As a teen who lived under Israel’s military occupation during his formative years, Aref Ramadan described his move from Gaza to Maryland in 1983 as lonely yet necessary.
Four decades later, the tensions between Israel and Palestinians have boiled over after gunmen from Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza but that many countries consider a terrorist organization, massacred 1,300 people in southern Israel last weekend. The victims ranged from military personnel to concert-goers and families in their cars and homes.
Israel has responded with airstrikes on the sealed-off Gaza Strip, and Ramadan said that at least 20 members of his family are among the roughly 1,800 Palestinians that the Palestinian Health Ministry says had been killed as of Friday. Israel has ordered 1.1 million people to evacuate to the southern part of the narrow seaside strip. And Ramadan, one of 16 siblings, said the weeklong war has left his family scattered across its largest refugee camp, the Jabalia camp.
“There is no safety in Gaza. I feel defenseless knowing something might happen and I have no power to stop it — there is nothing I can do to help,” said Ramadan, a founder of the Palestinian Community of Metro DC.
Ramadan spoke from his Germantown home as he received images and updates via Facebook Messenger about deceased relatives and the state of his homeland. As of Thursday, he had no idea how many more were in immediate danger.
He pointed to a photo that he said showed Israel had used white phosphorus, a chemical that causes severe burns and can have long-term health effects, during its bombing campaign. The Israel Defense Forces said they are “currently not aware of the use of weapons containing white phosphorus in Gaza,” The Washington Post reported.
Communication between Ramadan and his family was more frequent before Israeli airstrikes and a blockade of the 25-mile-long seaside strip prevented deliveries of food, water and fuel, leaving civilians with little to no resources. Aid groups have warned of a humanitarian disaster.
Zainab Chaudry, the director of Maryland’s office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, concurred. She said the 2.3 million people living in Gaza, many of whom live in poverty, have been facing a humanitarian crisis since Israel recently prevented the delivery of supplies from Egypt to Gaza.
“We want to draw attention to the unjust oppression of Palestinians, not just for the last 72 hours but for the last 72 years,” she said at a news conference Wednesday. “So let me be clear, innocent life everywhere always deserves to be protected. We mourn for those who have been unjustly killed and who are suffering.”
Tensions have been simmering for years. Hamas’ original charter in 1988 declared “no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.” A revised charter in 2017 maintained “inalienable rights” to a sovereign Palestinian state. Israel has had a 16-year blockade on Gaza since Hamas won legislative elections and took control of the area in 2006, a year after Israel withdrew its troops and settlements from the strip. Amnesty International last year blamed Israel for what it called a system of “apartheid” there.
As those with relatives in Gaza have worried about the fate of loved ones or mourned their loss, members of the shaken Jewish community here grieve the loss of those killed in Hamas’ horrific surprise attacks on civilians and military personnel in southern Israel. Tuesday, hundreds of Jewish Marylanders gathered in Baltimore County for a vigil to remember the victims, including 27 Americans.
“Just like the 9/11 [terror attacks] shaped the world, this is going to shape the Jewish part of who we are,” Baltimore County resident and former Baltimore Jewish Times senior editor Neil Rubin said this week.
The Israel-Gaza war, which has claimed at least 3,100 lives on both sides, is expected to escalate. Complicating matters is that Hamas took some 150 hostages, including older people and children, during its incursion.
President Joe Biden on Friday spoke with family members of 14 Americans who remained unaccounted for, The New York Times reported. U.S officials said they were working with Israel and Egypt to secure safe passage for American citizens, including Palestinian Americans, out of Gaza.
Meanwhile, Israel ordered some 1.1 million people in northern Gaza to evacuate to the south as Israel appeared to be preparing a ground offensive. Hamas told people to ignore the evacuation order, and families in Gaza faced what they feared was a no-win decision to leave or stay, with no safe ground anywhere. Hospital staff said they couldn’t abandon patients.
More than half of the Palestinians in Gaza are the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from what is now Israel after a coalition of Arab forces invaded in response to the Jewish state declaring independence.
“Evacuate to where?” asked Imam Farhan Siddiqi of Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in northern Virginia, during an impassioned sermon on the plight of Palestinians living under Israel’s bombardment. “Where do you want them to go? … You control all the exits, and you are telling them to leave?”
In Baltimore, some 200 protesters took to the streets Friday night in support of Palestine, which is recognized as an independent state by dozens of countries but not the U.S., in a march organized by People’s Power Assembly. They marched from the intersection of Howard Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard to Penn Station, with signs pushing for an end to Israel’s occupation and urging the federal government to stop funding what they called war crimes. They chanted “from the land to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
Biden has said the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is one of his top priorities, noting “the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas and those appalling attacks and they’re suffering as well,” The Times reported. But he has also stressed that the United States stands with Israel, and he has sent warships and aircraft to the region, in addition to expediting the shipment of munitions and interceptors, according to The Associated Press.
The president has called the actions of Hamas “sheer evil” and said it calls to mind “the worst rampages of ISIS.”
“But sadly, for the Jewish people, it’s not new,” Biden said this week.
Chaudry questioned whether the U.S. should continue financial and military support for the Israeli government, which has maintained strict control over Gaza’s borders.
“Peace requires hard conversations about justice,” Chaudry said. “The roots of this violence are the illegal occupation of Palestine and the brutal siege of the largest open-air prison in the world, which is known as Gaza, [and] grave human rights violations that are funded by billions of our own tax dollars.”
Hasan Hammad, the president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, echoed Chaudry’s sentiment, noting that Palestinians are being denied access to basic necessities.
“Meanwhile, in Gaza right now, there are people that are suffering and have been for years and years and years,” Hammad said. “And worse than that is the fact that the initial response to hearing that this is happening — even worse now because of bombardment and occupation that’s already been in place — is that we’re sending aid to continue that occupation to make it worse.”
Born to Gazan parents in Kuwait, Laila El-Haddad spent her childhood in the Middle East before attending college in the U.S. in the 1990s. She returned to Gaza in 2003, working many years as a journalist.
According to El-Haddad, the Israel-Hamas war is not totally “surprising.” She said that, even when Israeli forces dismantled their settlements in Gaza in 2005 and relocated to the West Bank, their restructured occupation of Gaza was maintained “even more stringently than before.” Israel, aided by its Egyptian allies, controlled access to Gaza’s airspace, as well as its maritime entryway, economy, population registry and taxation system, she said.
“The Israelis wouldn’t have dismantled those settlements had it not been for continued Palestinian resistance against them for their land, for their freedom,” El-Haddad said. “But,” she added, Israel was strategic in imposing a policy that she said enforced its apartheid and left the Palestinians a “landless people.”
Now a resident of Howard County, El-Haddad said the “more difficult, more painful part of all this” is knowing the U.S. government is “complicit with Israel’s declarations of war.”
The U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, has said the U.S. backs Israel’s right to defend itself, but added that he and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have discussed ways to provide safe passage for civilians, The Times reported. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin went further Friday, stating, “Terrorists like Hamas deliberately target civilians. But democracies don’t. This is a time for resolve and not revenge.”
In Maryland, El-Haddad said she is concerned about her daughters, two of whom attend an Islamic school and one of whom attends a public school. The other day, she said, some students showed up to the public school wearing Israeli Army sweatshirts. Her daughter wears a hijab. The school subsequently banned the hoodies.
Maryland CAIR has called on administrators and officials within all educational institutions to take swift measures to promote student safety and take appropriate corrective action as necessary to discourage such incidents, according to a statement released Wednesday.
“There’s no way to identify you as Palestinian. Even if you are Muslim or you’re brown or whatever, you’re being targeted,” she said. “I will encourage my girls to always advocate for themselves.”
The Associated Press and Kaitlin Newman contributed to this article.