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.


  • Typical leftist, anti-Israel propaganda that I have come to expect from The Daily Cougar… To have the audacity to call out other news sources as being biased while maintaining a bias just as strong is insane.

    No need to mention the rocket attacks from Gaza that sparked all this, right? Or that Gaza’s “government” (actually a terrorist group) has rejected Israeli offers for ceasefire, right? Absolutely despicable. The fact that you probably advertise yourself as a journalist is absolutely alarming… Go back to your blog.

    • Okay, Sir/Madam “Fair and Balanced”… I believe she’s an optometry student conducting medical research in Gaza, not a journalist. It’s her account of her experience. Typical rightist. Head back to the Fox blogs.

        • Worth noting that this was an opinion piece, but I agree that they really shouldn’t headline the email edition with garbage like this… not to mention that the headline could not have been more misleading – learn what detainment is, people!

    • Hamas rejected the first ceasefire – which would have put Gaza strip back under blockade, wouldn’t release the multiple prisoners held indefinitely with no charges – and Israel rejected the second. If we’re going to be fair and balanced.

      Israel’s government (actually a terrorist group) will not stop targeting civilians, hospitals, and shelters. They regularly and routinely use human shields. The fact that you are willfully blind is in fact typical of most Western media and as such knowledge and facts will never change your mind – you will continue being willfully blind.

  • Typical boo hoo—wining about Gaza and making Israel out to be the aggressor. The Palestinian people are NOT oppressed as they like to claim. Yet–the article
    forgets to include the FACT that Gaza or Hamas kidnapped 3-Israeli teens only
    to slaughter them leaving their young bodies out in a field to be picked at by
    the birds. Which has lead to this war. Gaza has man made tunnels snaking out to
    public areas in Israel so that they can carry out their terroristic activities.
    Yet, newspapers like this and many others turn a blind eye because instead,
    they are feeding on the humanitarian compassion propagated by Hamas. Hamas IS a terrorist organization who uses its OWN people as human shields including
    CHILDREN and infants–who later glorifies their deaths as martyrs. Hamas is a
    pro at misleading the public–they have YOU and “Justice4all” in the palm of their hands—their propaganda machine is very similar to the Nazi’s propaganda machine. Palestinians love death more than they love life. True Facts folks–just read the Hamas charter!

    Since Roman times when the Philistines inhabited the region
    around the Jordan (hence the name “Palestine”) there has never been a political
    entity – neither a province nor a state – called “Palestine” and no one claimed
    there was until well after the United Nations created Israel in 1948. The
    land on which Israel was created by the U.N. was also used by the colonial
    powers to create Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. It was land that had
    belonged to Turkey for 400 years. The Turks are not “Palestinians” and are not
    even Arabs.

    There never was an Arab country called “Palestine” or inhabited
    by “Palestinians.” Before the creation of the Palestine Liberation
    Organization in 1964, which was sixteen years after the birth of Israel, no
    Arab political entity was called by that name.

    The Palestinian people are NOT oppressed. In fact, Israel is the ONLY country in
    the Middle East that is a democracy. Arabs are granted full civil rights
    under Israeli law, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or
    sex. Arabs take part fully in Israeli society and government. Arab citizens of
    Israel vote in national elections have representatives in the Israeli
    Parliament, sit on the Israeli courts and on the Israeli Supreme Court benches,
    and serve as tenured professors teaching in Israeli colleges and universities.
    The Arab citizens of Israel have more rights, and enjoy more freedom,
    education, and economic opportunity than the Arabs of any Arab state.

    From Gaza, Hamas will strategically place their rockets on homes of their own citizens (again keep the martyrdom in the back of your head) and fire at Israel at will. If Israel fires back, which they will but after they issue a warning to the Palestinians—to leave, get out—–sometimes those families are left anyway, because they listen to Hamas. Hamas is brainwashing its own people!

    Arabs who are followers of Islam are anti-semitc and the proof of THAT is located in the Quran.

    Hamas and various others ultimate wish and goal is to WIPE ISRAEL off the face of the earth, including the Jews with her. That is THEIR goal. For further proof and
    insight into this evil mess please visit: http://www.palwatch.org/ where you can watch videos made by the PLO/Hamas glorifying death with their own people; watch videos of children camps aimed and used to brainwash the children into believing that Jews are apes and pigs.

    There will NEVER be peace in Gaza or in Israel until Jesus Christ returns! Israel
    belongs to God—the one true God—not some fake pagan mood god—allah.

    Israel will always have the right to defend herself! Always!

    Before YOU pass judgement on assumption and MSM propaganda educate yourself on the facts related to this conflict. Learn both sides—-you will see the FACTS and TRUTH of this situation SHINE!!

    As for UH running this article. It’s par for the course–ALL Major universities and colleges are liberal pumping machines blinded by the truth of what is RIGHT!

      • Oh really? Let’s see what the State Department has to say… oh, what’s that name 6 down on the list?

        How about the National Counter Terrorism Center?

        What about the BBC? Surely the media would have a fair take on this group?

        You seem to have an innate misunderstanding when it comes to distinguishing hate and righteousness. Hamas is a radical terrorist organization voted into power in Gaza by these “innocents”. Supporters of terrorist organizations and terrorists only differ by who ends up pulling the trigger. Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, hence their refusal of Israeli ceasefire offers.
        Don’t come in here preaching sympathy for terrorists.

      • Hey PrayforGaza—no thanks. Already there and done that! The TRUTH stands for me and when you stop listening to the PLO and Hamas you too will see the truth! Israel is God’s country–always will be. Islam has NO claim to that land whatsoever! And one day—they will discover the truth!

        Oh!! and I don’t hate–don’t try to twist this around claiming hate like the liberal tards do—-it’s facts. Facts are truth. Face the reality!

        Palestinians are humans—but they are deceived by the very hand that governs them! Hamas! Break the cycle of hate!!

        Wanna discuss Hate? Ask Allah why he hates the Jews. Ask Muhammad why he despises the Jews? Ask Hamas why they too hate the Jews and wish and desire to see their destruction!

        the Quran is FILLED with Jewish hatred–not to mention Christian hatred!


        • Tams it seems like you are the one who is blinded by hatred unfortunately. I am muslim and the religion actually teaches us to respect and care for jews and christians as they are from the same origin as islam, we all share the same values/morals. If you ever read on this subject, instead of spreading hate and propaganda…you would know that Muslims commonly refer to Christians and Jews as ‘People of the Book’ people who follow the same general teachings in relation to the worship of the One God. The country I come from is full of christians and muslims living as neighbors who bend over backwards for one another. Guess you are gullible enough to focus on the the extremists that Fox News always cover and not the real muslims. There are extremists in every religion and just because someone does something in the name of it doesn’t exemplify that religion. Those extremists are indeed terrorists..and they do not represent me or Islam, period. I want peace for both Israel and Palestine, and in fact many jews that I know are against what the Israelis are doing. I don’t have to ask Allah (which is just the arabic word for God in case you really are that misinformed/ignorant) or Mohammad (for his teachings were always about Peace). We are a new generation guys. Educate yourselves and let’s use our minds to fix it during our time, we have had enough history of hate and violence.

  • Such an idiotic article. The article states “Major U.S. media outlets provide Americans with biased and misleading coverage” but just mentions a mistakenly identified photograph. And then you have this:

    “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.”

    Based on reading this note I am to conclude that the Daily Cougar is at best a little biased on this issue. What does “forcibly detained” mean? Detained by its definition means force is used. I can only conclude by phrasing the note in the way they did the Editors are trying to make the initial headline seem less biased than it actually was.
    Never amazes me how bad the articles are in the opinion section…probably the only reason I read them.

  • How can you write an entire article on the Gaza/Israel conflict without mentioning Hamas or the relentless rocket attacks they’ve been launching on Israel from Gaza?

    • I know, right?? How can people write an entire article without mentioning the nakba and the continued encroachment on Palestinian lands. How can people write articles without mentioning the multiple other “operations” Israel has conducted and how this is a cycle of hatred and violence. Why, if we were to go back to the very first shot fired… I’m willing to bet it would be the West, clearing out the Palestinians in an ethnic cleansing, because the West didn’t want to host Holocaust survivors and figured shoving them into this land was a good idea.

      • Kalthoom,

        There’s a difference between reviewing the entire history of the Israeli state over the past 70 some years, and mentioning the violence Hamas continues to perpetrate against Israel and her citizens.

        Regarding the “very first shot fired”, and the west’s reasons for creating a Jewish state, your “bets” are meaningless. Go read Wikipedia, or get a book from the library, or find one of the many video’s on YouTube discussing the issue and learn some real history. Any of the above will be better than your ignorant, biased, “bets”.

        Yes there is a cycle of hatred and violence, but the solution is not for Israel to stop defending themselves but for the aggressor (Hamas) to stop attacking Israel, and instead use non-violent means to redress their grievances. Without Hamas’ rockets and suicide bombers, Israel’s military actions would end.

        But Hamas dosen’t seek an end to the violence, they seek an end to Israel. So they will continue doing everything in their power to harm Israel and her citizens, and everything to maximize the deaths of their own civilians when Israel defends themselves to try and win a PR campaign.

        • Kyle, you are either very naive or brainwashed by some religious group/affiliation if you think this boils down to just Hamas. Yes, Hamas is committing terrible acts, but so are the Israeli’s. This war is due to arrogance and hatred on BOTH sides. It’s being going on for decades and neither side wants to be the bigger person. The first stone has been cast and now it’s just a perpetual unrelenting eye-for-eye.

          • Are there a significant number of people in Palestine who’re attacking Israel who aren’t Hamas?

            Israel’s latest actions are in direct reprisal to Hama’s continual launching of rockets against Israel. If today Hamas stopped all hostilities against Israel and agreed to a perpetual ceasefire, would Israel continue bombing Gaza? Israel’s only claim to the use of violence is as reprisal against Hama’s aggression, without which they’ll have neither motive nor international legitimacy to continue bombing Gaza.

            Whatever arrogance and hatred Hamas’s actions have built in the Israeli people, they do not amount to a desire for aggressive war—unlike Hamas.

  • Really good article. Thank you for bringing attention to this issue and for the even-handed reporting. The Western media is in fact downright shameful in its continued avoidance of the fact that Israeli deaths are pretty much all soldiers – and Palestinian deaths are all children. Israel is only creating hatred down the line. It’s ensuring every single one of those children know and hate their neighbors.

  • Funny there wasn’t a single mention about the root cause of the problems – Hamas. This was just as one sided as the reporting it criticizes.

  • Paid isreali internet defense force shills exist in Houston, TX – do not be alarmed by the brazen idiocy of their comments, they are not worth discussion with.

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