“I don’t know what to do.” This is how I ended my message to a WhatsApp group of fellow Palestinian Americans from Gaza a few days ago. I had just learned that my eldest brother, Shaaban, was killed in Israel’s assault on Gaza.
Shaaban had already fled twice in the space of three days. On Oct. 12, his apartment building was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City. He and his family fled to my brothers’ home in a different neighborhood in the city. The following day, the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning 1.1 million residents of the northern half of Gaza, including Gaza City, to evacuate to the south. Shaaban and my other brothers sought shelter at a friend’s house in the southern half of Gaza.
Fleeing from violence is part of my family’s history and the history of most Palestinians in Gaza. Approximately 70% of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, forced from their homes in what is now southern Israel during the mass expulsion of Palestinians that took place during the establishment of Israel in 1948. Palestinians in Gaza have also endured a brutal military occupation for more than 55 years.
They’ve also suffered under a suffocating Israeli siege and naval blockade for the past 16 years that imprisons them, preventing them from traveling for study, to receive medical care, or visit family. The siege has devastated Gaza’s economy, leading to massive unemployment and poverty and lack of electricity and critical health care infrastructure.
My brother Raed called me to break the news: Shaaban was dead. Shaaban and Raed had walked outside the house to have a cigarette. Raed stepped back inside to get something when an Israeli missile struck the neighboring building. Shrapnel critically wounded Shaaban. My brothers rushed Shaaban to the hospital, but the emergency room was understaffed and overwhelmed with the number of wounded.
Even without massive bombardment, Gaza’s medical system was on the brink of collapse due to Israel’s siege, which the UN and human rights organizations have condemned as illegal. On Oct. 10, Israel tightened the siege even further, preventing electricity, food, potable water, fuel and medical supplies from entering. During times of crisis, it’s a wonder Gaza’s hospitals function at all.
By the time a doctor could attend to my brother, it was too late.
My brother exerted an enormous influence over my life. He was tough on his younger siblings — he wanted to ensure each of us succeeded — but I watched how he spoiled our parents, buying them special gifts as though they were small children. Strict as he was with his siblings, he could also show us that generous side. I’ll always remember when I turned 17 and he let me take his car out for a spin with my friends. Shaaban was able to meet his newest grandson, who is 2 months old. But he’ll never have the chance to spoil him.
My worst fear is that the loss of Shaaban may just be the start of my family’s losses. More than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombs since Oct. 7, including more than 2,900 children. Hundreds more children and others are believed to be buried beneath rubble and presumed dead. In dozens of cases, entire families have been wiped out. What if the rest of my brothers and sisters are next?
Israel bombed the St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church, one of the oldest churches in the world, in the old city of Gaza, killing at least 16 people who were sheltering there. The church is just one mile away from where I grew up, surrounded by both Muslim and Christian neighbors.
While I don’t know what to do now, I am certain about what the Biden administration must do to avoid further death and catastrophe for Palestinians in Gaza, and throughout the region: Stop dehumanizing Palestinians and acknowledge the history and context of occupation and siege undergirding Israeli assaults that have devastated thousands of families and destroyed entire neighborhoods. Stop supporting Israel blindly, as the United States has been doing for decades. Isn’t it time for Palestinian freedom to be supported? Isn’t it time for our lives and our dreams to be valued?
I want my representatives to push for an immediate ceasefire and prevent an Israeli ground invasion, which appears to be imminent. I want my government to insist that water, electricity, fuel and food be allowed into Gaza. But more than that, I want President Joe Biden to understand: Israel cannot kill people’s desire for freedom. Sooner or later, Palestinians will be free. Our dream can’t be wiped out. We can’t be wiped out.
Adnan Alsawada is a Palestinian American from Gaza who lives in Gambrills.