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Sunday, December 10, 2023


Surviving Gaza: Cougar returns home after being trapped by violence in Palestine

Batoul Abuharb

After her experience in Gaza, optometry graduate student Batoul Abuharb’s outlook on life was changed forever. | Rolando Acosta / The Cougar

Tanks and soldiers are a familiar sight in Gaza. Airstrikes and shells leave neighborhoods on the Gaza strip in ruins, including hospitals and schools. Family members search for loved ones in the debris; the bodies of the lost are mutilated and unrecognizable.

The horror that Gazans are facing can seem like it’s happening in a different universe, but for optometry graduate student Batoul Abuharb, what began as a trip to visit family and conduct medical work in Gaza became the most terrifying experience of her life.

After a 48-hour journey that involved flying to Cairo, a ferry ride across the Suez Canal and a dangerous car ride through the Sinai Peninsula, Abuharb made it to her family home in Gaza.

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Gaza before the airstrikes. | Courtesy of Batoul Abuharb

Despite the hardships, Abuharb said the Gazans living in the refugee camps are a tight-knit group.

“Everybody knows everybody. When they greet you, it’s very warm and genuine. When people say ‘how’s your day,’ they genuinely want you to have a good day. They don’t just say that because it’s the polite thing to say,” Abuhard said. “People over there enjoy the very small things about life more than people do (in the U.S.). It’s one of the things I really like about going back.”

Abuharb arrived in Gaza on the second day of Ramadan. The lack of electricity and Gaza heat made for slow days that were spent napping, visiting relatives and preparing food for the evening; however, this daily routine was abruptly shaken.

“We got there on Sunday and just seven days later, that Monday night, the attacks started,” she said. “It was completely unexpected. My sister and I were sleeping in one room, and out of nowhere there was a huge explosion.”

Israeli forces sent airstrikes into Gaza on July 8 — which Abuhard said began around 4 a.m. — and the death toll has been climbing since, with Palestinians facing greater losses. Ten days later, on July 18, Israel began their ground assault.

While Gazans have become familiar with the strikes, these attacks were unexpected and hit a lot closer to Abuharb’s neighborhood than they had before.

“We had to open all our windows so the glass wouldn’t shatter on us,” she said. “I have never been through an earthquake before or anything like that. The entire foundation of your house shakes. It was a very scary experience.”

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Courtesy of Zainab Muhanna

Abuharb said she and her family faced much uncertainty — they didn’t know when the strikes would hit, where they would hit and whether they would be able to evacuate.

“It surprised people enough that even my relatives called us and told us that it was going to be OK — that’s when I started to get worried. The people who are from there have to comfort you,” she said. “You just don’t know where the next explosion is going to be, so that was the most terrifying thing. The entire seven days I probably slept for five hours.”

Living through the violence firsthand was a life-changing experience for Abuharb.

“It completely changed the way I thought about everything,” she said. “Some of my cousins are 6 or 7 and this is the third war they’ve experienced in their lifetime. They’ve had this define their childhood. Their time should be spent playing at the beach, but instead their summertime is spent praying for their own safety. This is what true terror feels like.”

Palestinian children have been among the innocent civilians killed in Israeli attacks. One notable incident occurred on July 16 when an Israeli airstrike killed four Palestinian boys playing soccer on the beach. The boys were identified as 10-year-old Ahed Atef Bakr, 10-year-old Zakaria Ahed Bakr, 11-year-old Mohamed Ramez Bakr and 9-year-old Ismael Mohamed Bakr.

This incident has sparked debate about the deliberateness of the attacks, despite claims from Israeli forces that they were targeting Hamas fighters, as many journalists witnessed the attacks from their hotel rooms.

Being American, Abuharb had the chance to evacuate, but her extended family and other Palestinians do not. Even with notification, the densely populated Gaza strip leaves no room for a place to hide.

“Borders are closed on the Egyptian side and the Israeli side, and with every neighborhood that evacuates, another (neighborhood) becomes a target, so where are they supposed to go?” she said.

The process of evacuating was very frustrating for Abuharb, who needed to contact the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem and provide them with information via email even though access to electricity was sporadic.

“Luckily, I brought my iPhone with me and was equipped with a 3G network. I sent emails that way, but I kept thinking to myself, ‘What if I didn’t bring my iPhone with me?'” she said. “The only way to connect to Wi-Fi in my house was to sit on the roof and get it from the neighbor’s house, which was completely out of the question when there were airstrikes.”

With difficulty, Abuharb’s family found a driver to take her from her refugee camp to Gaza City, and from there she traveled in a convoy to Amman, Jordan. Abuharb said that as she looked out at the neighborhoods during the drive to Gaza City, it was a scary and surreal experience resembling something out of a movie.

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Desolate and destroyed streets pervade the Gaza strip. | Courtesy of Zainab Muhanna

Though the initial process was cumbersome, Abuharb said she was pleased with the service at the embassy. Despite feeling “frustrated, scared and exhausted” upon arriving in Jordan, Abuharb said she “really felt like (she) had been saved by Americans.”

While the U.S. Embassy was a great help for Abuharb, the American media is not as kind to Palestinians. Major U.S. media outlets provide Americans with biased and misleading coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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Courtesy of Zainab Muhanna

Not too long after Israeli airstrikes began, Diane Sawyer mistakenly identified photographs of Palestinians dealing with the aftermath of the strikes by saying they were Israeli; she later apologized for the mistake.

“I find (the media’s portrayal of the conflict) very insulting,” Abuharb said. “Living through an experience like that and have someone sugarcoat it, to make it different from what it actually is, is insulting to the people who live through that every day. How do you look at somebody who lost an entire family and say this was done in the name of self-defense?”

Abuharb said she feels this type of reporting devalues and dehumanizes Palestinian lives.

“I saw in an article how many Israelis were killed, and then it would say ‘x’ number of ‘others’ were killed,” she said. “The Palestinians have now become ‘others.’ They weren’t even called people; they were called ‘others.’ The media used to be the place where people who didn’t have a voice gained a voice.”

However, this recent outbreak of violence is beginning to reveal cracks in the one-sided, pro-Israeli reporting. Dismissals of reporters speaking out against Israeli violence — including NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin, who was later reinstated, and CNN’s Diana Magnay — have gained widespread attention.

The prevalence and power of social media has contributed to the shift in public opinion. Abuharb, for example, used social media to document her experience.

“We don’t have something that’s edited and processed and scripted before it makes it to the news. There was no filter for what I was saying and what (my followers) were seeing,” she said. “Having the kind of access to the truth and letting (the public) formulate their own opinions is a positive step in the right direction. Social media has really given back a voice to the people.”

Public awareness is on the rise with the help of hashtags such as #prayforgaza trending and images of scenes from the attacks. People are also protesting the attacks worldwide.

“Some of my cousins are 6 or 7 and this is the third war they’ve experienced in their lifetime. They’ve had this define their childhood. Their time should be spent playing at the beach, but instead their summertime is spent praying for their own safety. This is what true terror feels like.”

– Abuharb on how the war is affecting Gaza’s youths

Twitter also provides journalists with a medium for immediate reporting, which both Mohyeldin and Magnay utilized. Additionally, celebrities have also been tweeting about the conflict.

Americans are directly implicated as the U.S. government provides Israel $3.1 billion in military aid every year. Abuharb suggests that the U.S. could be funding humanitarian or educational programs here in America, which would be more beneficial than giving money to a country breaking international law.

“If we think about it in this way, if I had died in Gaza during the war, my tax dollars would’ve paid for my own murder,” she said. “The U.S. has a lot of internal problems. Americans need to care (about) where their dollars are going. Not necessarily in the context of Gaza — people may not respond to it that way — but if you are paying taxes, you should know where the money is going.”

Palestine has been occupied by Israel for decades, and Palestinians have been living in constant fear and uncertainty of their future. We need to look beyond religion and ethnicity and see the conflict for what it is — a crime against humanity. Support for Palestinians does not mean hating Jews, Israelis or some other group. In fact, members of the Jewish community have been speaking out against the occupation in Gaza.

Conditions in Gaza are still grim, but Abuharb said that she has hope that the situation will change for the better. One of her biggest hopes is to lift the blockade and open the borders in the region so that food, water and medical supplies can get in.

“Change starts from the bottom. Every kind of grassroots movement, from the civil rights movement to the women’s suffrage movement, starts with the people,” she said. “Nothing ever starts from the top with politicians. Even getting one person to open their eyes and change their perspective is a huge change.”

Correction: Batoul Abuharb traveled to Gaza City, not to Jerusalem. 

Opinion columnist Rama Yousef is a creative writing senior and may be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article ran that used the word “detained” in the headline, and this has raised some questions from our readers. Batoul Abuharb was not forcibly detained in Gaza, but trapped in the area due to its violence.

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