Gaza’s survivors carry on in the aftermath of war

Rahaf Salman (11) one of the may victims receives treatment at a hospital in the Northern Gaza Strip (Omar Ashtawy – APA Images)

Tareq S. Hajjaj

Mondoweiss  /  September 29, 2022

The survivors of Israel’s recent onslaught on Gaza were spared death but now grapple with what remains of their life after the war. Here are some of their stories.

When Israeli military escalations against Palestinians in Gaza end, the return to “normal” doesn’t mean that people are now safe. A new series of pain ensues, and people wake up from the war to now face the war within them, struggling to deal with what they’ve lost. 

Every loss is different, and the imprint that it leaves on people’s hearts is different from one person to the other. Yet any close examination of the lives of Palestinians in Gaza will reveal that everyone is suffering. 

“In wars, we are the targets, so there’s nowhere safe to go — no shelters, exposed and out in the open for the Israeli air forces to see us,” says Khalil Salman, an uncle of 11-year-old Rahaf Salman whose life was forever changed by the latest war.

The three-day Israeli offensive on Gaza in August, Operation Breaking Dawn, left 49 people dead, 17 of them children, while over 400 people were injured. What follows are the stories of those who survived the onslaught.

Having been spared the finality of death, they have had to grapple with the pieces of themselves that remained after the war. They are stories of ordinary people who were swept up in another war and came out of it alive but damaged — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. 

Rahaf Salman, 11 years old

Rahaf Salman lies down in the Indonesian hospital in the northern Gaza Strip, surrounded by her mother, uncle, and other female relatives who had come to visit her.  With the left hand that remained to her — after losing her right hand and both of her legs — Rahaf raises two fingers in a “V” for victory, and declares that she will keep following her dreams.

“I’m sad because I lost my right hand, the hand I write with, but I want to keep up my school work and to pursue my dreams,” she says with determination. Then, for a moment, she pauses in hesitation before expressing a concern, almost as an afterthought, “But I can’t write with my left hand.” 

These concerns were the furthest thing from Rahaf’s mind when she first stepped out of her home in Jabalia refugee camp, calling her brothers home for dinner. In that same moment, an airstrike hit the street she stood on, August 6, killing 7 people and injuring 30, the majority of them children. 

Just like that, her life was forever changed. She lies in bed, unable to go to the bathroom by herself after the amputation of both her legs and her right hand, and along with them her future. It was already affecting her, as she was forced to miss the new school year.

“Everything was black, and I could only see dust around me, and could hear the screams of people next to me. I felt like something hit me, leaving me on the ground and unable to move or see. I remember the voice and the screams, and then I woke up in the hospital,” she said. 

In a panic, her uncle hurried over to the location of the explosion and found her bleeding, shrapnel piercing all of her body, including her face. He carried her to the hospital in the hopes of saving her, but after hours of surgeries, doctors could not rescue her legs and hand. 

“When I woke up the next day I found my family around me and I found that my body changed. I felt the same electricity in my body that I felt when the bomb exploded,” Rahaf said, asking to keep her eyes closed as she couldn’t stand the light — it reminds her of the light of the bomb that changed her life. 

Inside the room, Rahaf is receiving her treatment, and her mother and two other women are taking turns in caring for her. Her mother, Manal Salman, 46, tried to explain her feelings without any tears, but to no avail. 

“I believe God will have mercy on her, and will help her through her new condition, but I can’t hide the pain in my heart to see my sweet little daughter turned into this state,” Manal said, sitting three meters away from Rahaf. 

“I have been watching her grow, inch by inch, following her every step. I held that little hand thousands of times, walking and moving together with her siblings. Remembering these memories worries me that she may not be able to live life normally anymore.” 

On the other side, Rahaf is still holding up her victorious “V.” Her injury will not discourage her, she insists, and with the help of God, she will be able to restore her life back to how it used to be. She seemed optimistic that she would be able to use prosthetics, including a right-hand prosthetic to help her write again. She told the journalists assembled in her hospital room that she would be traveling to Turkey on a medical transfer.

Every person killed by Israel in Gaza’s wars leaves behind an even larger number of survivors — thousands left to suffer in silence from the pain of loss or of having their life changed forever, after facing the grave.

Some have suffered directly, as with the case of Rahaf, while others have suffered losses indirectly, though no less painful.

Israel killed my mom on my wedding day

It’s traditional for Palestinians to dye their palms with Henna for their wedding, and after the ritual the groom’s palms can stay red for weeks. 

It was Akram Abu Qaida’s, 23, wedding on Saturday, August 6, a day that was scheduled months ago, but on this day, his hand turned red by his mother’s blood who was killed by an Israeli airstrike as she was going to meet his bride. 

Akram and his bride Ghadah, 20, waited for that day for months. But due to the Israeli offensive, the family decided to cancel all the wedding events and simply bring the bride to the groom’s home where they planned a small celebration. 

Akram’s family borrowed a car from some relatives to bring the bride in. His father drove the family to pick Ghadah up, but when he arrived and were about to enter her house an Israeli airstrike targeted them. Two people were killed in this airstrike, Akram’s mother, Na’ama Abu Qaidah, and an eleven year old child who is related to him. 

“A day that I waited for a long time, the beginning of happiness and starting a family and new life, all that destroyed by an Israeli airstrike and for nothing, why a car of civilians surrounded by children would be bombed, maybe they –[the Israelis]- can answer as they know what they are bombing!” Akram said. 

“That day, Israel took away my reason for happiness, my lovely and soulful mother.” 

Akram was not the only one who lost his beloved ones, there are thousands of Palestinians whose suffering mounts after the Israeli wars against Gaza.

The world could not have room for two lovers

Abeer Harb, 24, was waiting to meet her soul mate. When she finally found him they got engaged and both started planning for their future. But then sadly, Israel killed him along with his mother in one airstrike on their home on Saturday, August 6, 2022. 

When I met Abeer she was standing on the rubble of the building where her beloved fiancée Ismael Dwaik, 30, was killed. Covered with black clothes and sadness clearly appearing in her eyes, she said that all of her dreams had disappeared under the destruction. 

“Our dream was to live with each other and start a family,” she tells me.  

“We met on Friday, the day before he was killed, we were talking about our future home, we wanted to buy some antiques and furniture, he told me that all he wants is to live with me in our home and start a family together, he had simple dreams but he could not reach them,” Abeer says.

They got engaged two months ago and were supposed to get married in August. 

Ismael’s father, Abdel-Hamid, said that he was always pushing his son to start a family but Ismael told him that he was waiting for “the one.” 

“When he met Abeer, he came to his mother and told her that he found her. He asked her to go to the girl’s family home and ask her hand for engagement.” 

“He was flying like a bird around the house. He was full of happiness and power, the power of love,” Abdel-Hamid told me. 

“He left home the day that he was killed. I saw him dressed up and I thought he was going to see Abeer. When the house bombed I knew that my wife was there. I hurried to see what happened, praying to find her alive, but I was shocked when I found out that my wife and my son were killed,” the father recalls with wide open eyes. He is now living in his son’s rented house.

 “We found Ismael embracing his mother in his arms… Maybe he was trying to protect her, that is my son who I know, he would sacrifice himself for people he loves.”

Abeer on the other hand is living her own nightmare. She not only lost her beloved fiancée, but also his family that was supposed to live with them. 

“My loss can’t be measured, my pain can’t be shown, I lost a family that I feel safety and happiness with,” Abeer says.

Abeer is deeply impacted by the loss of her fiancée. Days after his death, she was observed by some photographers laying down at Ismael’s grave, putting her head on its headstone, and crying. 

Abeer’s father, Omar Harb, 66, does not live in Gaza, he’s working in Saudi Arabia and supporting his family in Gaza. A couple of days before Ismael was killed, Harb arrived in Gaza to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. Lucky for Abeer he is now there to support her in her mourning.

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union