Neighbors and friends in Gaza don’t just share food and water, they share graves.
On December 27, 2008, Abu Hamzah Hijjii lost an uncle to shrapnel from an Israeli bomb during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. A day later his father passed away from cancer. All he got was a phone call in his Northern Virginia home, his father’s dying moments audibly recorded in his memory, as he could not enter Gaza, despite his American passport—just like when his mother died.
Going to the main graveyard could mean more death, even at night, so his brothers buried their father and uncle in a neighbor’s grave. Digging new graves is a luxury of time and place that they couldn't effort.
They live in tiny Gaza where no place is safe, not the playgrounds, nor the shelters, not even the beach. Under the current attack, more than 1700 have died including children, countless injured and thousands displaced. Hospitals and the university lay dismantled; entire neighborhood are flattened.
Now even the phone calls have stopped.
He can’t get in touch with his sister. She fled to find shelter with her husband’s relatives after her neighborhood which is close to the border was shelled continuously. He imagines her cowering in fear, holding her children tight—all seven of them—crammed with her husband, father in law, mother in law, and several other relatives: confined, can’t sleep with tension but staying awake means drones buzzing and buildings shaking with the sounds of bombing, day in and day out.
He calls his other sister and the signal is so bad. “They bombed all the buildings where the cell phone companies had put their antennas,” he says, matter of factly. Every day communication with his sisters and brothers gets harder as the cellular antennas bombarded by US provided Israeli bombs vanish.
The local masjid in his sisters’ neighborhood was obliterated this week, buckling her metal enforced door. It is a mile walk to the masjid, but her apartment building has cracks, and that front door doesn’t shut any more.
“We are tired of hearing someone else we know died," says Hijjee.
The water needs to be pumped up into the buildings, but there is no electricity to pump the water. The power plant was destroyed last week.
There is no fuel so they have not been able to run the diesel generators. When they do run them—carefully rationed—it is for an hour, to charge their cell phones, pump water, and do extremely necessary chores.
Hijjee's father had dug a well in their family land, so a line of neighbors and relatives wait at their family home with buckets and gallon bottles, to fill up drinking water.
In June 2007, Hamas took over power in the Gaza Strip after elections. Since then, the area has been under siege by the Israelis. Gazans cannot get concrete or sand to build their homes, wire to repair circuits, rams to do aqeeqahs, take a flight out to consult a specialist. They are imprisoned in an open prison. Israel controls the airspace and territorial waters of Gaza, and does not allow Palestinians to build an airport or seaport.
He talks about the infamous tunnels. Just like the Jews in Warsaw who survived using tunnels, Gazans use the tunnels as vital arteries for survival. Tunnels controlled by businessmen for gasoline, food, medical needs and included the import of cows and sheep coming in from Egypt to Gaza. Until President Sisi took power in Egypt- now the people are barely living, says Hijjee.
“It has been real miserable for everyone in Gaza," says Abu Hamzah.
Hijjee lived in Gaza for almost three years with his wife and 2 sons. With one son he crossed the Egyptian border in 2005 to visit family. His Egyptian American wife flew into Tel Aviv airport with their baby.
Hijjee describes trying to cross the Rafah border, built on demolitioned homes which house the buffer zone and an eight meter high and 1.6 kilometers long metal wall along the border.
They couldn't leave after the borders closed.
Unable to leave he would spend the days cleaning the streets of dead bodies dying under Operation Cast Lead. “We would go and wait at the Rafah border for days hoping that we could leave,” says Hijjee who finally made it back to NoVA in 2008.
“I didn't have a job like so many Gazan men, so I would collect flesh and body parts of the dead bombed in my neighborhood- resistance fighters and civilians.”
If you are not a person who is eligible for zakat then it is every man for himself. Even the middle class with money have a hard time surviving there. “I could not afford a car so I bought a motorcycle. Imagine paying up to $40 for a liter of gas!” The Israelis control the gasoline from entering Gaza.
Abu Hamzah Hijjee was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. His family is from the Zaitoun area. They moved to Gaza in 1999 from the United Arab Emirates where his father was in the construction business. Despite making a good living, the Hijjas say that they could not afford a large family in the UAE, nor did they feel welcome there. Their business was owned by a silent majority partner called a kafeel. His uncle worked as a driver until he was deported.
The racism and prejudice they suffered in the UAE because they were Palestinian made the Hijjees leave.
Abu Hamzah came to the United States to study chemical engineering at Virginia Tech. His father didn’t want him to come. Here he met his wife—an Egyptian American.
Desperate for his parents to meet her, he was heartbroken when they could not travel to the US for his wedding and he could not go to Gaza without jeopardizing his visa status.
The extensive security checks and prejudice against brown men in the US kept him out of his field, he says. Now he runs a wholesale food business, distributing Hispanic baked goods to megamarts and international stores.
He closes his eyes and remembers his trip to Al Aqsa and the Dead Sea with his uncle as a teenager. The breeze, the banter, the masjid—some of his best moments in the land of his ancestors.
Hijjee is so fed up and he is one of the lucky ones. He just wants the Israelis to leave. “Go back, go back to where you came from: Poland, Germany, or live in a one fair democratic country, where resources are shared. What was wrong with what you had before 1948? You were living with us as your neighbors, but the greed of your so called ‘religious’ teachings," he sighs, and pauses, "people are dying from both sides.”
In short he just wants the Gazan people to live.
“Open up the borders so they can feed their families.”
As an American, the US government's blind loyalty to Israel frustrates him; as a Muslim the closed eyes of the Muslim world pains him.