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For Palestinians Who Just Left Gaza, Witnessing the War From Afar Evokes Helplessness and Grief

A 3 a.m. call startled Walaa AlAbssi awake. It was nearly a week into Israel’s retaliatory bombing of the occupied Gaza Strip. Just two months earlier, AlAbssi, 26, had left Gaza for the first time to attend graduate school in Dublin. When she picked up her phone and saw her sister’s name, her heart fell. A call at this hour could only mean tragedy.

“Everyone was screaming,” AlAbssi said. “‘May God never let you live my terror,’ she told me, ‘Pray for us, pray for us.’” The call disconnected. 

Panicked and crying, AlAbssi redialed her sister over and over until, on the 10th try, she got through. An Israeli airstrike had just hit the house neighboring their family in Gaza City, her sister said, and a piece of shrapnel entered her younger brother’s wrist.

“All the windows were broken, and the doors flew in their faces,” AlAbssi said. “My brother was bleeding, everyone was screaming and did not know anything, and the world was dust.” The phone disconnected again, and AlAbssi was alone, shaking and sweating in her dorm room thousands of miles away. 

“Everyone was screaming and did not know anything, and the world was dust.”

Since the bombing, AlAbssi has had a headache that won’t go away. She’s struggled to sleep and fallen behind on her coursework — all she can think about is what might happen to her family. She says she wakes up every night and scrolls through Telegram for images or names of her family members. 

“I get drunk on the news and fall back asleep,” she said. “I feel so guilty.”

The Intercept spoke with several Palestinians who left Gaza in the months before October 7 to pursue opportunities for work or higher education. Like AlAbssi, they are racked with anguish and helplessness as the Israeli military attacks their families and destroys the homes they grew up in. They described the dissonance of witnessing from afar the familiar scenes of death and destruction while trying to cope with distress and grief in Western countries where daily life continues uninterrupted. Whether they will ever return to Gaza — and who will still be there if they do — is for now uncertain.

“When I first left Gaza, I just wanted to get a master’s in public health because the health system was so bad, and I wanted to help the fresh graduates to get jobs,” AlAbssi said. “But now everything has changed in Gaza. All my plans have changed.”

As journalists and others flood social media with images and videos from Gaza, psychologists have cautioned about the secondhand trauma people can experience from regularly consuming distressing content. For Palestinians who are from Gaza, the mental health impacts are compounded by survivor’s guilt, said Iman Farajallah, a California-based psychologist who grew up in the coastal enclave. 

“We will have excessive worry, depression, stress, fatigue,” she told The Intercept. “We’ll have our trauma activated, and we will feel loss of control.” In the past two months, 11 members of Farajallah’s family have been killed in Gaza, and her 85-year-old father is displaced after his house was bombed.

“You are seeing in front of your eyes that your family is suffering and might be killed,” she said, “but you can’t do anything about it.”

Left/Top: Walaa AlAbssi, left, and her siblings Reema and Ahmed, who are still in Gaza, are seen on AlAbssi’s cellphone screen. Right/Bottom: Walaa AlAbssi poses for a portrait in her room in Dublin.
Photos: Molly Keane for The Intercept

Repetitive Trauma

It was hours before AlAbssi heard from her family again. Her parents and brother had run to Al Shifa Hospital as missiles fell around them. The doctors determined that the shrapnel had cut four tendons in her brother’s wrist, but because the hospital was overwhelmed with more urgent surgeries, they told him to come back in a week.

AlAbssi’s family could not wait. Two days later, they walked three miles to a different hospital where they learned that her brother’s arm was on the brink of gangrene and his nerves had been damaged. Doctors operated on him for two and a half hours and removed the shrapnel.

“Imagine that there is a fragment in your hand, and you do not know what it’s made of,” AlAbssi said. “That day was literally the worst day of my life.”

Before she left Gaza, AlAbssi had been first in her class of aspiring dentists and worked as an assistant teacher at Al-Azhar University’s dentistry school. She had received a scholarship to continue her education at University College Dublin. But since the attack near her family’s home, she has postponed exams and gotten extensions on assignments, including her graduate thesis — accommodations she has never needed. “This is not Walaa,” she said. “My real academic performance is not like this.”

According to Farajallah, Palestinians from Gaza are more likely to experience mental illness living under conditions of conflict, siege, and occupation since Israel implemented the blockade 16 years ago. After an Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2021, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor reported that 9 out of 10 children suffered from conflict-related trauma. According to findings from Save the Children, in 2022, 4 out of 5 children in the Gaza Strip reported feeling depression, fear, and grief.

DEIR AL-BALAH, GAZA - NOVEMBER 7: Civil defense teams and citizens continue search and rescue operations after an airstrike hits the building belonging to the Maslah family during the 32nd day of Israeli attacks in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza on November 7, 2023. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Farajallah said that Gazans’ experiences run deeper than trauma from the current war. “What’s been happening is a repetitive trauma over 75 years, and it’s 24/7,” she said, referring to the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their ancestral lands in 1948.

Because of the dire circumstances in Gaza, thousands of Palestinians seek work or schooling outside the Strip. Palestinians who The Intercept spoke to expressed mixed feelings about leaving home: a gratitude for freedom of movement but bitterness at having to go elsewhere for opportunities. 

“There’s nothing like Gaza. It’s the best place despite everything.”

Growing up in the village of Beit Lahia, Mohammed Dawas, 24, would gaze over at the Israeli villages just on the other side of the border wall.

“I used to say, Israel is lit up while Gaza was always in complete darkness. I used to say they are so lucky — their life is totally different than ours,” he said. “I constantly thought about leaving Gaza to a country without a siege.”

In 2019, he traveled to California and got married. Not long after, he moved to a rural town in Utah, where he found work in a factory to send money to his family. 

Homesick, he quit his job in March and returned to Gaza but reluctantly came back to the U.S. in May to find work. “There’s nothing like Gaza,” he said. “It’s the best place despite everything.” The trip would be the last time he would see his family’s house standing and many of his relatives alive.

Walaa AlAbssi looks at photos of her family in Gaza on her phone in her dorm room in Dublin, on Dec. 6, 2023.
Photo: Molly Keane for The Intercept

“You Die a Thousand Deaths”

On October 14, Dawas woke up to a call that 25 of his family members had been hit by an airstrike on their home; 15 of them were killed, including his cousin and best friend, Yousef, and Yousef’s two children. The bodies of some of his family members remained under the rubble for two days before neighbors and rescue workers were able to pull them out.

“I still can’t believe I won’t see Yousef again,” Dawas said. “I’ve lost the joy of life. I still can’t express the horror of the shock.” 

Just hours later, his own home in Beit Lahia was bombed. Unable to reach his mother or any of his six siblings, Dawas worried they might have died. Hours later, he called again and his mother picked up — they had all fled to the homes of other relatives in Beit Lahia, she told him, and survived two more bombings. 

“I didn’t expect to hear my mother’s voice again,” he said. “We spent the whole call crying. It was like I was born again, as if I heard her for the first time in my life.” 

Dawas told The Intercept that the war has triggered fear, anxiety, and depression within him — emotional responses accumulated from living through six Israeli attacks on Gaza. 

“I haven’t been able to sleep well since then. I read all day and night, which made me sick. I was scared to death about my family,” he said. “I didn’t expect to lose anyone because I hadn’t lost anyone before.” He began to imagine the worst-case scenarios — one of which came true.

Mohammed Dawas, left, with his brother Saleh.
Photo: Courtesy of Mohammed Dawas

On December 1, the last day of the weeklong truce between Hamas and Israel, Dawas was working a day job removing fallen leaves in a backyard when his sister who lives in Egypt called. She told him that an Israeli airstrike hit the shelter in northern Gaza where Dawas’s 32-year-old brother Saleh was staying. Saleh was injured and had no access to medical treatment; his sister said that he seemed to have developed an infection and showed signs of kidney failure.

“I didn’t expect to lose anyone because I hadn’t lost anyone before.”

Dawas felt numb, except for a pounding pain in his chest. He said a quick prayer. Being close to God was the only way he could withstand the heartache. 

“When someone is injured,” he said, “you start to imagine how he will die, and you wait, and you die a thousand deaths.” 

The next day, Saleh died. Dawas was having trouble calling Gaza, so his relative in Amman called him and his mother on separate phones, and put them on speaker. 

“I had broken down, and she was comforting me,” Dawas said. “She told me, ‘God chose him to be a martyr. Thank God Allah gave us strength in our hearts.’”

Walaa AlAbssi looks at a bulletin board at her university in Dublin, on Dec. 6, 2023.
Photo: Molly Keane for The Intercept

Coping With War

Everyone in AlAbssi’s family has been displaced by the war, leaving their homes to stay with neighbors and other relatives. Neighbors told AlAbssi that her family’s house had likely been bombed during Israel’s ground invasion into northern Gaza.

To cope with her family’s plight, AlAbssi spends time with a Palestinian friend and goes to protests alongside thousands of others in Ireland, where solidarity with Palestinians is widespread. But at the end of the day, she spends most of her time alone and at home. 

The truce had alleviated some of her worry, and she was able to finish some assignments. Her professors have been sympathetic and accommodating, she said, and she’s gone to talk to her university’s well-being officer. But she still plans to spend Christmas break studying. 

“Before the war, I was expecting to achieve high grades, but now I just want to succeed and pass,” AlAbssi said. “Thinking about there being no home in Gaza puts me under a lot of pressure.”

Dawas also struggles with the reality that the family and home he once knew are no more.

One of his sisters, her family, and his mother are staying in a United Nations school in the south and living off UNRWA donations, while his other brother and his family are stuck in the north. He feels helpless that he can’t even send money to his family — the main reason he returned to Utah — because they cannot receive it, and there’s nothing to buy.

Dawas has also found living in the U.S. distressing. Coming across posters of Israeli hostages and watching biased news coverage fills him with anger and fear. He said some Americans have gotten upset at him when he’s defended his family and Gaza. 

He finds relief in driving long distances while reciting the Quran, listening to Hans Zimmer and Ivan Torrent, and walking through Utah’s Maxwell Park. But he has stopped going to the gym and has no appetite; he struggles to find steady work and put his plans to study computer engineering in the spring on hold. 

“Every time I want to eat, I feel guilty. Everything is available to me, but my family cannot even drink water,” he said. “I constantly live with feeling humiliated and oppressed. It makes me not want to live. Life feels worthless.”

The post For Palestinians Who Just Left Gaza, Witnessing the War From Afar Evokes Helplessness and Grief appeared first on The Intercept.

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