Palestinian Americans struggle with Hamas-Israel violence
From his home in New Jersey, Abdulla Okal finds the gruesome scenes hard to comprehend.
In Israel, more than 1,300 people are dead after a brutal surprise attack by Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip who crossed the border and took scores hostage. In Gaza, neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble by retaliatory Israeli strikes, with more than 1,500 Palestinians killed.
Okal stays awake at night watching TV news and scrolling through WhatsApp chat group feeds, searching for hope and finding little. His wife and three children are trapped in the Palestinian territory after making a trip to visit family.
“I hear from [my wife]. Then I can’t find her,” he said. “Then I hear from her and she’s escaped a bombing and is in hiding. Then she goes to the border but can’t leave and turns around. My older kids don’t understand what’s happening. They are helpless. So am I.”
Okal, 34, moved from Gaza to the United States 16 years ago and now makes his living selling cars.
“It feels weird to me to have peace here, in the U.S., between Jews and Arabs, between Israelis and Palestinians, and to have free speech here and friendships,” he said. “Why do I get to enjoy that when people cannot back home?”
It’s a sense of guilt, loss and grief felt across many regions of America where Palestinian communities have settled since Israel was established in 1948. Now as many as 222,000 Palestinian Americans live in the U.S., according to the Arab American Institute Foundation.
Their views vary widely on the Hamas attack, with some condemning the killing of civilians, others fearing the retribution against Gaza, and some feeling joy seeing holes being torn in border fences that have long contained Palestinians in what human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, describe as an “open-air prison.”
“Nobody wants to see kids dying on either side,” said Okal. “It’s mixed feelings for me. Nobody wants to see Hamas or any other group attacking Israel. And nobody wants to see Israel attacking my people.”
“The people of Gaza just want an end to the occupation,” he said, clarifying that he meant not only territorial disputes going back generations but also the blockade that Israel and Egypt imposed in 2007 after Hamas’ takeover of Gaza.
“But the Palestinians also need to have an elected leadership that all people agree on. Nobody is happy with Hamas,” Okal said of the group, which was voted into power in 2006 but has not held an election since. “Everything is bad. I don’t know what to do.”
After Palestinian militants from Gaza carried out deadly attacks on Israeli towns Saturday — including mowing down college-aged civilians at a music festival, killing children and taking grandmothers hostage — and launched a barrage of rockets from their territory, the Israeli government vowed to “destroy Hamas.”
The Islamist party, which the U.S. and European Union consider a terrorist organization, has said its aim is to eliminate the Israeli state.
Israel’s government says militants could still be in hiding in the country, and Hamas has threatened to broadcast hostage executions on live TV.
In Gaza, which is 25 miles long and about 7 miles at its widest, and home to more than 2 million Palestinians, residents say apartments, mosques and shopping areas have been bombed, sometimes with no warning. Israel, with its most hard-line government in years, says it is targeting Hamas members and buildings. The United Nations says hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza have been displaced by Israel’s attacks.
Thousands of miles from the fighting, the gruesome turn in one of the world’s oldest conflicts has unleashed raw and complex emotions.
Members of the Palestinian diaspora have long watched from afar as conditions have grown increasingly dire for their relatives living under the blockade, said Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University professor and author of “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine.”
He described Gaza as “a pressure cooker that had to explode,” noting that Israel controls who can leave as well as the supply of electricity, fuel, food, building materials, spare parts, medical equipment and other essential goods.
At the same time, Gazans can look through the fences into areas that were once inhabited by their ancestors and see Israelis cultivating the land.
“The reaction has been violent — including things that are war crimes,” said Khalidi, a Palestinian American.
Before last week, 6,407 Palestinians had died in Israeli strikes since 2008, most of them in Gaza, according to the United Nations. The Israeli death toll from Palestinian attacks was 308. In a single day, Hamas killed four times that many.
“Maybe there are people who are happy about civilian deaths,” Khalidi said. “I am not. Most of the people I know are not.”
Nasr Saba, who lives in Laguna Hills but was born in 1938 in Lydda — now part of Israel and called Lod — says he is “older than Israel.”
Israel captured his home city during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and Israeli soldiers massacred 250 Palestinians, including women and children, before the government expelled tens of thousands. After fleeing the city, his family ended up in Gaza with other refugees.
“This is almost becoming an eternal problem,” said the 85-year-old, now part of one of the largest Palestinian American populations in the U.S., in Southern California.
“This is a continuous cycle,” he said, his voice steady. “It’s just like somebody who plays the same song once, twice and three times and never stops.”
Saba, a Palestinian Christian, still has extended family in Gaza. “They sent a picture of what Gaza looked like before and what it looks like right now,” he said. “It is all rubble.”
He said he expected his community “will be fighting until they get their land and their rights.” But he had little hope things would go anywhere good.
“This is not the first time Gaza has been bombed,” Saba said. “It will not be the last time either.”
About halfway between his home and downtown Los Angeles, workers around Little Arabia, an Anaheim enclave once called Little Gaza, said the Mideast region had been at the center of conversations and at least one nearby pro-Palestinian rally this week.
“We’ve been oppressed for so long, everybody knew something was going to happen,” said Mohammed Othman, 25, who helps manage Sababa Falafel Shop in neighboring Garden Grove. “Nobody knew when.”
Othman, born in the U.S. to a father who emigrated from the West Bank, wore a chef’s coat with U.S. and Palestinian flags on the sleeve. He said the deaths of civilians in Gaza and Israel were not justified.
“Everyone who seeks justice should condemn the killing of innocents,” he said. “That’s not tolerated ever throughout our Islamic religion. However, Israel has been killing innocent people on a daily basis” for decades.
Nearby, at Knafeh Cafe, owner Asem Abusir has struggled to reach a cousin who lives in Gaza, and has grown worried after Israel declared a siege on the territory, cutting off all basic services.
“My cousin and his family are going to be deprived of water, electricity, the internet and basic needs,” said Abusir, who is from Nablus in the West Bank.
He topped trays of hareeseh, a honey cake dessert, with almonds before putting them into the oven, thinking over the weekend’s events.
A pro-Palestinian demonstration took place on the main street outside his shop on Sunday. Soon after, a one-star Yelp review appeared on Abusir’s business page and claimed that he hosted “disgusting Palestinians” who should suffer death.
“That was very strong, unacceptable language,” Abusir said. “But the feedback from our community has shown that they support us.”
At some pro-Palestinian rallies in the U.S., there has been jubilation, prompting pushback from observers, the Jewish community and politicians to chants and posters that say, “Resistance is justified when people are occupied.”
In Chicago, Samer Owaida said he was “filled with many emotions ranging from joy to deep sadness” as he joined a pro-Palestinian protest Sunday outside the Israeli Consulate and unfurled a black, white, green and red Palestinian flag.
“What I believe we are all witnessing is the unavoidable prison break narrative of watching oppressed people take their destiny into their own hands,” said Owaida, 27, who was born in Ramallah in the West Bank.
“My mother’s side of the family is from … a small village near Haifa. But there is nothing left of it anymore,” he said. “Like many Palestinians, my family was ethnically cleansed from our village in 1948 when Israeli militias massacred our villagers. I have family in Gaza who aren’t even aware of my existence because our family has become so scattered.”
Owaida said he felt “proud and empowered” watching Palestinians use a bulldozer to break down a border wall:
“I cried as I watched mere children taking over an Israeli tank that would have eventually been used to kill their family and friends. My excitement is tempered with fear for the future because of unfolding retaliation.”
Owaida, who said his views on Hamas were “irrelevant,” said Palestinians “have the unwavering right to resist in the ways they deem appropriate for their survival.”
Some Palestinian American demonstrators have been accused of celebrating the deaths of Israeli children and civilians. Owaida said he did not find joy in death. But, echoing Hamas’ position, he said, “People on stolen land don’t get to dictate what justice is.”
Hani Almadhoun knows the cost of conflict and sees the damage on both sides.
Almadhoun, 42, who emigrated from Beit Lahiya on the northern edge of Gaza in 2000, still has family there, including a sister who was in Jabaliya, a refugee camp that Israel struck Monday.
His sister has found safety elsewhere. But he said 14 members of his extended family died in a separate bombing the same day in Beit Lahiya.
Almadhoun, who lives in northern Virginia, is trying to concentrate on his work at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, to make things better in an impossible time.
“My focus is just on how I can help people,” said Almadhoun, who said he offered his personal perspective and not that of his employer. “But still, the conflict has become, in that way, even messy and hairy here among Palestinians in the U.S.”
“Even in our U.S. community, I have seen people asking if this was the right action by Hamas, if the people who started this plan [of attack] have a plan for how to end it.”
As U.S. resident who works in human rights, Almadhoun said he is “not a part of those conversations” on political leadership or militant action:
“My heart goes out to all civilians who are struggling. That’s not political. That is just the right attitude as a human.”
That is a sense that Okal, in New Jersey, tries to hold close.
“My emotions have gone in so many directions in the last days,” he said, describing his family’s flight from strikes, failed attempt to cross into Egypt, their return to Gaza.
“I do not know when they will return. I do not know when I will sleep,” he said. “I want all of this to stop now. I just want them back.”
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