Laila Barhoum is Oxfam’s policy officer in Gaza.

In Gaza, when you see the black smoke in the sky, you know you’re one of the lucky ones. Because this time, it wasn’t you. Next comes the guilt. Because while you are safe for the moment, you know someone else is suffering, someone else has lost something or someone.

We dread the darkness of the night, when you can no longer tell where or how close the black smoke is. You can only hear it, feel it and, if you’re lucky, survive it. So, we gather together, support each other and tell ourselves that we will survive the night. And we wait for the condemnation from the international community — condemnation that never comes.

The attacks on Gaza started quickly and on a massive scale. Almost immediately, the sounds of ordinary life — women shopping for groceries to prepare their Ramadan iftar meals, men chatting with friends and neighbors, kids playing in the streets — were replaced by an eerie silence broken only by the sounds of drones, warplanes and airstrikes. Whatever normal life we had receded, to be replaced by fear, anticipation and horror spreading from one home to another.

I did not imagine that in an instant, covid-19 would become the least of our concerns, that instead of worrying about surviving a pandemic or reminding myself not to eat too much chocolate during Eid, I would need to worry about my life and the lives of my family.

I am haunted by images of women running in the streets holding tight to their children. I keep thinking about everyone who lost a loved one, or who lost their houses, and need to start over with nothing. As the names of those killed started trickling in, we did the only thing we could do: We stayed at home and waited. When friends outside of Gaza started reaching out to me to tell me to “stay safe,” all I could think was: “How?” I have no Iron Dome to protect me, no bomb shelter to take refuge in, no where I can run.

For Palestinians in Gaza, this is nothing new. We have endured 14 years of blockade and three successive wars in the past 10 years. It is not that history is repeating itself; it is that our history is our present.

We are exhausted. Day after day, we watch the bombs fall on homes where our friends and family live and buildings where our colleagues work, wondering if we will be next. And we wait in vain to hear our humanity recognized by the international community in words and actions. Receiving neither, we are left to feel that our rights don’t matter, that our lives don’t matter and that as human beings we don’t matter. When a cease-fire is eventually declared, we will once again dig out from the rubble and begin to rebuild, only to wait for another cycle of bombardment to destroy what we have done.

After a nearby explosion, a Reuters camera operator turned the camera in time to see a second mortar fire during a night attack in Israel on May 15. (Reuters)

We had hoped this cycle might finally be broken when President Biden was elected last year. Like so many others here and around the world, I celebrated because he campaigned on a platform of upholding human rights at home and abroad. Our hopes had been dashed by American leaders before, but we allowed ourselves to hope that Biden’s election would bring, at the very least, a baby step in the right direction. And yet, what we heard from him this week in response to escalating hostilities in Gaza and across the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel was nothing close to his lofty rhetoric. It was just a one-sided condemnation of rocket attacks. We were let down, and felt forgotten, once again.

When I speak to U.S. officials, I urge them to remember that the billions in unconditional military aid that they approve each year for Israel — aid that the Israeli military uses against my community and my people — means the United States is not a neutral bystander or an impartial peace broker, but effectively fueling the conflict. I tell them that it is long overdue for them to critically examine the root causes of violence and human rights abuses, and America’s own complicity in them.

If we don’t see the change and actions we need, this escalation will not be the end of the cycle. I don’t know where the next strike will land, but we know it could hit us.

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