By Hannah Brandt
I have adopted an arduous new summertime routine. It’s not the latest exercise regiment, a professional development class or a foray into learning another language. Every morning as soon as I wake up, I check Twitter to make sure she’s still alive. I scroll past images of bloodied, gray-skinned babies and bombed-out homes of cheerful pastel colors that resemble dollhouses in a horror movie. It’s a horrible feeling; that tightness in your chest, pit in your stomach, nervous energy impatient while filled with dread. Fingers fumbling desperately swiping and scanning that small screen for the latest update, mind racing thinking of all the possibilities, heart afraid to know the truth.
Gaza is 10 hours ahead of us here on the West Coast and the deadliest attacks on the Palestinian metropolitan area happen while we sleep. To know I’ve never met her in person, it might seem strange I’m so concerned about her, but after several days of talking to Dina, a young woman in university there, she reminds me so much of my high school students.
I’ve seen many of my kids go through horrible experiences, in a couple of instances family members shot and killed. One girl found out in the middle of my class, first thing in the morning, that her cousin was dead. Another girl revealed in a class speech the pain she had been holding in all school year about losing her brother to gun violence. As awful as it is to look into the eyes of any young person to see despair, fear and helplessness, I have always had the ability to give each of my students a reassuring hug. I will probably never be able to give Dina a hug.
What I have been able to do is be an ear to listen to the turmoil she goes through every day, whether that has been through a Skype call where we can hear each other’s voices, or a hurriedly dashed out tweet or text. “Thanks b to Allah, I am ok, yes.” Every day from July 8 through Aug. 26, Dina desperately hoped the bombing would stop and she could go back to school.
Every day, she wanted to live without fear that another loved one would be killed or maimed. Her cousin’s house was destroyed by Israeli shelling. Her uncle is now permanently disabled and homeless. His family is one of thousands internally displaced by the weeks of fighting, taking refuge in U.N. shelters, which are in fact schools, very ill-equipped to house the hundreds of thousands who have nowhere else to go. Eighty-nine other families have simply been eradicated.
U.N. shelters are also far from safe from Israeli shelling as at least seven have been hit during the conflict, killing children, elderly and disabled who the Israeli forces told to evacuate there. Like those of the students in Ferguson, Mo., schools in Gaza could not open on time for the new academic year. School gives stability and comfort to those suffering trauma, even if it is just a way to go on pretending everything is okay when it very much is not.
More than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli military forces, the vast majority of them civilians. More than 500 were children. This is shocking, and then again it is not. Approximately 1.8 million people live in Gaza and one million of them are younger than Dina. She is 18.
Amid the bombing, Dina said that life before the current military conflict was “beautiful.” Beauty is always in the eye (or memory) of the beholder. Only someone experiencing the horror of 50 days of war would look upon life under Israel’s siege of Gaza as anything other than a prison sentence. When the area is not bombarded by Israel’s military, there are severe restrictions on Palestinians.
Dina cannot leave Gaza, even to see her family 30 miles away in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and they cannot come to Gaza to see her. If Dina had been born before 1967, all this land her family calls home would still be known to the world as Palestine.
Only Gazans working for nonprofit organizations, like Dina’s sister, can go to the West Bank for work purposes and must obtain permits from Israel a month in advance. While Palestinians are angriest with Israel for its decades of occupation of their land, military attacks against their civilians every few years and its blockade that at best prevents Gaza’s economy from flourishing and at worst contributes to starvation, they also blame Egypt.
Cairo refuses to reopen the crucial Rafah crossing, the main route for supplies to Gaza. Why? In 2006, Gazans elected a Hamas government with a crude military wing since the Palestinians have no army. Just before fighting broke out, Hamas joined the West Bank Palestinian Authority in a coalition government. A year earlier, al-Sisi overthrew Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government. His regime brutally oppresses Egyptians, killing at least 800 protestors and jailing thousands. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are affiliated.
Since the Israel-Hamas ceasefire has ended the massive carnage for now, most of the world’s eyes have veered off the conflict as the Islamic State swallows up headlines. Only those closely watching Palestinians’ ongoing turmoil know that even after the ceasefire, the Israeli military shot at Palestinian fishermen fishing within the boundaries of the truce, demolished Palestinian homes and a dairy factory, and burned livelihoods in the form of Palestinian olive orchards.
Israel annexed more than 900 acres of Palestinian land in the West Bank in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens hitchhiking there and seized $55 million in Palestinian Authority assets. Israel keeps its border with Gaza closed, meaning food and medical supplies fail to get to the starving and wounded. Egypt is equally intransigent with its border.
It is never easy to interview people in faraway countries due to different time zones, unreliable connections and language barriers. Dina and I faced all these difficulties in our conversations, with the additional disadvantage that she often lacks electricity. We could only Skype once, at the height of the bombing, but before Israeli shelling took out Gaza’s only power plant. Now Dina can only communicate via Twitter on her phone until it runs out of battery. She usually only gets three hours of power a day, not always during waking hours.
She is now back in school and tentatively trying to concentrate on her studies. That includes doing homework by candlelight and going to classes in makeshift buildings because her university was bombed. Her dreams of studying medicine were shaken by the bombing that destroyed most of Gaza’s medical facilities. Currently, she would have a less than ten percent chance of getting a position in the profession. She briefly considered changing her major to business but has not given up hope that she can save lives. Keeping up courage and determination is not easy when your world has literally turned to rubble for the third time in your teenage life, but Dina has both attributes in spades.
Hannah Brandt is a freelance journalist in Fresno. Contact her via Twitter @HannahBP2. You may follow Dina Ahmad on Twitter @Dina_S_A.