No Exit

Five Young Palestinians on What It’s Like to Live and Die in Gaza

As Gaza reels from a strike that killed four children, young Palestinians talk about growing up under a constant rain of bombs.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters

If someone asked you “What are your hopes for the future?,” I bet you would offer a fairly standard list, ranging from the practical to the lofty.

But when I put that question to Yousef Abdelraheem Nateel, a 26-year-old Palestinian living in the Al-Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza, his response wasn’t very standard at all: “To survive the coming bombing raid.”

Nateel is one of five young Palestinians living in Gaza that I interviewed via email over the past few days. These five, who range from 16 to 26 years old, have no connection to Hamas and, for the most part, are not involved in politics. They’re like so many of the other 1.8 million Palestinians crammed into the densely populated Gaza Strip and who now find themselves caught in the cross fire of another battle between Hamas and the Israeli military.

The story of these five is truly not political. But who am I kidding? Nothing involving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could ever be apolitical. Emotions run feverishly high on both sides, as can be seen daily on social media. But there, the only missiles being launched are of the 140-character variety on Twitter that, at worst, will cause anger. In the Middle East, the danger is much more real and lethal. Hamas has unleashed missile attacks on a daily basis that has left one Israeli dead and caused scattered property damage.

In Gaza, meanwhile, the Israeli military bombs targets on average every five minutes. Consequently, nearly 200 Palestinian have been killed, 80 percent of whom are civilians. These civilian deaths include eight Palestinians watching the World Cup in a beachside cafe that was bombed because the Israeli military claimed that one person in the venue was an alleged terrorist. Just yesterday, four Palestinians reportedly under the age of 15 were killed while playing on the beach by the Israeli military. On top of that, 869 Palestinian homes have been destroyed, transforming thousands of people from homeowners to refugees in the blink of a blast.

A day in the life of a typical Palestinian in Gaza quickly alternates between moments of sheer terror and abject boredom. All five I interviewed pass their time the same way: sitting in their house. Their days are most aptly described as: wait for the bombs to fall, hope they don’t hit you, repeat.

Despite being homebound, a few have become self-appointed war correspondents. Mariam Alaa Abuamer, a 21-year-old residing in the northwest portion of the Gaza Strip, lives on the 10th floor of an apartment building that offers a clear vantage point of the Israeli military campaign. Mariam photographs the Israeli bombs, posting them on Facebook and Twitter. But, she explained, “Sometimes I simply can’t photograph all the explosions when there are 10 at the same time in different areas.”

And 16-year-old Farah Fasil Baker told me, “I tweet everything about the situation on Twitter. And I also record the sounds of shelling and upload it on Internet.” Obviously, far different from what most 16-year-olds spend their time doing. But in Gaza, you grow up quickly, which is far better than the fate for some there of not growing up at all.

Indeed, four of the five knew a person who had been killed or injured in the current fight. Seba Majed Jaafarawy, a 23-year-old living in Gaza City, explained how a friend died of smoke inhalation after an Israeli missile struck a nearby building. Baker said that a young friend and his father were “injured from shrapnel while they were sitting in the street, and warplanes targeted a car near them.”

They also related the impact that this war is having on young children. Mariam noted that the kids of Gaza “can't be normal human beings after those hard days… they pee on themselves, they can't sleep at night, they sleep next to their parents so they can sort of feel safe.”

She also told me something that I initially found surprising. Her younger brother is actually most terrified when it’s calm and the bombs aren’t raining down. You see, the real terror isn’t from the bombs that have already exploded, it’s from the fear caused by the bombs that have yet to reach its target.

And then Mariam, in a display of raw candor, admitted that fear wasn’t just for the young: “Let me tell you a secret, I myself feel the same, I keep pretending I'm not afraid, but deep inside, I am. Adults feel the same.” Fear knows no age boundaries.

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Will there be peace? Unfortunately, none were optimistic. “We can’t trust the Israeli government anymore,” said Mariam—a sentiment that I have heard from many Palestinians. (And I’m sure many Israelis feel the same about Hamas.)

The future for these five young people, the other Palestinians, and the people of Israel are all intertwined. They are bound together like Siamese twins who keep fighting each other, not knowing or simply ignoring that with each blow, they are hurting the prospects that either will survive.

I won’t even offer some trite solution to ending this conflict. It’s far too complex. But I do see two obvious steps. Hamas has to renounce the use of terrorism and the targeting of civilians. And Israel’s conservative Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu needs to realize that when the region’s most lethal and sophisticated military drops bombs in Gaza, the civilians they kill are not acceptable “collateral damage,” but rather human beings whose family members then likely become sworn enemies.

Until that day comes, it would be cruel to even dream of peace.