I wake strangely early on October 7, groggy from a late night out. In my kitchen, I set my teapot to boil and the radio to BBC. A moment later I hear a news bulletin beginning with “Palestinian fighters from Gaza have crossed into Israel . . .” I turn in the direction of the disembodied sound. I am used to waking to news of violence in the West Bank—at least one morning each week seems to begin this way, with a story of settler attacks or another Israel Defense Force raid. In fact, Labib Dumaidi, a nineteen-year-old Palestinian university student, was shot yesterday during another pogrom in Huwara in the West Bank. But this report is something different, and my mind struggles to grasp the words. Gaza? How?
An image: a bulldozer rams into a fence cordoning off the Gaza Strip from Israel, and bodies rush through the aperture. Off camera, a hoarse man screams in Arabic, “Break it! God is great! Break it!” For an instant, Gaza no longer means unreachable, trapped, inert. All my life, that name has been an ache, beloved and impenetrable, intimate and out of reach. It is the land where my father was born as a refugee, a place he loved despite the larger tragedy that stranded his family there. Gaza, a place that was born in me the first time he told me stories of the sea. As a six-year-old, he’d sneak a swim in the Mediterranean on the way home from school, splashing naked in the water until his brother arrived to haul him back. I see Gaza return in his eyes each time he glimpses waves.
Gaza, also the place my father watched my grandmother dig trenches as the Six-Day War of 1967 approached. He did not understand the ditches until the planes ripped overhead. For a lifetime I have mourned the family members held captive there, their lives more desperate with each passing year of a siege that began in 2007. I have held my breath with them through four wars, their bodies trapped under falling skies, sealed off from all escape. Their slaughter so routine Israel calls it “mowing the lawn.” My family, and two million others, caged by a nuclear power that refers to them as weeds. I often despaired that I would ever live to see them free.
Yet for an instant, watching those bodies running under the sun, it seems absurdly simple. A wall is just a wall.
“Palestinian fighters breached the Israeli barriers . . .” I wait for the inevitable follow up—news that these would-be guerrillas have been killed, as is the fate of most Palestinians who rebel. Instead, I hear that dozens of Israelis have been killed—the count has only just begun. Breach. The only status quo I’ve ever known—one in which any violence skews wildly toward Palestinian death—has been, however briefly, overthrown. A strange sensation: my eyesight blurring, a sense of my body slicing itself in half, the pieces sliding apart. My body knowing what it is still beyond my ability to grasp. One history has ended, and we are falling, already bloody, into the next.
Texts from one of my cousins in Gaza begin to arrive: “At exactly six-thirty [on October 7], we woke up to the sound of missiles coming out of the Gaza Strip like lightning bolts. The question that was repeated to everyone was: ‘What is happening???’. . .The situation up to this moment is nothing . . . but we fear the occupation’s response. They will not let us sleep tonight . . . We ask God for safety . . .”
It will take days to learn the final tally of Israelis killed by Hamas. But by the time the number crosses one hundred, I am panicked. As my stomach churns over images of the dead, I am certain they are already being metabolized by the Zionist machine. I dread the way the violence—both actual and fabricated—will be leveraged to launch a century-sized arsenal into a human cage. This is the cruel calculus of our oppression: my compassion for the slain is shadowed by the towering numbers of our already, and soon-to-be, dead.
“They’re calling us terrorists, Sarah.” My father’s voice is bewildered, wounded. For thirty years he has waited, sure that, one day soon, America will love him back. We are speaking on Sunday, October 8, and the last thirty-six hours have dragged through us like teeth. “They called it this word, massuh . . . massacre?” His mouth fumbles the English word. “Massacre, Baba. That means killing on a mass scale. And you know what? I think it was a massacre . . . There were a lot of people killed.” In the kitchen, my Jewish partner stands soberly over the stove, making food we will not taste. My father sighs. We flounder in complex grief.
It is a sorrow lifetimes larger than words. One wide enough to acknowledge Jewish pain, both recent and historical. As a Palestinian, I refuse to mimic the oppressor by denying the humanity of the deceased. But this sadness sits inside the crater of certainty that the world will still refuse ours. It is a chasm carved by decades of discourse in which only certain bodies bleed. Inside this consensus, there is no violent dispossession of our land, no acceptable form in which we may resist our many slow and instant deaths. It refuses the fact that for decades we have buried hundreds of slain for every one Israeli killed. In this selective, Western gaze, there is only our barbarism, which must be brutally contained.
For my father and me, the killing of Israeli citizens on October 7 vibrates with a primal familiarity, a sort of déjà vu. My family was ethnically cleansed from the area just northeast of the Gaza Strip during the Nakba in 1948—quite near the site of the raids. Many of my relatives lost siblings, parents, and children there to Zionist bullets and bombs. The horror experienced on October 7 felt uncanny, as if I’d seen it before. This resonance does not collapse these unique griefs or histories, but for us, the land has long been haunted, the ground already stained. As shocked as we are by the attacks, we also see them for what they are—the inevitable convulsions of a violent body politic. The eruption of festering truth: that an imperialist, apartheid regime is always a deadly place.
I spent the better half of 2023 in a deep depression that took root during a visit to Palestine in March. While there, I tasted copper static in the air. Material conditions were at new levels of absurd misery. Records of violence were broken and broken again, while Israel’s far-right government reveled in the language of genocide. From West Bank hills eaten by illegal settlements to segregated Jerusalem, a wild feeling hung red and thick. A vibration, threatening to ramp into a scream.
I came back to April showers. My insides were bone dry. “I feel like something violent is imminent,” I told my partner. Before me, I saw long, slow years of grinding loss. I saw uprising. I saw our streets bathed in blood.
The brief speechlessness of the West is replaced with a roar. Politicians from Washington to Brussels scream with a synchronicity that feels rehearsed. Mere hours elapse before the justified grief at the loss of Jewish lives is parlayed into declarations of war. Calls to “flatten”and “finish” us. Demands for “no restraint.” We are declared “animals” by the Israeli Defense Minister, and Western consensus agrees—sitting U.S. senators call us savages, who deserve to be leveled to the ground.
A second type ofdéjà vu: that of my worst nightmares, fulfilled. The rhetoric of the war on terror is reprised; Palestinians, Muslims, ISIS, and Hamas are collapsed into one reviled heap. Israel’s most extreme anti-Arab factions are ascendant, while Western celebrities and governments echo post-9/11 cries of good vs. evil. The very notion of Palestinian civilians vanishes. This is the first kind of death.
“Do you think Hamas will kill the hostages?” My father asks over the phone.
“I have no idea, Baba. I think they want to trade them for Palestinian prisoners.”
“Akkhh. I really hope they don’t kill them. That’s not . . . we don’t want that.”
“No. That is not what we want.”
My cousin in Gaza texts again, “We are now gathered in one room, listening to the news on the radio and also through social media. My brother Mahmoud [age nine] always feels fear in every war, and we try to calm him down. He asks: ‘How does death feel?’ He cries, ‘I am afraid of dying.’ He does not want to eat anything and is very afraid. I tried to make him watch a movie until he forgets, but he still thinks about death, and asks: ‘What is death like, and what do we feel when we die?’ His face is pale. . . . I feel a strange and different feeling.”
Some readers are waiting for me to denounce violent resistance. They imagine that without this assurance, which they ask of no Israeli, I do not have the right to speak. They believe they are owed a version of Palestinian which surrenders everything white, Western liberalism affords our oppressors, and itself: the right to exist, the right to self-defense. They have criminalized our nonviolent forms of protest, killed peaceful demonstrators, imprisoned our poets, and assassinated our journalists. They do not believe in our historical or contemporary suffering. At the same time, they believe it is our natural state—part of the hazy, brown landscape of abjection in the so-called “Arab World.” It is an abjection we must accept, silently and upon the pain of our deaths.
And our dead—oh, our dead. Sometimes I wonder if we die at all. When hundreds of peaceful Gazan protesters were mowed down by Israeli soldiers, we counted them alone. This year, up to the day before the Hamas attacks, Palestinians were murdered at a rate of roughly one per day—more than two hundred by October 6. For us, even funerals can become murder scenes, or grounds for soldier assaults.
If a murderer does not bother to cover their tracks, did they really kill at all?
I am invested in staying human. I read testimonies of Israelis from the areas targeted by Hamas. Almost invariably, they describe hiding in a safe room, a shelter meant to protect life. One man tells the New York Times, “In every house in our community [near the border with Gaza], there is what we call a safe room, which is a room that is built of very strong concrete and has a special kind of door that is supposed to withstand the fall of mortars and rockets. And that’s usually where the children sleep.”
I find this detail so chilling. I wonder, what kind of world does one imagine one lives in, in which such structures are normalized? What kind of status quo does one abide, in which one’s children shelter each night this way? Does it really feel like peace? Does it ever occur to the architects to wonder at the reason rockets are thrown? Or has this society fully accepted that the mortars launched from Gaza are merely missiles of hate?
Don’t their daughters miss waking up to the sun?
A message from my cousin. A home on her block, in Nuseirat Refugee Camp, is bombed. More are killed as they buy food in a nearby market. Asked to flee, she answers, “We don’t know where to go. . . . They treat the people of Gaza like monsters. Why?”
Rehan, a Gaza journalist in her twenties, uses her waning phone battery to record an audio diary. She puts her daughter to bed. She opens the window to feed a hungry cat. She tells the recorder, “My cat Yara had three adorable kittens three weeks ago. . . but how can I look after them now?” Behind her voice, there is the sound of falling bombs.
Monday, October 9. The weather forecast in Gaza is sunny with passing clouds.
I wake in New York City. The air is newly cold.
“Five in Khan Younis,” my father says. He’s speaking of our dead relatives. He does not use that word, dead. “Five gone in Khan Younis,” he says. “Just two of the children left.”
الله يرحمهم .
“But what about Hamas?” I grew up with this question whipped at my face every time I declared my people’s right to survive. “What about Hamas?” It didn’t matter if I’d just asked for clean water or the right to return to our stolen land. “What about Hamas?” they’d ask, holding my humanity hostage. Their smug smiles at this question, which they saw as a rhetorical coup. I gave them hours, pages of my words. I filled rooms with my hot breath, panting, “We are not terrorists—Hamas is a symptom of oppression—yes of course I condemn extremism—this is a struggle for human rights—Israel propped up Hamas for years—please look at our children—please, don’t you see our helpless elders?—please, if you don’t respect us as humans, could you spare some pity?”
Another aunt disappears.
“Your nose is bleeding,” my partner points out as I cry.
Israel announces the border with Gaza is once again “fully secure.”
My cousin’s cell phone is dying; Israel has cut all power, gas, water, and food. “We also now smell smoke. I think it is [white] phosphorus gas they threw into the sky today,” she texts. “I feel suffocated by it. My friend died from inhaling white phosphorus in the 2008 war.”
Are you okay?
Are you okay?
Are you okay?
Are you okay?
The math of apocalypse: 1.1 million asked to evacuate from the north in twenty-four hours. Over one million asked to push their bodies into a scrap of land where over one million bodies already are.
This is not something human bodies can do. News of our non-existence comes and comes again.
I am crossing a pedestrian bridge in Queens several hours before dawn. I double over. My hand is at my mouth. I no longer know how to move air in or out.
What does it feel like to stand at the edge of annihilation? I can only speak from my vantage a few degrees from the epicenter of war. Here, it feels like falling through an endless throat. It is disbelief mingled with the feeling that this day has already come. It is knowing that any possible survival will live inside the knowledge that this planet is one where your extermination was called for, and millions welcomed it.
A Palestinian friend texts me: “Have you eaten today?”
Another texts me from his home in the West Bank, where over thirty Palestinians have been killed in a week. “It is hard but it will only make us more determined to be free.”
The United States announces it will double its military presence in the Middle East. I sit up late in a room full of Lebanese and Syrian friends, surrounded by ghosts.
The challenge: to retain a sense of agency in the midst of overlapping forms of déjà vu; to recognize that the momentum of a century of attempted erasure lies behind current events, and yet resist despair. To believe, even insist, that it is still somehow possible to halt the genocidal imperialist machine.
It is a hope that dies and is resurrected by the hour. Revived, over and over, by the radically shifting narrative on the streets. In over ten years of organizing for Palestinian lives, I have never seen such vibrant, diverse, and urgent solidarity. The shift I felt in 2021—when a previous round of Israeli brutality instigated mass protests from a post-George Floyd public—appears to have held. Though I am wary of trusting my social media feed to reflect political reality, I am shocked at the volume of the grassroots anti-Zionist response.
My phone floods with texts, DMs, and social media posts from friends, colleagues, and cultural figures across the world. Overwhelmingly, their messages voice recognition for the context of colonialism and disproportionate violence, as well as the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Attempting to subvert a deplorably skewed American media response, friends share on-the-ground reports from humanitarian organizations and independent journalists. Posts from Jewish anti-Zionists proclaim this as a moment to make true the oath of “never again.” My partner, an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace, joins in daily actions as the group denounces the weaponization of their grief.
More importantly, perhaps, is the swift movement to the streets. Tens of thousands turn out in city after city, Palestinian flags flying from New York City and London to Baghdad and Kuala Lumpur. Pro-Palestine rallies are banned in France, Vienna, and Berlin. French protesters, defying these orders, are sprayed with tear gas. Hundreds of Jewish activists block Senator Chuck Schumer’s home in Brooklyn, protesting the senator’s full-throated support of Israeli bombings. Dozens, including the descendants of Holocaust survivors, are arrested.
“This feels different,” my friends and I murmur to each other. The question we do not ask: Will it last?
There are moments that will forever defy words. There are crimes so heinous, the whole human soul shakes. Bombs strike al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, killing at least five hundred. Israel’s denial quickly follows. American news outlets, after initially reporting the bomb as Israeli, soon fall in line in suggesting Palestinians may be at fault.
الله يرحمهم .
“I used to have hope,” my father tells me over the phone.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know. But I do know that we will go on.”
I know this truth, though I do not know its shape. It is not necessary to name it hope, but there is no denying the Palestinian ethos is overwhelmingly one of life. We insist on surviving, on loving even the shattered versions of existence granted us. We are masters of paradox, creating beauty and care inside cages, beneath debris. We are fluent in absurdity, shapeshifting to sustain our humanity within ever-contracting walls. Seventy-five years of deferred justice have not extinguished our determination to build, rebuild, write, marry, birth, dance, remain.
Even so, we know we deserve so much better, and so we press against our oppression with imagination and defiant love. As Palestinian scholar Sophia Azeb puts it, “We are not beholden to structure our epistemologies and aesthetics and politics solely within the architecture of this catastrophe.” Though we have never known a free Palestine, no number of bombs can extinguish the inborn will to live in dignity. In this way, our resistance is, to quote Mahmoud Darwish, incurable.
This is the heart of Israel’s problem—not one of Palestinian savagery but of Palestinian life. It is a scourge on the Zionist project, our century-long refusal to disappear. It will remain a scourge so long as the state of Israel exists as a structure predicated on our death. The moment we face now is apocalyptic, the engines of destruction roaring at our gates and in our skies. Each moment is an atrocity. Genocide has begun. But Israel is mistaken if it believes this will be the final word. Palestine will live.