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For Americans With Family In Israel And Gaza, The Conflict Hit Home — And Still Does

Palestinian volunteers and municipal workers clear the rubble of the Hanadi compound, recently destroyed by Israeli strikes, in Gaza City's Rimal district, on May 25, 2021.
MAHMUD HAMS AFP via Getty Images
Palestinian volunteers and municipal workers clear the rubble of the Hanadi compound, recently destroyed by Israeli strikes, in Gaza City's Rimal district, on May 25, 2021.

Said Durrah's family in Gaza are so used to living with Israeli air strikes that his calls during the conflict could be surreal.

"The way that they talk about it is the way that you and I would talk about preparing for a vacation."

Durrah, a Palestinian-American who lives outside Washington, D.C., says they would talk about leaving bags packed with passports and valuables by the door in case of evacuation. And they would try not to dwell on their fears, so as not to contribute to their children's anxiety.

"How raw do they want their emotions to be on this call, knowing that they're surrounded by their family?" Durrah says.

Libby Lenkinski, who lives in Brooklyn, regularly called her sister, who has two small girls, in Tel Aviv, which was a target of rocket barrages fired from Gaza.

"When I talk to them, I'm trying to just kind of be normal, like, you know, what are you drawing and what are you doing? And let's play a hide-and-seek game on Zoom or whatever," she says. "But, you know, it doesn't work ... They feel what's going on and they feel the tension."

Many Americans with family in Israel or Gaza stayed in constant touch with their loved ones as the Palestinian militant group Hamas fired rockets into Israel and Israeli warplanes carried out air strikes on Gaza. The fighting left more than 240 people dead in Gaza and 12 in Israel. Despite a cessation of hostilities, the fears and feelings about a conflict thousands of miles away are still raw, and many on this side of the Atlantic feel it's only a matter of time before there's another escalation.

"The cease fire is just an end to the threat of imminent death," said Deanna Othman, who has a large network of family members in Gaza through her husband.

"The greater issue is, you know, the siege, the occupation in general, the displacement," she adds. "And without, you know, a solution to all of those issues, it becomes nearly impossible for them to come back from something like this."

Othman, who teaches high school English in the Chicago suburbs, learned that her sister-in-law's family's house was leveled by an Israeli airstrike — like hundreds of other buildings in Gaza. The family were safe: they had evacuated as the bombing intensified nearby.

"Experiencing that secondhand, there is a lot of guilt we feel, as Palestinian-Americans," she says, adding that she and her husband checked in with relatives as often as spotty internet and phone connections allowed.

"It's really difficult to even know what to say. What are you supposed to say to somebody who is, seeing the bombs fall around them?"

Othman shared a video of the rubble of the destroyed house on her Twitter account. "This is what our people are facing," she wrote.

Othman is a board member with the Chicago chapter of American Muslims for Palestine. But she says, when she sees what her family is going through, she can feel powerless.

"Despite how hard we work, despite how many thousands of people we bring out into the streets," she says. "It sometimes feels like it's nothing when somebody's life is under threat."

Durrah says one thing is different this time around: social media. He sees the videos of the destruction in Gaza and their amplification by celebrities as a potential "game changer" for public opinion.

"When you see it in high definition," he says, "It's a lot easier to understand what occupation looks like."

Lenkinski, who works for the New Israel Fund, a left-leaning group that she says is "staunchly" anti-occupation and working to build Arab-Jewish partnerships, is aware of the asymmetry of the risks to residents of Israel and Gaza.

As worried as she was for her own family, she knew they were protected by Israel's Iron Dome defense system, which prevented most Hamas rockets from reaching their targets. And they were never far from shelter.

"Palestinians in Gaza don't have any protection from the bombs that are being dropped by Israel on their homes," she says. "They don't have anywhere to run."

But the conflict still took a toll on her family. Lenkinski says her sister had panic attacks, and worried about leaving the house and having to sprint to a bomb shelter with her two girls.

The conflict even intruded on her niece's play dates.

"The first thing that they talk about — these 8-year-olds —is 'What did you do when you heard the sirens? Were you scared?'" Lenkinski says. "That's what's on their minds. And that is really devastating and awful."

David Shriberg, of Bloomington, Ind., spent a lot of time on social media during the conflict, looking for updates on the situation, because his daughter was in Israel for a high school trip.

"When your child's in a war zone, it's hard to think about anything else," he says.

Before she left for Israel, the main safety concern was COVID-19. But as the fighting escalated, he felt an "increasing terror" about the thousands of rockets that Hamas and other militant groups fired at Israel.

As Shriberg and his wife talked to his daughter about how things felt on the ground in Israel, his fears eased a bit.

"The roles kind of shifted a bit and our daughter was trying to reassure us," he says.

But their conversations also touched on the discussion about the conflict that Shriberg was following on social media, some of which disturbed him.

"Clearly anti-Semitic things like Jews controlling the media, or all sorts of absurd memes. I see them being passed along, I guess, under the guise of Palestinian rights," he says. "I find that incredibly alarming."

Shriberg says the civilian deaths in Gaza are a tragedy. But he says Hamas's military strategy deliberately put Israel in a "horrific position," in which it couldn't defend itself without killing civilians.

Israel is important to him, he says, because there needs to be a safe place in the world for Jews.

Here in the U.S., he says, the anti-Semitism he saw online this month and the anti-Semitic violence of recent years is "soul crushing."

"I see it invading our lives in a way it hadn't before."

So the conflict and its consequences are not over for him, even though his daughter is back in the U.S. now. And it's not over for Durrah, Lenkinski or Othman, whose families in the Middle East are never far from their minds.

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