Tuesday, April 16, 2024

What Aida of Khan Younis can teach us about courage | Israel War on Gaza

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In the days leading up to Ramadan, we heard the hopeful word “ceasefire”. The US president uttered it, and the media repeated it. For a short moment, the lives of Palestinians in Gaza hung in the balance, caught between the possibility of a truce for the holy month and Israel’s relentless drive to eliminate my people from the face of the Earth.

International Women’s Day came and went; women in Canada, where I physically live, celebrated; women in Gaza, where my heart is, faced another day struggling to help their families survive. Still, no sign of a ceasefire.

In the evening, on the TV – which we have not turned off in our house since October 7 – we heard breaking news: the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) had targeted the area around al-Masri Tower in Rafah.

Al-Masri is one of the oldest residential blocks in Rafah. It used to house dozens of families, but many more were sheltering there since the war began. My Uncle Fathi and his extended family were among them. I screamed in disbelief.

Seeing my anguish, my youngest son Aziz whispered, trying to console me. “Mom, at least the tower is not struck directly like the homes of Uncle Nayif or Uncle Harb. Uncle Fathi is lucky. Thank Allah.” This is the new marker of luck in Gaza: not dying, managing to escape an Israeli attack that renders you homeless. The weight of loss and uncertainty loomed heavy while I waited to hear about my relatives’ fate.

Uncle Fathi, his wife, his adult children and their families, his brothers and their families, nephews and nieces and other members of the extended family, had fled to Rafah after the Israeli army invaded Khan Younis. Uncle Fathi worked for many years in Saudi Arabia before returning to Gaza to work as a teacher with the United Nations in Khan Younis refugee camp. The whole family are highly educated professionals who lived in a beautiful home in Khan Younis, which was destroyed in December by an Israeli air strike.

Shortly after, Uncle Fathi posted to Facebook showing a before and after image of their house. He wrote, “This is our beloved home, that has vanished. The fruit of hard work and toil for 40 years was destroyed and annihilated by the occupation army who claim to be moral. I wonder what my home did to them … Did it fight them? … This is the collective punishment of humans, of stones, and all forms of life… Allah is sufficient for us, and the best disposer of affairs.”

The residential building in Khan Younis where the author’s uncle used to live is seen here before and after an Israeli airstrike destroyed it [Courtesy of Ghada Ageel]

My cousin Ahmad, Uncle Fathi’s son, had gone back to see what was left of their home. That is when he learned that some neighbours – relatives of my husband – had stayed behind to care for elderly and disabled people who could not be moved. They had all sheltered in the diwan (the family hall for social gatherings) of one house. Then the bombs struck and killed 18 of them.

Ahmad recounted the horror, his words searing into my soul. He told me how he collected the body parts of my husband’s family – old people, children, and women – scattered everywhere. He did what he could for the dead, then he had to think of the living. He went through the rubble of his family home, looking for children’s toys and clothes to take to their new shelter in al-Masri Tower.

As the attack on al-Masri Tower unfolded, I stayed glued to the TV, praying that my relatives had survived. I was worried that even if they had, my uncle with his heart problems and high blood pressure, would be at risk. Ahmad had expressed deep fear for his father’s health the last time we had spoken. A few hours later, it was confirmed that the tower had been hit. People documented it with their cell phone cameras. I tried to sleep.

The first thing I saw upon opening my eyes the next morning was a video clip recorded by a young man showing the raw emotions, the chaos and the uncertainty on the faces of the young and the old amid the darkness; the heartbreaking cries of little children could be heard in the background. “It’s 3am, and I’m still in the street with my family. The tower was hit with five rockets. We don’t know where to go, but thank God, we are alive,” he said.

Then a message came from my cousin Mohammed, Uncle Fathi’s other son, a professor in Oman, saying, “Ghada, my dad and the families left the building 30 minutes before it got hit. My father is okay.” Relief flooded over me.

The weekend moved on from Uncle Fathi and his family’s fate to new horrors unfolding as Ramadan drew closer. I was involved in a constant stream of phone calls and text messages with family members in Canada and the Middle East. We sought news to reassure ourselves that one family member or another had survived some terrible suffering.

My Aunt Aziza’s trembling voice over the phone from the United Arab Emirates relayed the harrowing news of the arrest of several of our relatives by the IOF in Hamad town, Khan Younis. They had returned to their abandoned home to retrieve some items, thinking the Israeli military had withdrawn from the area.

But IOF soldiers showed up and surrounded them. Part of the large group were three of my cousins. They, along with all other men, were stripped to their underwear, their dignity torn apart in an act of unfathomable humiliation before their families. They were subjected to interrogation and cruel beatings before being taken to an unknown place.

The agony of witnessing such horror proved too much for one of my relatives. Jamal, the nine-year-old disabled son of one of my cousins, Shaima, suffered convulsive seizures. The Israeli soldiers, not knowing what to do with her and her ill and hungry child, released them after several hours of being held in the street.

She was ordered to run away without looking back. Terrified of being shot if she turned her head to see the fate of the others, she immediately left with her son in her arms, looking only ahead. She walked, carrying her son all the way from Hamad to al-Mawasi and crying over the horror she had just witnessed, not knowing how she would deliver the devastating news to our family.

This news shattered my heart. Would we ever see our cousins again? Would they be released, or would they suffer the same fate as the many Gaza men taken hostage by the IOF, then either shot dead or imprisoned in torture centres? I could not sleep.

The next day I spent time on Facebook searching for news about my family. The crescent moon was anticipated that night to usher in the holy month. I wondered about those of us who chose to fast and those who were enduring forced starvation in Gaza.

Palestinian members of Al-Khlout family break their fast on the rubble of their house which was destroyed during Israel's military offensive, during the holy month of Ramadan, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, March 13, 2024. REUTERS/Mahmoud Issa
A family break their Ramadan fast on the rubble of their house which was destroyed by the Israeli army in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip on March 13, 2024 [Reuters/Mahmoud Issa]

Then I saw a post by my uncle Hany, about his experience returning to check on his home in Khan Younis refugee camp, after evacuating on Christmas Eve. He wrote:

“I went home. There was severe destruction in the place. In front of me is a rectangular building that I know, which sustained minor damage. I was able to determine the coordinates of my house. Someone shouted from among the mountains of rubble, ‘Don’t take this rugged path, take that path,’ and he pointed with his hand. I arrived with difficulty, the place was filled with rubble. A shell cut off the neck of my only palm tree … Even my tree has a place in my heart. I searched for Abu Khudair, my cat, but I could not find him. Someone told me that he had seen the cat and that he was alive. I didn’t stay long. I didn’t come to mourn stones. I left from the other side of the camp. I turned around when a girl shouted, ‘Thank Allah for your safety.’ It was [our neighbour] Aida! I shouted in surprise, ‘What has brought you here, you crazy girl?’ She said, ‘I did not leave at all. I stayed with my father.’ Aida had little luck in life. She had little education and came from a poor family and her father had lost his movement and his memory. ‘How could I leave him? Either we live together or we die together’ she said.”

His post continued:

“How was Aida able to take care of her father for all this time while death hovered over their heads for weeks? That girl is the greatest, bravest, smartest and most pious … Aida is an icon. I said to myself as I controlled my steps to balance on the hills of rubble: Who among us could measure up to Aida’s strength? No one. She is a martyr living on Earth.”

Across the Gaza Strip, as the Ramadan moon came into view, people would greet each other with the words “Ramadan Kareem” which means “Ramadan is generous”. Others would respond “Allah Akram” which means “Allah is the most generous”.

Indeed, Allah is the most generous and Aida’s lived experience is one more proof of it.

Aida stands in stark contrast to those who have chosen to ignore the genocide. She is a beacon of courage and hope in the darkest moments. Her very presence among us exposes the barbarity of global politics and the cowardice of political leaders who choose to tolerate genocide and refuse to stop it. Who among them could ever rise to Aida’s level? Thank Allah she has lived to see another day.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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