Reem Zidiah’s father worked and saved for much of his life, and five years ago her family moved into their dream home in one of Gaza City’s prized apartment buildings. Shortly before Israel and Hamas agreed to a temporary pause in fighting last week, an Israeli airstrike reduced her family’s dreams to a pile of rubble. Zidiah says at least 10 civilian residents — friends, neighbors, parents, children — lost their lives.
Zidiah, a 22-year-old Palestinian who was preparing to pursue a master’s degree in international relations before the war, said her neighbors were killed in a large communal hall that doubled as bomb shelter before it was targeted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Her father’s friend and his 4-year-old son are among the victims. Her mother’s friend was killed alongside her daughter. Zidiah recalled the long nights they spent together in the hall as Israeli bombs fell across the city.
“They targeted the halls where we used to take shelter,” Zidiah said in an interview with Truthout. “We all know each other … we slept in the hall of our building together when we had difficult nights.”
While the IDF warned residents to evacuate, Zidiah said there was nowhere safe to go. Some families returned after hearing that the apartment building was not named on a list of reported targets, determined to stay in their homes as Israel’s attacks displaced 1.8 million Palestinians. Death came at 6 am the next morning. Zidiah says the idea that the apartment building was some kind of hideout for Israel’s enemies is ridiculous.
“We had a new life, a new neighborhood, we were happy, we never imagined that our building would be bombed, because there is nothing in it — we are all civilians,” Zidiah said.
Israel’s war on Hamas and the people of Gaza has shocked the world since airstrikes began in early October, and now a temporary and unstable truce — as well as the return of sporadic internet service in some areas — is allowing stories like Zidiah’s to reach the world.
Zidiah evacuated her home twice since the airstrikes began in October, making her way south with thousands of others who fled airstrikes on streets covered with dead bodies and debris. She returned with family members just two days after the first evacuation because the conditions in southern Gaza were unbearable due to an Israeli blockade of food, fuel and medical supplies. The next time she fled her home would be the last, and her story undercuts the claim by both Israel and the Biden administration that the IDF made efforts to limit civilian harm. Entire neighborhoods and entire families are destroyed, and at least 14,800 civilians are dead, many of them women and children.
Schools, hospitals, mosques and aid shelters were attacked and destroyed. Humanitarian conditions continue to deteriorate due to shortages of food, electricity, clean water and medical supplies, and the death toll is expected to climb even if the truce holds.
“What we are going through cannot be justified — it is literally a genocide,” Zidiah said.
What U.S. and Israeli officials billed as a strategic campaign to defeat Hamas is now viewed by much of the world as collective punishment for the October 7 attacks by Gazan militants who broke through a fortified border wall and took hostages from communities in southern Israel. Dozens of hostages have since been released in exchange for women and children caged in Israeli prisons under dehumanizing policies of mass incarceration.
“The occupation, the oppression, the blockade, no freedom of movement, no prosperity — all this will lead to an explosion,” Zidiah said.
Zidiah is now living in a tiny apartment in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, where 40 members of her family are taking shelter. Food, drinking water and electricity are scarce or nonexistent. Israel urged residents of Gaza City in the north of the territory to move south for their safety, but airstrikes have also pummeled southern Gaza.
“They bombed very close, a house near us,” Zidiah said. “Everywhere is targeted, yet they say that the south is the safe area.”
Zidiah said an internet connection is a sporadic luxury, but she was able to share photos and video of what is left of her home and her family’s dreams back in Gaza City: a pile of crushed concrete where an apartment building once stood, with people potentially buried underneath. She has lived through multiple wars and Israeli bombing campaigns, but she says the current level of death and destruction was unimaginable just weeks ago. Every Palestinian civilian in Gaza is impacted, and Zidiah says her people will be “traumatized for life.”
“We are all affected, no one is safe, everyone has lost something — lost a house, lost a job, lost a family member,” Zidiah said. “They didn’t leave anything, they bombed everything. There is no life.”
Before the war, Zidiah was finishing a master’s thesis on international relations and hoping to travel abroad despite Israel’s blockade that prevents most Gaza residents from leaving the coastal enclave. Truthout connected with Zidiah through Girl Up, a U.S.-based project of the United Nations Foundation that works with girls and young women across the world to build the next generation of social and gender justice leaders.
Now she does not know where she will end up or what the future holds. Her home and much of her city is destroyed. There is nothing to go back to, and many in the Israeli government are pushing to forcibly displace the people of Gaza into refugee camps in the deserts of northern Egypt. By providing aid and weapons with no strings attached and pushing Congress for more, critics say President Joe Biden has given Israel the “green light” to carry out ethnic cleansing.
“If it ends tomorrow, I don’t where I will have to go,” Zidiah said, echoing tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians across the territory.
Asked what Gaza needs from the world right now, Zidiah simply said “humanity.”
“What we need is a ceasefire, what we need is peace, what we need is freedom,” Zidiah said. “We need peace — peace is a hard thing, we know that, and we will sacrifice so we can have peace.”