World / November 27, 2023

“We Just Sit Here Waiting to Die”: Diary Entries From Another Week in Gaza

Atef Abu Saif’s dispatches from the heart of the Israeli assault continue.

Atef Abu Saif
Palestinians in their destroyed home at the refugee camp in Nuseirat, Gaza, on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Palestinians in their destroyed home at the refugee camp in Nuseirat, Gaza, on Saturday, November 25, 2023.

(Ahmad Salem / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Recently, The Nation published a month’s worth of excerpts from the Gaza diary of Palestinian writer and politician Atef Abu Saif. Since then, Saif has continued to keep his diary, and today, we are publishing another week’s worth of entries. These diaries, which have been edited for length and clarity, pick up where the last ones left off.

Thursday, November 9

Yesterday was my last day at the Press House. I was forced to gather my things and bid farewell. The neighborhood had been all but emptied out and the tanks were just two streets away.

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I carried my laptop, my papers, my charger, and my dress shoes, which I’d left in the backyard, when I first arrived, for official occasions, and not used since. For over a month I’ve been running around in sneakers—their red and white stripes are now part of my formal uniform. And I mean run around. Nobody walks calmly: You run. I ran to the car, for instance, with my things, while [my brother] Mohammed ran to the refrigerator to empty it of anything left that was edible: half a bundle of bread, a bottle of orange juice, half an onion. No one looked back when we eventually drove away.

I brought my dad to stay with us at [our neighbor] Faraj’s place. Around 10:30 pm, he woke me up. He was coughing and panting, and could barely stand. He said that we should take him to the hospital. He suffers from respiratory problems. I told him it was hard to go anywhere now; the F16s strike anything that moves. I tried to phone the emergency services, but there was no signal. [Our friend] Adham suggested that we fan him with a thin plastic plate to help him breathe. Adham, [my son] Yasser, and I took turns doing so. I sat beside him waving the plate for half an hour. After a couple of hours, he started to feel better and said he wanted to go to the toilet. “This is a good sign,” Adham said.

When he eventually settled down, I couldn’t sleep. The thought of not being able to call the hospital had made me panic, and the decision not to take him myself made me feel ashamed. How could I have lived with myself if he had died? Even if I had managed to get him there, no one would have paid any attention to this man, in his late 70s, in need of simple medication what with everything else going on.

This morning I woke to a text message from Bilal [the manager of the Press House]. I haven’t been able to contact him since he evacuated the House yesterday morning. I call him and he tells me he is staying in his family home in Shaikh Radwan. “What are your plans, Atef?” he asks, as he always does. “I wait.” My standard reply. “Wait for what?” he asks. “Wait for whatever there is to wait and see for.” We end the call agreeing to meet in two days and decide on our next step then. In other words, we’re postponing yesterday’s plans to move south.

[Note: On November 19, Bilal Jadallah, the director of the Press House in Gaza who makes frequent appearances in Saif’s diaries, was killed by an Israeli air strike that hit his car.]

Outside Al-Shifa, dead bodies are laid out in long rows, many deep, waiting to be identified and taken away by their families for burial. A donkey cart brings three partly burned corpses. Three beautiful young men apparently shocked to death by electricity. One of them is decapitated. Their faces are covered with a blanket. A leg of one of them is twisted at a strange angle. His leather shoes look brand-new. They still shine with polish. It seems his fingers were doing something when his head was cut off. Like waving or strumming on a guitar.

Friday, November 10

This morning I could not drive to Gaza City through the little alleys I have learned to navigate. I make it halfway down the road from Nazal to Jalaa when I have to stop. There is no one other than me on the street; all the buildings seem empty. Explosions sound on every side. If I continue any further I would find myself in the middle of the battlefield. I see tank shells plunge into a building ahead of me. I hear explosions getting closer. I have to turn the car around.

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I couldn’t get to [our niece] Wissam this morning [at Al-Shifa Hospital] to bring her some hot food, as planned. At dawn, I had gone to the market, specifically to get some chicken. I didn’t expect to find any, but I did. I asked my sister Eisha if she could cook one of the chickens, for me to take to Wissam, I suggested that she stuffed it with rice. “Some soup as well!” I added.

On the way there, I learned, from people passing on the street, that Al-Shifa Hospital was under attack. Scores of people had been killed and injured already. The tanks were targeting certain parts of the hospital. Likewise, the Rantisi Hospital in Nasser Street was under siege from tanks in a different part of town. Many people who’d been seeking refuge in the hospital had been shot raising a white flag, trying to get out.

Later, I learned that Wissam had already been moved to the south. Her uncle took her on a wheelchair and traveled through Sallah ad-Din Street to Khan Younis. When she heard the shelling and shooting at the back of the hospital, she started to scream. It took her straight back to the day the missile hit her own home. She started screaming: “Get me out… get me out.” No one knew if she meant get me out of the hospital, or if she was reliving being dug out of the rubble. No ambulance was able to get out of the hospital grounds, so the only way was the old-fashioned way. On foot. Or in her case, in a wheelchair. Thousands of people began to flee the hospital with her.

Everyone knew that tonight they had to decide to stay or head south, this might be their last chance to choose. With the invasion of Gaza City, it seemed the next step the soldiers took would be into the camp. Should we leave? I tried to phone Bilal but couldn’t get through. [My wife] Hanna begged me to leave—at least going south would be less dangerous. For Faraj, it was a hard decision; he couldn’t leave his 90-year-old mother, who needed a wheelchair to get around. Mohammed said we could all lend a hand, pushing her. Again, I said: “Why don’t we just wait and see, wait for the tanks to get to our street?” Adham said by that point we’ll be buried under the ruins of the building. At this everyone looked down, as if collectively beaten.

No one can guess where this is all headed, but of all the scenarios we fear, the most terrifying, the most dystopian is a fully evacuated “North Gaza Strip.” A new Nakba, in short. This is exactly what happened in 1948. My grandmother was forced to leave her beautiful house in Jaffa, thinking she would return just a few days later. That was 75 years ago. Our hearts ache when we remember this collective loss. We all know what it looks like. It looks like this.

Saturday, November 11

Al-Shifa Hospital is under siege. News no longer comes out there, although it is the news. All we hear are the bombs and explosions in the distance. The minister of health, Mai Al-Kaila, publicly estimated that around 50 newborns will die due to lack of electricity at the hospital. Anyone seen moving from one hospital building to another is shot on sight.

Luckily, Wissam is receiving some medication in the European hospital in Khan Younis, where the conditions are better: They have electricity, Internet, a mobile signal, and proper food. The problem now, though, is I can’t visit her anymore; she is on the other side of the new “iron curtain” the IDF has set up along the Wadi, splitting the Strip into two. I hear from my contacts that she is feeling better; she has been given painkillers and is being cleaned more carefully.

In the morning, Eisha and Mohammed prepare breakfast. Last night, Mohammed and Yasser had ground chickpeas to prepare a falafel mix. It was a rare moment of pleasure to have family around me for this little ritual, to see them using a classic grinder, the kind my mother used on such occasions. As we eat the resulting falafels, I say politely to Eisha, “Insha’allah, when this war ends you will make us another meal like this.” This is my version of a prayer right now. That we all live to see that time. “A higher wish than to do pilgrimage,ֹ” she says. And she’s right.

I no longer dare leave Jabalia camp. The characters on my street remain the same: Mustafa, a man in his early 40s, sells candies for kids; Sami sells groceries from a new cart; Wafi sells juice and soft drinks.

People sit in groups chatting and analyzing what is happening, exchanging opinions on each new development on the ground. Everyone agrees the next stop, after “the fall of Al-Shifa,” will be Jabalia. In the collective consciousness of most Palestinians, Jabalia Camp is a classic stronghold of resistance. Even Arafat felt the same, making a point of visiting the camp every Eid, and referring to the place as the “Camp of Revolution.” But tonight, I can taste fear.

“But what if the war did suddenly end tomorrow?” one of the group asks. “What would we do?” “Celebrate,” I reply. It will be hell also when the war ends. But right now, we need a break from this version of hell. So far, we’re not even allowed that: no truce, no cease-fire, no Western politician brave enough to even utter the word. Nothing. And until they find that bravery, we just sit here, waiting to die.

Later, I meet with some relatives from Beit Lahia, who fled to the camp after the tanks wiped out their farms. I was updated as to the names and numbers of the dead on this side of the family: the sons, daughters, grandsons, and granddaughters of my two elderly aunts Nima and Nawal. We exchange sentiments of sorrow and pain.

One of my relatives also laments the loss of his fields. “The season never got a chance to start,” he says. “My sons and I sunk all our savings into seed and preparation; we bet everything we had on a good season. Now we have nothing.” They used to specialize in strawberries. I still cherish the memories of those nights I’d spend at my aunts’ houses in this very north of the Strip, sleeping under the sun and gorging on fresh fruit. There will be no strawberries in Gaza this year.

Sunday, November 12

It seems rain is on its way. For the hundreds of thousands living in schools, out in the open, or with no windows (long since blown out by the pressure of explosions), for those living in classrooms turned mass bedrooms, sleeping side by side on cold, hard floors, winter will be hell. Rain will pour into their rooms and soak their blankets. Never mind what it will do to the drains, if it comes down hard, making effluent rise and wash back into the streets and alleyways.

Even for us, in the relative comfort of this apartment, rain would be a curse. Every window in the building is blown out. The door to the bathroom is gone. Many of the other doors are damaged or hanging on one hinge. And this is probably one of the least damaged houses in the Strip right now.

Faraj and Adham spent three hours this morning trying to fix the windows. Those that have no glass left in them they cover with blankets stretched tightly across the frame; those that still have broken glass in them they cover with nylon. They do the same for the first floor where Faraj’s mother lives. It’s only temporary, but when the rain comes it’ll slow it down at least.

Last night, an F16 fired on a building very close to Eisha’s. The owners of the house had evacuated it over a month before, fearing the missiles and tank shells from the east. But suddenly, for no apparent reason, they had decided to return yesterday morning. Last night, nine of them were found dead, while the rest remain under the rubble.

Mahamoud, one of my relatives, proposed that we all fast during this stage of the occupation, so we only eat once a day. “But we already only eat once a day!” I reply. “But if we fast deliberately,” he says, “we will be closer to God.” “We’re closer to him with a full stomach,” I suggest, “because then we can be of more use.”

Things have become so much more expensive. Many traders are abusing the situation, monopolizing items and selling them at triple their normal price, at least; some things are 10 times their original price. One kilo of flour is now 12 shekels, when it was under four before.

Some Israelis are calling on their government to transform the north of the Gaza Strip into a giant entertainment park, a Disney World for colonizers and settlers. I remind Faraj that they did the same when they destroyed and demolished three Palestinian villages—Imwas, Yalo, and Bayt Nuba—in 1967. They called it “Canada Park.”

“How can people go on holiday on the graves of others?” Faraj asks.

Monday, November 13

I have given up trying to make phone calls. The signal has gone completely. My wife, Hanna, has grown used to my prolonged absences online. At the start of the war, if I didn’t check in every hour she would get mad with worry. Now, the signal disappears for days on end and she knows this is why I havenֹ’t checked in.

Despite looking downtrodden and dirty, the streets are still alive. People gather in groups to talk. Sometimes these gatherings erupt into a quarrel, other times you hear laughter. This is the longest time I’ve spent in my home city for four and a half years.

I pass by Omar, a young neighbor, who tells me he’s just spent two hours filling his 200-liter water tank. It was a long, slow process watching it fill. In the end, he managed to hoist the tank up onto a wheelchair to push back to his house. But on the way home, the chair lost balance and the tank toppled over pouring its contents out onto the street. He tells me it was water for the Wudu (washing before the prayers) but it seems God does not want him to worship him, so he has decided not to refill it again.

Walking on, I’m stopped by another man. He introduces himself as Alaa’, someone who was at high school with me. “It’s like we’re all being played in one big PlayStation game,” Alaa’ says. “We’re the characters and they”–he means the Israeli army–”are the players. We move when they make us move. We die when they let us die. They control us. We’re not human beings we’re characters in a game.” I don’t know what to say to this.

Faraj manages to get through to his daughter, Mariam, who’s been trapped in Al-Shati Camp for the last week. She has now escaped and fled with her husband and kid to the south. Those who flee cannot know for sure if they’ll make it or not. Mariam explained that many were shot the moment they opened the front door of their houses. On the way to Salah al-Din, Mariam saw death at every step. Now she has a new life to start. The life of a refugee. Or rather, being from a camp already, a “re-refugee.”

“Shati” means beach. My late aunt Khadra used to live there and I spent a lot of my summer holidays as a kid in and around her house. This morning, the Israelis ordered those who remained in the camp to flee using Yousef Athma Street to reach Salah al-Din. No one knows the numbers of the dead in Al-Shati.

Tuesday, November 14

Yesterday, Ahmad Fatima was killed by an Israeli attack. The last time I saw him was five days ago when I was last at the Press House. For the first month of the war, I would see him every day. When he first joined the organization as a teenager he was doing similar things, making tea and coffee, preparing meetings and training sessions, and cleaning up afterwards. He then ascended to the position of photographer and taught himself other skills, eventually becoming a tried and trusted journalist. The last time I saw him, his family had spent the night before sleeping on the side of the road, as the building next to theirs had been struck.

Last night, I spent two hours at my sister Eisha’s place. The army intensified its attacks on the Indonesian Hospital, a few hundred meters away. Her kids—she has two boys and one girl—were terrified. I played with Shawki, her 6-year-old son. We hit each other with pillows and played hide-and-seek. Then I asked him, “Are you afraid?” He stopped smiling suddenly and replied firmly, “Yes.”

Later that night, back at Faraj’s, Mohammed and I started to list all those we knew who’d been killed. We got to about 80 then stopped. It was too depressing. I can’t help thinking of Ahmad, and also of Mohammed al-Jaja, who was killed two weeks ago; who knows who I’ll be thinking about tomorrow or next week. I still hear Ahmad’s voice in my ear. “Write, Doctor. Write.” Now I’m writing about you, my dear.

Faraj’s wife is urging him to join her in Rafah. She lost all her family (mother, sisters, and brothers in Al-Bureij), and she doesn’t want to lose more. However, he can’t leave without his 90-year-old mother and doesn’t know how he’ll get her to the Wadi bridge. She has very limited mobility and using a wheelchair to move her makes her panic. Today, though, he seems ready to take the risk and bear the pain.

I spent most of today sitting in a narrow alleyway near Faraj’s place. At around 3 pm pieces of concrete and debris start falling on us in tandem with a massive explosion. We have no choice but to run as the alleyway starts filling up with the new rubble. We cover our heads with our hands. My hair is full of dust and sand. I drag my son Yasser close to me. After a minute or so, things become calm again, except for the dark cloud of smoke in the sky. These days, the sky is almost always full of these kinds of clouds, long dark columns of black and gray that widen the higher up you look.

Wednesday, November 15

It’s 40 days now. No one could have expected it to last this long. Forty days has great significance in Islam. When someone dies, you’re expected to mourn for them for 40 days. The thing is, we haven’t been dead for 40 days; we’re still here.

Yesterday evening, Israeli F16s shone beams of light on the camp that lit up the whole sky. The lights were coming from the drones, to give soldiers on the ground clearer vision. Israel’s high-tech surveillance of the Strip has been going on for over 20 years. Every corner of the Strip seems to be watched by an array of different devices; optical, infrared, radio, the full spectrum. Surveillance balloons hover over the border walls. Cameras hang on wires, staring out across the buffer zones along the border. Warships watch from the horizon and, most importantly, drones—dozens and dozens of them—patrol the skies, day and night.

Earlier that day, just before sunset, F16s hit two houses in the camp belonging to the Al-Madhoun and Mahdi families, right behind a famous shawarma restaurant called Mohannad’s. The two houses were destroyed completely and all the surrounding ones were damaged. Many buildings were left without walls. As I stood with others on the great piles of rubble, surrounded by apartment blocks that no longer had their front walls, I felt for a moment like an actor on a stage, receiving applause from audiences in a theater’s balconies and private boxes.

The civil defense team was busy trying to rescue a teenage girl. She was wearing a red tracksuit. As she lay there with her left hand on her chest, she struck me for a moment like a character from a fairy tale: Sleeping Beauty. The concrete ceiling had fallen on her and pinned her to the bed. The men kept scraping out rubble from the sides so as to release the body. They performed this act with utmost care, as if they didn’t want to wake her from her deep sleep.

The Israelis blasted their way into Al-Shifa Hospital last night. Inside there’s no electricity, no medicine; babies are being delivered without anesthetic and left with no incubators or source of warmth. Many of those simply taking refuge in the hospital have been killed, many others injured. Injured in a hospital!

This morning, on my way back from my father-in-law’s house, a nearby building was struck. I watched from across the street as medical teams tried to resuscitate an old man and presumably his grandchildren. Eventually, they were taken away on stretchers, their faces covered. A woman worked alongside them, wailing as she helped, unable to process that she had just lost her entire family. When she wasn’t trying to pick up slabs of concrete, she was trying to conjure life from the dead bodies.

A friend texts me saying her family made it to the south, but the Israelis arrested her father and brother. She adds a crying emoji at the end. An hour later, she texts me again, saying her father has been released but they kept her brother. I know her brother; he is a young journalist. I used to see him at the Press House and in Al-Shifa. The Israelis have erected a checkpoint at the bridge, four kilometers from here, dividing the north from the south. Most men passing through it are detained.

Many of those people we hear from who’ve fled the south, following Israeli orders, complain about the journey, the harassment at the checkpoints, and the terrible conditions on the other side. This morning, I overheard Mohammed’s friend telling him on the phone that leaving was a mistake. “We’ve been given everything, just not water. We have tomatoes, potatoes, lots of things, just no water. They’ve run out.”

Thursday, November 16

Yesterday, I visited my sister Asmaa, who lives in the western part of the camp. The night before, a tank shell had hit her building. Luckily, the shell struck the stairwell room which is the strongest part of these buildings. The staircase was damaged, of course, but it stopped the shell in its tracks. Asmaa’s husband keeps three large fragments of it in front of their door on the fourth floor. Their five daughters aren’t as facetious about it, though. “The next shell will hit us while we’re sleeping,” her 10-year-old, Fatima, said.

“Surely not.”

“Our neighbors had one land in their bedroom,” Fatima replied. “The girl, she was killed. I know her, she’s in my school.” Asmaa made everyone popcorn, and we began recalling the events of the last 40 days as if we were watching a movie.

Across the road from Asmaa’s is a school where another sister of mine, Halima, has been taking refuge for the last two weeks in a tent that her husband has erected out of blankets. “Where will we go if the war ends?” she asked. “For as long as the war continues, we have a place to stay. But the moment it stops, we’ll be kicked out of here.”

“Do you want the war to continue?” I asked.

“No, I want a home.”

The night before, the manager of this shelter, a woman called Hadeel al-Masri, had been killed when one of the tank shells hit her in the stomach. Ismael, Halima’s husband, told me how her guts were thrown onto the ground in front of her. The shell was like a sword slicing her open. On our way back to our neighborhood, I saw the devastation of the nearby cemetery. I thought of the dead lying in the graves and how annoyed they must be by all the noise the living are making above ground.

Faraj has developed a new routine for his morning call to his wife, sheltering in an UNRWA school in Rafah. He wakes up around 4:30 Am and heads up to the second floor, where he manages to get a signal. Only at this time, just before dawn, is the signal guaranteed. He has about an hour before it disappears again. He talks for as long as he has a signal, to his wife, his kids, and his married daughter. Adham also used to get up at this time of day and start his morning phone calls to make sure everyone was okay. But after the loss of his son, mother, and sister, Adham stopped.

Today is Eisha’s daughter Tasneem’s birthday. She is 9, but there’ll be no party. No cake. Three of Eisha’s kids, as well as her husband Maher, have all had their birthdays during war. So that’s four parties canceled so far. The family clearly has a thing for October and November birthdays, as Eisha’s birthday is on November 23. “Will the war be over by then?” she wonders. We all doubt it. “Our real birthday will be when the war ends,” she says. I suggest that when it comes she could make a big homemade tart for all those owed a birthday. Given the sorrow hanging over the family, for the loss of Maher’s sister and her family, no one is in the mood for anything. “Even if I wanted to,” Eisha explains, “we wouldn’t be able to find the ingredients.”

I have brought with me a box of chocolate that I had saved. Tasneem smiles briefly when I give it to her, saying, “Shukran.” A happy birthday song doesn’t feel appropriate, so instead we wish her a better year ahead.

I hear news that my cousin Naeem passed away this morning. He has been receiving treatment for the last five months in the Al-Wafa rehabilitation hospital in Gaza City. His kidneys haven’t been functioning properly. He was a well-established architect in the city, who had helped in the planning of many well-known towers and buildings. The problem now is how to bring his body back to the camp to bury it. Israeli tanks are on the street in front of that hospital so no one can go near it. The tanks and snipers kill anything that moves.

This morning Israeli jets drop a new leaflet on us, once again urging everyone to move to the south. The leaflet takes a high-minded, threatening tone. “You are being used as human shields,” it tells us. Thanks for that, I think. You’re the ones invading us, killing us, ethnically cleansing us, and you’re the ones taking the moral high ground. The army is also ordering the inhabitants of the eastern part of Khan Younis [in the south] to evacuate, as that area is expected to become a new battlefield. It has already started attacking it this morning.

The European Hospital, where Wissam is now being treated, is in this area. A new wave of worry about her overwhelms me. I try to phone her when I hear this news but there’s no signal. This whole area, in the east of Khan Younis, is overrun by displaced people who were ordered by the Israelis to go there. Where should they go now?

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Atef Abu Saif

Atef Abu Saif is the minister of culture for the Palestinian Authority.

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