I have been living in Washington, D.C., for eight years now. But I still keep my phone plugged in all the time. I have multiple water bottles at my bedside table every night and rarely need much light to navigate the house. A lifetime under collective punishment in Gaza, with only four to six hours of power daily, has programmed me not to take electricity, water, food or anything else for granted.
Ice cream has always given me joy, and while it is easily accessible in the U.S., it remains carved in my memory that, for many summers of my life, my favorite brands were forbidden. Israel, which controls almost every point of entry into the Gaza Strip as well as the coast and the airspace, decided to punish 2.3 million people in the Gaza Strip and ban multiple food items in the summer of 2005, and it so happens that my favorite ice cream brand was on that list. Perhaps Israel thought it could be used to make rockets, but no reason was given.
Under international law, Israel was, and still is, an occupying power, and, as such, it has a responsibility to protect the civilian population in the territories it occupies. Israel didn’t seem interested in protecting the civilians, but all I knew was I couldn’t have ice cream.
Growing up in Gaza, civilians have always borne the brunt of the occupation and hostilities. But this time, it’s different. Airstrikes have been pounding the 25-mile Gaza Strip for two weeks now, leveling schools, houses, mosques and churches. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this, but it has definitely been one of the worst times I can remember, especially now that I am far away in my comfortable home in Washington.
Ten days ago, on a terrifying call with my aunt in Gaza. She said, “I’m scared. The kids are frightened. Will we survive this?” Her shaking voice was interrupted by loud explosions in the background. I answered, “Yes, you will, and I’ll be there in a couple of days.”
In the past, I could comfort them amid the bombings and power outages. This time, I was helpless and unable to reach home. Going to Gaza is never as easy as going to, say, Tel Aviv, even when conditions are relatively peaceful. Sadly, my plans to go to them had to be abandoned as the border crossings were closed and subjected to bombing. I haven’t heard from them since.
Is it a power outage? Is it spotty internet? Are they still alive? I don’t know. The pain of living in this state of horror and uncertainty extends to every aspect of life and work — magnified in my role as a journalist.
During the past two weeks, I’ve lost 18 colleagues. Two others have thankfully survived the airstrikes on their homes but have lost their entire families. They’ve become orphaned and homeless at the same time, and yet, they are still doing their duty to tell Gaza’s story. If they aren’t heroes, then heroes don’t exist.
Many argue about the particulars of this war. One only needs to browse Instagram or Twitter to find extensive and passionate disagreements about the history, the violence, the religion, who belongs where, and who was there first. I would go out on a limb and say none of that matters right now.
These are not two sovereign nations fighting each other. One side is a modern nuclear power with a thriving economy, freedom of movement, autonomy, rights guaranteed by law, a modern military and countless allies around the world. The other side has a population of 2.3 million who have been living in internationally enforced poverty in an open-air prison for much of the past 75 years. Its people have no freedom of movement, no rights, no autonomy, no military to protect them, no real allies, unreliable water, and insufficient electricity and food.
And yes, sometimes, they don’t even get ice cream.
Eman Mohammed is a Palestinian-American photojournalist and senior TED fellow based in Washington, D.C.