Palestinian Americans on the Israel-Hamas war: 'We're not even allowed to grieve'

Palestinians evacuate the area following an Israeli airstrike on the Sousi mosque in Gaza City on October 9, 2023.
Palestinians evacuate the area following an Israeli airstrike on the Sousi mosque in Gaza City on October 9, 2023.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images

For more than two weeks now, Tariq Luthun has been unable to sleep.

"I barely have time to engage in the act of living," he says. From his home in Detroit he's watching his family's home of Gaza be flattened, block by block.

Inundated with images of bombs and rubble and broken bodies, he is at turns devastated and terrified. Sometimes he just feels numb.

The bombing began as a response to Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which left more than 1,400 Israelis dead. Israel says 222 hostages were taken over the border.

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Since then, Israel's bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 5,000, according to Palestinian officials. About 100 more have been killed in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian health ministry. The United Nations has said that over 1 million people in Gaza have been internally displaced.

According to human rights groups, Gaza is in the depths of a humanitarian crisis, a direct result of Israel's bombing and "complete siege" of the enclave. Over the weekend, the first trucks carrying aid started to trickle through from Egypt to Gaza, part of a U.N.-brokered deal helped along by leaders of various countries, the U.S. among them. President Biden has continued to say his administration stands with Israel, while urging that country to minimize civilian casualties.

To be Palestinian American in this context, Luthan says, is to feel erased – like the deaths of your people don't matter.

The dozen Palestinian Americans NPR talked to from around the U.S. say they are mourning Gaza, while feeling completely abandoned by their country. On top of that, they fear rising anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia.

"We're not even allowed to grieve"

Luthun does data engineering by day. By night he's a poet and a community organizer. He mostly has done work around disability justice, but ever since the war started, he's been on Zoom calls and group texts with other organizers, strategizing the best way to call for a ceasefire and stop the bombing. He says around 75 percent of his family is in Gaza. So far, they've survived.

Palestinian emergency services and local citizens search for victims in buildings destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on October 18, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza.
Palestinian emergency services and local citizens search for victims in buildings destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on October 18, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza.
Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

"I'm literally watching my family get bombed and then being gaslit to say, 'Oh, they deserve it,'" Luthun says. He hears Hamas being conflated with innocent Palestinians like his family, or that all Palestinians bear responsibility for Hamas' attack on Israel.

Hamas controls Gaza, but there haven't been elections since 2006. More than half of Gaza's population are children, meaning many weren't alive, let alone old enough to vote back then.

For two weeks Israel's "complete siege" of Gaza has halted food, medical supplies and fuel from getting in. Power and water are still cut off. Saturday, after waiting at Egypt's Rafah crossing, 20 trucks of aid were allowed into Gaza; Sunday, a United Nations official said on social media that another dozen or so trucks were allowed in. But the United Nations has said it's only a drop in the bucket for a besieged population of more than 2 million, as Israel's bombing campaign continues without pause. More than 200 aid trucks are still waiting to cross. Palestinian civilians are still trapped inside Gaza, with no way out.

Hani Almadhoun works at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the primary relief organization in Gaza, so he knows how things work on the ground. He lives in the D.C. area, but was visiting with his family, just a few weeks ago.

But now, "even if I wanted to go to Gaza, I can't. If I want to get my family out of Gaza, I can't," he says.

Almadhoun says some of his family went south, after Israel ordered 1 million Palestinians to leave Gaza City. Other members stayed together on the edge of northern Gaza – because Israel also bombed the south.

He says most of his family members are huddled together in an apartment building, staying away from windows during the day, sleeping under staircases at night, aware they could die at any moment.

When Almadhoun finally got in touch with his mother a week into the bombing, she asked to do a video call so she could see his face, in case it's the last time.

"I had my sister ask me to adopt her daughter if they get bombed and her daughter survives," he says.

A man cries because his home was bombed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on October 16, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza.
A man cries because his home was bombed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on October 16, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza.
Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

Over the weekend, his sister-in-law lost 12 members of her family in an airstrike on their home. All of her siblings are gone, and they can't find her father in the rubble.

He says it's not just the stories of loss and horror he's hearing from Gaza – it's also what he feels is a callous response to those horrors by people here in the U.S.

When NPR first talked with Almadhoun, he had just seen a video on social media, shared by a friend and colleague in Gaza. It showed the body bags of at least 20 of his friend's family members, all dead.

"'Oh, this is fake,'" he says people wrote in the comments on his friend's post. "'These are not real people. These are Hamas fighters.'"

"We're not even allowed to grieve," he says.

"No understanding"

Empathy isn't the only thing absent from the discourse, says Rania Mustafa, executive director of the Palestinian Community Center, an advocacy group in New Jersey. Many conversations that are happening here in the U.S. are missing key context, she says, as if everyone is picking up a book in the middle, thinking it's the beginning.

She says American politicians, media and culture are stuck in what she calls a false narrative that this latest siege began with Hamas' attack – when decades of complicated history preceded this moment.

This is the fifth time Israel has had a war or conflict with Gaza in the past 15 years. But the history goes back even further she says, to what Palestinians call 'the Nakba' — or 'catastrophe' in Arabic – the mass displacement of 700,000 Palestinians during the establishment of Israel.

For the past 16 years, Israel has maintained a land, sea and air blockade of Gaza – restricting the movement of people and goods. Egypt also has a blockade on its border with the enclave. Both countries say it's necessary to protect against militants, though some humanitarian groups have called Gaza an "open-air prison."

Palestinians are, Mustafa says, essentially locked in. All of that, she argues, set the stage for Hamas' violent attack. It's not a justification she says, but it is central to understanding what is happening and why.

But she feels like that has all been erased from the national conversation.

"There's no understanding of this," she says "the lack of even taking any context into consideration is honestly unjust."

"We stand with Israel"

The United States has long supported Israel, diplomatically, militarily and financially. Washington has continued that support even as some human rights groups have called what is happening to Palestinians in parts of the occupied territories, including Gaza, apartheid.

During this latest conflict, Biden has urged Israel to limit civilian casualties, but his support for the country has not wavered, and he's reiterated his support for Israel's right to defend itself. He has not publicly condemned the siege of Gaza and has not called for an end to the bombing.

More recently, Biden has emphasized that Palestinian civilians are being harmed, and stated that the "vast majority" of Palestinians "have nothing to do with Hamas" – but many Palestinian Americans listening say it feels like his rhetoric has privileged Israeli pain over their own.

Hani Almadhoun says he feels like Palestinians in Gaza and the U.S. have been abandoned by the U.S. government. "Palestinians in Gaza are dead and nobody seems to care," he adds.

"Level the place"

Almadhoun feels that the political rhetoric in the U.S. has been alienating and isolating.

Many democrats are following Biden, and aligning themselves with Israel unequivocally. A smaller number are calling for a ceasefire.

On the other side of the aisle, some Republican politicians have made more extreme statements in calling for a violent response to Hamas' attack.

"Level the place," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Fox News. "Gaza is going to look like Tokyo and Berlin at the end of World War II when this is over. And if it doesn't look that way, Israel made a mistake," he said.

"There can be no cease-fire, negotiated solution or peaceful coexistence with depraved barbarians who murder teen-aged girls, children & the elderly," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on X, formerly known as Twitter, advocating for Israel to respond "disproportionately."

Others, like Florida's Republican Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, have painted all Palestinians with a broad brush.

"If you look at how they behave — not all of them are Hamas, but they are all antisemitic," DeSantis said to voters in Iowa, arguing that the U.S. should not accept Palestinians who might flee as refugees. "None of them believe in Israel's right to exist," he said.

People were also beating the drum of war on social media like Facebook and X, says Almadhoun. Sometimes they were people he knew. "You find many decent people — they're frothing at the mouth, 'Hey, we want to burn Gaza to the ground, finish them,' " he says.

"It's a very clear disregard of human life."

Almadhoun thinks that rhetoric made it inevitable that Palestinian Americans would face real-world violence. He was devastated, but not surprised, when on Oct. 15, a Palestinian American family in the Chicago area was attacked by their landlord. The mother, Hanaan Shahin, was severely wounded — her six-year-old son, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was killed.

The Justice Department is investigating it as a hate crime.

"The leadership here in this country owns this," Almadhoun told NPR after the attack.

"They've stoked the fear in the hearts of Americans. They made us animals and beasts and barbarians and the media ran with it."

Fear of speaking out

Rania Mustafa says since the Oct. 7 attacks she's been fielding phone calls from Palestinian Americans whose bosses have called them, and told them not to say anything, not even to call for an end to the bombing, because it might be seen as antisemitic.

"There is this huge rhetoric of speaking for Palestinians or against Israel is antisemitic. It is not," Mustafa says. She points out that there are Jewish Americans and Israelis who speak both against Israeli occupation and the war.

Mustafa says she's also hearing from folks who have been fired or doxxed. She's hearing from parents whose children's school sent home notes in solidarity with Israel and Israeli victims, but who failed to acknowledge lost Palestinian lives, or ongoing Palestinian grief.

People feel erased and scared she says, scared to even speak up about their fears. It's like post-9/11 Islamophobia all over again, she says.

"I think this is once again another time where Palestinian Americans are being punished for being Palestinian," Mustafa says.

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