to monitor everyday life here for many years. I had become almost accustomed to their irritating sound, like a mosquito in my ear. But that was before.

Since Israel imposed the lockdown after October 7, drones have proliferated in deadly swarms over our heads. Now they sound more like buzzsaws or motorcycles. The constant noise causes headaches, irritability and insomnia, and can actually drive one mad.

During the day, the drones look like two black or brown triangles wandering the sky together. Sometimes they appear very small, but even these tiny distant triangles can end your life in seconds. Unlike warplanes that loudly announce themselves, when a drone strikes, you don’t know it’s coming. Suddenly something — it could be you — explodes. Sometimes they look like slow-flying birds. You wish they were birds. Even the most dangerous birds are more merciful.

“The drones and warplanes are beautiful at night, sparkling and shining like stars and sometimes lit up orange, but what they do is very ugly,” says cousin Mohammed. ​“I hope they don’t kill me.”

We recently confirmed that highly sophisticated U.S. drones, operated by U.S. military personnel, now circle over Gaza. The United States claims they are unarmed, meant to locate hostages and prevent further escalation between Israel and Hamas. But for Palestinians here, it feels like these drones are protecting Israel as it continues the genocide of our people.

Whenever I hear a drone getting close, I just feel so scared,” says my beloved mother. My heart starts beating rapidly and my body feels cold. I wonder who it will shoot. I’m always terrified it’s one of my children or relatives.”

I remember I couldn’t study many times due to the buzzing of drones,” adds my cousin, Hala. It provokes me a lot, especially during the night. I hope one day they leave our sky.”

Somehow, I manage to handle the noise,” cousin Nada injects. When I traveled to Egypt as a child, the first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t hearing the noisy drones. Now that I’m older, I’m OK with the noise and their presence; I got used to it. What I am not OK with is the killing, the bombing.”

The drones and warplanes are beautiful at night, sparkling and shining like stars and sometimes lit up orange, but what they do is very ugly,” says cousin Mohammed. I hope they don’t kill me.”

How contradictory is our planet’s sky! It hosts such beautiful birds and passenger planes to take us around the world, but it’s also the stage for the world’s deadliest weapons. I wonder, is Venus’ sky more merciful? Where, under this perilous sky, can Palestinians go?

SHAHD SAFI is an Arabic/​English translator and teacher, freelance journalist, social media coordinator and human rights advocate based in Gaza.

Some letters have been edited for length.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

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Sherell Barbee is the print editor at In These Times where she also curates the culture section. With a background in literary editing, she previously worked for the Missouri Review, Pleiades Magazine, 826 Boston and Speilburg Literary Agency, and was a 2021 residence fellow at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. She is based in Chicago.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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