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Palestinian women walk by buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Nuseirat camp in the central Gaza Strip, October 16, 2023.
Palestinian women walk by buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Nuseirat camp in the central Gaza Strip, October 16, 2023. © 2023 Hatem Moussa/AP Photo
My family evacuated Gaza City, but then my sister's home was destroyed in Israeli airstrikes. With each passing day, I wonder what it is I'll go back to when I'm allowed to return home.

I was born, raised and live in Gaza. I recently managed to obtain a nearly impossible-to-get permit from the Israeli authorities and left Gaza to attend meetings for my work. I was to return on Oct. 11. That never happened.

Watching the carnage from outside Gaza has been the hardest experience of my life. I cannot sleep and spend entire days with a throbbing headache, and I am not entirely sure how I am functioning. I spend my nights awake, alone in a room, holding on only to my family’s reassuring messages: “We are still alive.” 

More than 9,500 people in Gaza, many of them civilians and children, have reportedly been killed amid Israel’s incessant bombing that followed the deadly Hamas assault in which over 1,400 people, many of them civilians and children, were killed and more than 240 were taken hostages.

I was in a hotel room in Jordan on Oct. 7, waiting for Israeli authorities to approve my travel home when the nightmare started. Watching this unfold from afar breaks my heart. Civilians and children should always be protected. 

I feel helpless now, as I watch Israeli forces drop thousands of bombs on a tiny, 140-square-mile strip of land that’s home to more than 2 million people. I know there is nowhere to escape; there are no shelters or safe places. Residential buildings, mosques, large sections of refugee camps, schools used for emergency shelters and entire city blocks have been reduced to rubble.

On Oct. 13, Israel issued an impossible-to-implement order for more than a million people to flee the northern Gaza Strip.

My sister's home has been destroyed, my family split up

My family members, who live in Gaza City, had nowhere to go in the south, so they desperately packed up the few belongings they could carry and fled to the center of Gaza but still within the evacuation zone, where my sisters live.

On Oct. 19, my 79-year-old father, 71-year-old mother, siblings, nephews and nieces evacuated my sister’s house, as Israeli forces pounded the area. After wandering the streets for hours amid relentless bombardment, they found my sister’s home had been destroyed.

My family has now split among relatives in a different area in the central part of the Gaza Strip. I wish they could be all together, but I take a little comfort knowing that I at least won’t lose all of them in an instant like so many other families have been wiped out. 

Every day that passes, I feel the list of my contacts in my phone is shrinking with journalists and people I know killed. How many more of my colleagues and neighbors am I going to lose?  

I called a friend of mine the other day who has a physical disability, who has been sheltering at an overcrowded United Nations Relief and Works Agency school, within the evacuation zone. Over a lot of background noise, she told me, “I lost my wheelchair. If we are ordered to evacuate, I will not be able to run like everyone. I am so terrified.”

What will happen to them in a ground invasion?  

I speak to my family every morning, every night and in between because I want to know they are still alive. My sister has asked me not to worry if I don’t hear back from them, because they may not have anywhere to charge their phone since Israel has cut electricity to Gaza.

I couldn’t help but worry, though, when Gaza experienced a telecommunications blackout Oct. 27-28 that cut virtually all of Gaza’s population off from one another, emergency services and the outside world. I texted every single member of my family, but without luck. Hearing their voices again on Oct. 29 brought tears of relief.

Our suffering in Gaza didn't just begin with Israeli response to Oct. 7

As difficult as these recent days have been, our suffering did not begin with the Israeli response last month. For more than 15 years, Israeli authorities have imposed sweeping restrictions on the movement of people and goods, which, alongside Egyptian restrictions, have turned Gaza into an open-air prison.

In 2021, my organization, Human Rights Watch, determined that it was part of Israeli authorities’ crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. The closure includes a generalized ban on travel, outside of narrow exemptions, blocking Palestinian students, professionals, artists, athletes and others from leaving.

Even those who fall within the narrow exemptions to the closure, such as those in need of lifesaving medical care, face restrictions. The majority of people under 30 have never left Gaza. In fact, the first time I traveled out of Gaza five years ago, I was 31.

I have survived several prior escalations and then interviewed scores of victims. Parents who have lost children. People with disabilities who have struggled to flee attacks.

What I’ve learned from my own experience and experiences of those I have interviewed is that the mental health harm we have experienced never ends. The sound of explosions and the feelings of death around me are memories that will never leave me.

Israel’s cutting of electricity, water, food, internet and fuel to Gaza has brought essential health, water and sanitation services to the brink of collapse. The area’s water pumping wells are forced out of service due to the electricity blackout. With virtually no water entering Gaza, many residents have to rely on groundwater, which is overwhelmingly unfit for human consumption.

While trucks of aid have been allowed in through the Rafah crossing with Egypt in recent days, it is woefully insufficient to meet the needs of Gaza’s population.

A friend of mine texted me to say that her family has run out of food, and that she used the last money she had to buy water for her children. 

I keep waiting for this nightmare to end and to be able to return home. But with each passing day, I wonder what it is I’ll return to – whether the Gaza I know will still be there. The world needs to act before it’s too late.

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