Palestinian Americans in Washington on edge watching Gaza news

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OCTOBER 14, 2023

In their waking hours they watch the news or check their phones, hoping for a text message or maybe a brief call. They want some indication that family members or friends are okay. That they have food and water. That they are alive.

For many of the Washington region’s Palestinians and Palestinian Americans, including artists, activists, business owners and educators who have made the area their home, the days following the horrific assault by Hamas militants on Israel last weekend have been filled with worry. They knew there would be retribution for the rocket attacks and bloody incursion that included hostage-taking and claimed the lives of more than 1,300 people in Israel, including many civilians.

“I immediately realized the retaliation is going to be unimaginable, given the wars I’ve lived through,” said Ahmed Mansour, 30, a documentary filmmaker in Silver Spring, Md., who grew up in Gaza and left there in 2015. He said he speaks daily with his parents and eight siblings, who live in the central area of the Gaza Strip. Although they have avoided the worst of the bombardment by Israeli forces, other family members have not escaped. Mansour said that two of his uncles’ homes have been bombed and that one of his cousins was killed.

On Friday, Israel ordered more than 1 million residents of the narrow and densely populated Gaza Strip to move out of its northern region in anticipation of a ground offensive by the Israeli military to remove Hamas from power. The United Nations called for the evacuation order to be rescinded, saying the mass displacement “could transform what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said at a news briefing Friday that the Israeli military was operating in compliance with international law. “We are at war. We are defending our homes. We are protecting our homes,” he said.

Israeli military strikes in Gaza have killed more than 1,800 people, roughly half of them women and children, and 7,300 others have been wounded, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.

Mansour said in an interview Friday that he is worried about his family members and that he also is concerned about how the news media are covering the situation in Gaza, saying they fail to convey in their reporting why anger in Gaza continues to fester and boil over. He also criticized U.S. leaders for not pushing urgently for a peaceful solution.

“For 15 years, the Gaza Strip has been under siege and endured five wars,” he said, referring to Israel’s tight security cordon around Gaza. “For 75 years, Palestinians have been enduring one catastrophe after another. … If we’re serious about what’s really happening, I expected American officials would be more considerate about what’s happening and take it as a chance to really solve it rather than calling for an escalation.”

Asked about the images of the attack by Hamas in Israel that set off the latest chain of events, Mansour said, “Anyone who supports the killing of innocent people is not in touch with their humanity. It’s unacceptable.”

Hanna Alshaikh and her husband, who live in the Washington suburbs, have been in contact every few hours with his parents and family members in Gaza. On Thursday they learned that Hanna’s husband’s 88-year-old grandmother was injured when a neighboring home was bombed and glass in her windows shattered. Everyone they know in Gaza knows someone who has been killed or injured or whose home has been destroyed, said Alshaikh, 30, a Palestinian American who is pursuing a doctorate in history at Harvard University.

“We oscillate between feelings of grief and despair and feelings that time is of the essence and is precious,” she said. “And we do not have the luxury of experiencing our own fear and experiencing our own sadness.”

While her husband’s family does not live in the area that has been ordered evacuated, she said, “they do not feel that anywhere is safe in Gaza. They are packed and ready to leave at any moment.”

Alshaikh also worries that Palestinian Americans may become targets of hate crimes in the United States, especially if they speak out against the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Asked about the Hamas raid into Israel last weekend, she said, “Nobody wants to see civilians harmed.”

A display at the Museum of the Palestinian People, in Northwest Washington.

On Thursday at the Museum of the Palestinian People, a two-room gallery near Dupont Circle in D.C., the museum’s founder and president, Bshara Nassar, pointed to photographs, paintings, pottery and glassware that he said helped tell a humanizing story of Palestinians and their culture.

Nassar grew up on a farm in Bethlehem in the West Bank where his family grows grapes, olives, almonds and figs. He said he does not have relatives in Gaza but worries about a war that could spread to include the West Bank, a patchwork of areas effectively under Israeli control and others governed by the Palestinian Authority, a longtime rival to Hamas, which is dominant in Gaza. As he has watched events unfold, he can only think, he said, that “violence is not the answer.”

“We want solutions that guarantee peace and security for us and the Israelis and at the same time equal rights and freedom for Palestinians,” Nassar said.

As the bombings and artillery strikes in Gaza intensified this week, Nassar said he was “horrified” by the situation. On social media feeds and video sent by friends in Gaza, he has witnessed “destruction, total destruction.”

Nassar said he has received text messages from several Jewish friends in the United States asking whether he is okay. On Friday, he heard from a rabbi he had befriended who texted to check on him. The opportunity for similar friendships does not exist where he grew up, he said.

Chris Habiby, who lives just outside D.C. and whose parents are Palestinian, said he has been checking on cousins who live in Gaza and have been moving from house to house to stay safe. His family has been able to reach them twice this week.

“They’re terrified,” said Habiby, the director of national government affairs and advocacy at the D.C.-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “And from our side, because it’s so hard to get in touch with them, we’re sitting here uncertain about whether they’re still alive.”

Habiby said he is fearful about what will come next. “You’re going to see thousands of Palestinians in Gaza dead,” he said. “That’s what going to happen.”

Asked whether he had any optimism about a solution, Habiby sighed.

“We’re Palestinians. We always have hope. Otherwise what else is there?” he said. “But I think we’re going to be dealing with the aftereffects of this for a long time.”


Courtesy: Washington Post