Palestinians in West Bank watch, worry and check their phones as Gaza conflict rages

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Israel imposed a "total" blockade on Gaza in 2007. Israel restricts, but does not completely prohibit, the movement of goods, resources and people between its territory and Gaza. The article also incorrectly reported that the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, was a response to the Israeli occupation and expansion of settlements. While those were long-standing factors that contributed to Palestinian grievance against Israel, there were multiple triggers for the uprising, and whether it was spontaneous or planned is the subject of debate.  


Sami Shaath, a West Bank resident, looks at his phone as his daughter Farah, 5, watches. “All my family is in Gaza, and I can’t provide anything for them,” he said. (Max Becherer/Polaris Images for The Washington Post)

The cellphone bill will be astronomical this month, but Sami Shaath remains glued to his device. Every two hours, or sooner if he sees a breaking-news alert on television, he calls his brothers and sisters in Gaza to see if they are alive.

Then, if they answer, the relief he feels is quickly replaced by guilt and helplessness.

“All my family is in Gaza, and I can’t provide anything for them,” lamented Shaath, 52, an Arabic-language professor, seated in the manicured garden of his comfortable four-story house.

For nearly 15 years, tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank have been unable to visit their relatives in Gaza, roughly 50 miles away, because of travel and other restrictions imposed by Israel. It is an emotional divide, not just a geographic one, that separates them.

With the conflict between Israel and Hamas now in its fourth week, Palestinians in the West Bank find themselves, by their own admission, in a futile struggle to comfort relatives in Gaza, many of whom they have never met. The lives of the West Bankers are ordered by rumors and news broadcasts, tweets and Facebook postings about Gaza. And with each day, the emotional toll increases.

Children paying a terrible price in Gaza

“People think they are going to die at any minute,” said Shaath, a man compact in size but large in voice, with a pepper-colored moustache and graying hair.

Moments earlier, Shaath received a text message he had been dreading. His cousin Muhammad, 25, had died in a Cairo hospital from injuries he sustained when an Israeli airstrike hit his home in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, a few days earlier. Three of Muhammad’s brothers were killed instantly in the attack, which leveled their house.

Palestinian medics transported Muhammad to Egypt through the Rafah crossing, which is open only to those with medical emergencies. Shaath had met Muhammad and two of the other cousins when they were boys; the fourth, who was 15, Shaath knew only by his voice over the phone.

“If they had walked past me on the street, I would never have recognized them,” he said with a faint smile.

Shaath kept glancing at his cellphone. He was waiting for another text message with the timing of Muhammad’s funeral, so he could mourn at the same moment.

In 2000, the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, erupted. As attacks on its citizens mounted, Israel tightened its borders. It then imposed sweeping restrictions on the movement of Palestinians into Israel and between the West Bank and Gaza, putting in place a system of checkpoints, roadblocks, travel permits and forbidden roads.

After Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, Israel imposed a blockade of the strip. Today, Israel maintains control of its border crossings with Gaza, as well as its air and sea space, preventing Palestinians from entering or leaving save for humanitarian reasons, such as urgent medical care. When his father died in 2008, for instance, Shaath was not allowed to attend the funeral.

Ahmed Obaid, 58, came to Ramallah from Gaza with his family to work on an engineering project in the fall of 2000. After the Palestinian uprising began, they couldn’t return to Gaza. In 2003, Obaid received a rare Israeli travel permit to visit his sick brother. He never got one again.

Now, he’s trying to find a way to help his numerous relatives inside Gaza. He can’t wire money, because Israel and the Palestinian government in the West Bank prohibit such transfers, fearing that they could finance Hamas. So Obaid is considering asking friends in Persian Gulf countries to wire funds.

It may be difficult, though, to track down his relatives. They have scattered across Gaza. “So if one gets targeted, the others will live and the dynasty will survive,” Obaid explained as he sat on the elegant, mosaic-tiled patio of his home. By his side was his 20-year-old son, Moad, who stays in touch by Facebook with a cousin in Gaza he has never met.

In another neighborhood of Ramallah, Abdul Karim Kashan, 65, said he was worried about his two sisters in Khan Younis. One has sought refuge in a U.N. shelter. The other is in a hospital where her daughter gave birth to a baby last week. Israeli airstrikes have been pounding the area.

Kashan serves as a link between his two sisters and other relatives spread across Gaza. The pair have run out of money for their cellphones, so he calls them every day to update them about other family members. Recently, he gave his sisters bad news: A cousin was in a coma after an Israeli airstrike, and his 13-year-old son was killed.

Kashan said he plans to join anti-Israel protests in the West Bank. When he tells his sisters, he said, it “will boost their morale.”

Whenever Shaath phones his brothers and sisters in Gaza, he prays they will pick up. When they do, they attempt to steer the conversation to mundane matters, he said, as if they are trying to transport themselves back to their prewar existence.

“They don’t want to worry me,” Shaath said. “They try to change the mood, the rhythm of their suffering.”

The other day, they asked about his son, Majid, and whether he had passed his high school exams. He did with high marks, Shaath told them. Did you throw him a party, they asked?

It’s questions like this that make Shaath feel even guiltier.

He did not invite friends over for lavish dinners to end the daily fasts during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which just ended. His family did not celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which follows Ramadan. Nor did they throw a party for Majid. Shaath said his family does not socialize, “out of respect for our family in Gaza.”

“I hate myself,” he continued, looking at his beautiful home. “I have all the food I want in my house, and they are struggling to eat.”

Sufian Taha contributed to this report.

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's Kabul bureau chief since 2014. He was previously based in Nairobi and Baghdad for the Post.
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