There are no children in Gaza. That’s what my mother says. There are no children, only old souls in miniature bodies. Because how can you be a child when you face the prospect of death from the moment you are born?
A little more than a month has passed since Hamas’s horrific attack on October 7. I remember the heart-wrenching feeling of seeing innocent people, bloodied and broken, forever altered, saddled with a pain no one should have to endure.
And then I thought of what would happen next, and my heart sank further because I knew terrible suffering would be unleashed on Gaza.
In the weeks since, the Israeli military has carried out a relentless campaign of retaliation in one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Amid the constant bombardment, mothers wail, doctors rush to save patients before fuel runs out, and children tremble in fear. And so many die.
I’ve been watching these images of dead and dying children, recorded on phones and reported by journalists whose own families are at risk, while nursing my newborn son. Thousands of miles away. On a couch in New York City. Alongside my mother, whose family left their home in a refugee camp in the West Bank during the period leading up to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
An ambulance worker desperately cradling a child not much older than mine. A toddler screaming for her mother, who’s now buried somewhere beneath the rubble. A little boy carrying what remains of his brother to a hospital. His wide, gray eyes reminded me of my baby’s.
Tears fill my mother’s eyes. She doesn’t typically speak of her childhood. Of what it was like to grow up in a refugee camp. Her family left for Jordan a few years before tanks would roll through the West Bank. “But your father’s family left during the war, with little more than the clothes on their back,” she tells me in Arabic. “This is another Nakba,” she says, her eyes fixed on the TV.
Nakba. “Catastrophe.” That is how Palestinians remember the events of 1948, when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced or fled fearing massacres. My mother’s parents among them.
I imagine that displacement looked something like what we see in Gaza today, a sea of people leaving their homes on foot, navigating their way through a maze of debris, unsure if they’ll ever be able to return, in search of safety.
But in Gaza, there is nowhere else to go, and nowhere is safe.
With access limited and information restricted, these images filling our screens may tell only part of the story. Who knows what unknown violence the darkness bears witness to.
What we do know is that a child is killed every 10 minutes in Gaza, according to the World Health Organization. And the Gaza health ministry reports that more than 4,500 Palestinian children have been killed since this war began. These children were born and raised in what various human-rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, refer to as “the largest open-air prison in the world.” Of course, prison implies some kind of wrongdoing. What crime can a child be guilty of?
I look over at my son, helpless and vulnerable, cozily sleeping in his nursery with his jungle-animal friends watching over him. I remember the day we decorated those walls, carefully placing every lion and elephant and giraffe—a little higher; no, a little lower—until each piece of the display fit just right. That’s what my son sees every time I lay him down for a nap. For the children of Gaza, what adorns their walls—the walls that remain standing?
I stare into the dust- and blood-covered faces of those children while I wipe my milk-drunk baby’s grinning face, and I wonder, What will I tell him when he’s old enough to understand? How will I explain what it means to be Palestinian?
This question is one my parents inherited from their parents, and one they passed on to me. Each generation has to absorb the weight of the past, an invisible bond to a place that grows less and less visible with every decade.
It is a question I have struggled to answer throughout my life, which is one reason I found my way to journalism and created a history show that aims to place the past on a continuum with the present. Yet the question also involves a part of my identity I often shy away from speaking about publicly. To be Palestinian is to be predefined, and to lose control of your story.
As I’ve come to see it, it is a question that perhaps doesn’t have one big answer but 100 small ones. The savory smell of mansaf, the vibrant red on the thobe my grandma always wore, the ardent passion for olive oil, the one-two step of the dabke we dance at weddings, the lullaby my mom sings to soothe my son to sleep. And the pain—of burying children year after year, decade after decade, and of struggling to keep this identity alive.
With each new child found in the wreckage of a school, a home, a hospital, a refugee camp, I feel compelled to know them not just as numbers but as people with names. Names their parents scribbled on their bodies for fear they would not be identified otherwise. Hamza. Jude. Lana. Youssef. Ali. Rayan. Names like my sister’s, cousins’, nieces’, and nephews’. Names I considered for my own son.
There are no children in Gaza. Only terrorists and human shields, we’re told. However you look at it, the children of Gaza are trapped—in a world built long before they arrived and convulsed by forces out of their control—and robbed of their fundamental humanity.
Like parents everywhere, I hear my baby son’s cry, and I go to him. Pick him up and comfort him. It’s only human.
If we grow numb to the cries of all of Gaza’s children, don’t we risk losing our own humanity as well?