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Fresh Hell

A New Yorker Whose Family Just Evacuated Gaza City

Bader talks about staying in contact with relatives abroad, the resurgence of post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment, and trying to keep up with his daily life against the backdrop of fear and horror unfolding in Palestine.

A child exits a storefront in Gaza.
(Heinrich Böll Foundation / Flickr)|

A child exits a Gaza storefront in 2015.

As tension, fear, and anger over last weekend's attack on Israelis by Hamas and Israel's resounding counterattacks on the Gaza Strip permeate the city, 39-year-old Brooklyn resident Bader El Ghussein is thinking about his family members in Gaza City and his Palestinian community at home in New York City. "On an emotional level, it's hard to concentrate on regular daily activities or at work," El Ghussein told Hell Gate. "That's true anytime something in Gaza happens, but more so this time."

El Ghussein, who grew up in Kuwait and California and moved to New York City in 2010 to attend medical school, said he last visited the occupied territories in 2013, as part of a medical mission to the West Bank with the Palestine Children's Relief Fund. But during that trip, he was unable to see his many aunts, uncles, and cousins living in the Gaza Strip, because of how difficult it is for anyone—even Gazans—to enter the territory. In New York City, El Ghussein is involved in pro-Palestine organizing with the Muslim American Society and the Islamic Leadership Council of New York. "Being of Palestinian descent, most of us are really active with the Palestinian cause," he said.

We spoke with El Ghussein about the challenges of communicating with loved ones in Gaza right now, his fears for the future, and the rhetoric from New York politicians, which he said he sees as damaging and dehumanizing. 

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

I first heard about the incursion on social media. I was very shocked at what was happening and worried in terms of what was going to happen thereafter, how that was going to have an impact on my family. My concerns immediately went to my family, because I knew the repercussions were going to be very dire.

I reached out that Saturday to make sure my family was OK. We have family in other parts of the country or other parts of the world. Each one of us tries to contact our relatives in Gaza, and whoever gets in touch will maybe get a soundbite or a daily text, but now, even that's not coming through. Personally, I haven't been able to get in touch, but my aunts and uncles in Kuwait are the ones that usually get in contact and let the family know that everybody's OK and what's happening. It used to be that the family was able to contact them via WhatsApp, but now they're just calling regular phone lines on an international call because there's no internet. My family—and most Gazans, I feel—they put on a good face to not worry family members abroad. Usually, that's how my aunts and uncles are. But we've had a couple voice recordings from them, and they do sound distressed. In their messaging, they're reassuring, but they're just in shock. The area they live in is in central Gaza City, and it's usually hit in incursions, but this time it's been much more severe than years before, and it's constant bombardments that are happening. 

As of two days ago, my family members said they maybe had a day or two of water left. Electricity, even before the incursion, they only had it four hours a day. They had a generator, so if they had fuel for it, it might be a little bit longer. The last few days, because of a lack of fuel, they barely had it at all, and in the evening there was no electricity, especially the last couple of days. Gas, I think, has only been left for the critical areas like the hospitals. Then last night, around 1 a.m. our time here, some of my family, along with 60 other families, had to get evacuated—they live in the north, so the International Red Cross took them down to the south, to an area called Khan Younis

When you get news like that…I broke down a couple of times. It's taken an emotional toll. Sometimes, I just burst out crying from hearing what my family is going through, and also seeing the footage from Gaza when it comes out. This week has been really tough.

The last incident like this that really stuck out to me was in 2021, where there were a lot of incursions into the West Bank, mainly in Al-Aqsa, basically Jerusalem, or what's sometimes referred to as the Temple Mount. Typically, the response is trying to target individuals within Gaza, and bombs go off on a regular basis. Usually, there are some warnings. This time, it's much different. Especially a few days ago, in the beginning phase of this operation, the Israelis were bombing people without warning. Then, they started informing people, but they didn't give them enough time. It's been a constant barrage. 

Then there's the sheer number of actual missiles being launched, and buildings being destroyed, even areas being destroyed. This time, they actually destroyed very heavily commercial areas, they destroyed universities—the main university in Gaza, the university that much of my family went to, it's no longer there. Key infrastructure has been attacked before, but not to the degree that it is right now. 

I don't personally know anyone who's been killed in these strikes, but certainly my family does. Gaza is a very small place, and most people, especially in the same neighborhood, know each other. We do have extended family members, some of their family are either missing or have died from bombings over the last few days. My immediate family, in the bombings in 2001, a missile destroyed the building next to them, and part of their building went with that. 

In my community here, I think everybody has a certain level of sadness. Some have used it as a motivation to get out there and rally in the streets, and most people are active in the social media sphere as well, but in terms of the general mood, it's a combination of sadness, anger, and shock. I will be attending the rally on Friday in Times Square—I'm actually one of the organizers for it, so I've been working on that the last couple of days. 

Politicians' statements have not helped. The mayor, certain politicians' commentary and tweets, I would say, painted a target on the backs of many Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, or those that may be perceived as belonging to those populations. 

There's been in increase in some of the Islamophobic, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim actions. I live in Bay Ridge, and earlier today I found out some of our youth got in an altercation with some agitators, so it's very tough. I know in schools, I've heard at Hunter College, some women got their hijabs taken off. It's a very tenuous situation, and the rhetoric that's coming from our politicians, and even the proliferation of false news that's been coming out, is very concerning. I'm pretty sure you heard about the beheading of children without true, real verification—even President Biden made that statement and had to retract it

Having gone through 9/11 and the anti-Muslim response, it feels almost like that again, especially in New York City. And many of us who went through that, for lack of a better term, have a kind of PTSD, having lived through the post-9/11 response and seeing the stuff going on right now. 

It just feels like mainstream media is against us, politicians are against us, and it's very hard. 

What we're seeing right now in terms of the sheer aggression and force of what's happening in Gaza is tantamount to ethnic cleansing. When the conflict started, you had Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying, "We're telling all the Palestinians to leave," yet they can't leave. There's talk about opening a corridor, but the only way in and out of Gaza for most Palestinians is through the Egyptian border in the south, and when people were trying to leave, the Israeli military bombed that area. 

You even have some New Yorkers talking about "turning Gaza into a parking lot"—that's very concerning, especially for somebody that has family there. My family lived through the ground incursion that happened during the early 2000s, and it wasn't pretty. My cousins, most of whom were kids at that time, all of them have trauma, but some are more traumatized than others. One of my cousins was born around that time, and he's actually a medical student in Gaza now. During his early childhood, he had a lot of anxiety attacks, breakdowns, especially in his preteen to teenage years—it was very rough for him, but at some point, you become numb to these things. He was able to put that energy toward going into the medical field to specifically help people during these times. His brother-in-law had the same thing—it led to breaking up the family, he and his wife had to get a divorce. And by no means is their story unique.

At the macro level, it is essentially wiping out an entire ethnic population, and I don't think there's mincing words with that. From a human rights perspective, laws of war perspective, the cutting off of electricity, water, essential supplies, and especially the announcement that people are being forced out of north Gaza, it's tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Here, even with Biden's first press conference a couple days ago, there was really no mention of Palestinians, let alone Palestinian civilians. We always talk about security for Israel, but what about security and safety and justice and freedom for Palestinians? That is certainly something devoid in the discussion right now. 

There's not a lot of nuance being discussed—I think a lot of New Yorkers and mainstream media are looking at Saturday as the start of the whole conflict, and not putting things into context. No matter how you feel about the Hamas attack on Israel, the sheer dehumanization of Palestinians is overwhelming. It's even in the rhetoric of the news media, when you have a passive voice when it comes to Palestinian victims versus Israeli victims—headlines say however many Palestinians "died," but when it comes to Israelis that were affected, they were "killed." It's very worrying. It's as though Palestinians aren't human. I mean, you had the defense minister of Israel calling Palestinians "human animals." 

The biggest thing we're asking, from Palestinians to non-Palestinians, is to get informed about the topic. I think about this with COVID and being in healthcare, the amount of misinformation that's out there, it's really staggering. When you hear something, question it. Because right now, when we're hearing things in the news, journalism has become more of a race of who can deliver the headline first, and there's really no systematic approach of verifying facts. I think that's something the general public needs to be cognizant of, especially because it's such a nuanced, polarizing topic. 

The other thing is, not that the press hasn't been targeted before, but the press in Gaza, you've had seven journalists that have been killed, last time I checked. The voices coming out of Gaza and the accounts coming out of Gaza are very limited, especially with the internet blackout. Previous times, it was a little bit different—there was much more information coming out because those utilities, for lack of a better term, were in place. Now, we're in an almost complete blackout. 

For people that don't know Palestinians or don't know about the Palestinian cause, reach out to Muslims or people that know about this issue and find out about what's really going on there. Look at things within their context. This particular incursion is not something that just happened. It didn't just start on Saturday. There's a 75-year history where, systematically, there's been an attempt to erase a whole ethnic group from history as a whole.

At the end of the day, people in Palestine and Gaza just want to live like anybody else. They want the same rights everybody else has. We need to view people in those areas as human beings.

Read our interview with Dan, a New Yorker whose Israeli hometown was one of the hardest hit by the October 7 Hamas attack, here.

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