Love in the time of genocide

Acts of love and heroism continue amid Israel’s carnage in Gaza.

A couple watches the waves at the beach near a makeshift tent camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 24, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Photo by AFP)
A couple watches the waves at the beach near a makeshift tent camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 24, 2024 [AFP]

For weeks in southern Gaza during a recent visit, I collected stories of women admitted to hospital, each of them there to recover from what they call “war wounds”. But it’s not a war, because only one side has an actual army. Only one side is a state with full military wares.

These victims were mothers, wives and babies, whose slight bodies were pierced, torn, broken and burned. Their deeper injuries aren’t visible, until they open up about their lives over the past five months.

Initially, they relay the broadbrush strokes: A bomb struck their homes, they were pulled from the rubble, they had severe injuries, family members were martyred, and the situation was terrible. That is the extent of what they have ever said about unimaginable horrors they endured and continue to endure.

But I probe for details. What were you doing moments before? What was the first thing you saw, the first thing you heard? What did it smell like? Was it dark or light outside?

I nudge them to zoom into the molecular structure of every fact – the gravel in the mouth, dust in the lungs; the weight of something; the warm liquid running down the back; the twisted finger seen but not felt; the moment of realisation; the waiting to be rescued and the fear that no one will come; the ringing in the ears; the strange thoughts; the things that moved and the things that could not; the expectation of death and the wish that it be quick; the longing for life.

In the months or weeks since one of the world’s most powerful militaries targeted their lives, they had yet to visit, much less verbalise the minutiae of this genocide. As they venture beyond the outlines of their stories, their eyes darken and sometimes they begin to shiver. The slightest unexpected sound startles them.

Tears pool and tears might fall, but only a few allow themselves to cry. Few let the horrors in their minds through the gates. It is not for some superhuman strength. Quite the opposite. They are numbed in a way, as if they’ve yet to comprehend the enormity of what they have endured and continue to endure.


One young mother, Jamila (not her real name), cried for the first time since she held her six-year-old son’s lifeless body in the dark, her fingers accidentally sinking into his brain. She’s one of the few who sobbed, surrendering to the memory.

Their family had been targeted by tank fire, not a missile. A drone, perhaps with heat-sensitive sensors she thinks, hovered outside their building, and shelling followed them as they ran from one side of their apartment to the other, unable to exit.

She was sure someone behind a screen was toying with them before delivering one final blow that went through both the boy and injured his father. The world went silent after that. The tank fire stopped, “as if they had come just to kill my beloved son”, she said.

She didn’t cry then. She didn’t make a sound, in fact. “My husband was worried and told me to cry but I didn’t. I don’t know why,” she said.

Two weeks later, after fleeing from place to place, an Israeli soldier shot her three-year-old daughter Nour in her arms, shattering both of her tiny legs as they cowered in terror inside a hospital they thought would be safe.

When I met baby Nour, she had metal bars sticking out of her tiny shins, with a long scar running the length of her right calf, where the bullet had exited. The doctors had discharged her days prior but had allowed her and her mother Jamila to stay a few more days until they could secure a tent somewhere somehow.

Jamila’s husband, barely able to walk from his injuries, has been living in a tent with a group of men, the most he is able to accomplish is to secure meagre food and water each day. He visited once when I was there after he was able to save up 10 shekels (approximately $3) for transportation and a small gift for his daughter.

Display of the smallest physical intimacy between lovers is a private matter in Gaza, but there is no privacy in a hospital where 40 patients and their caretakers share a single room, rows of beds pushed end to end with just enough walking space between them.

Jamila was over the moon to have spent an hour with her husband after over a month of not seeing or hearing from him (her phone had been destroyed in the bombing). But she told me later that she would have liked to embrace him, maybe even kiss him on the cheek. “He is suffering so much,” she said, carrying his pain with her own and that of a whole nation on her small shoulders.


Nina (not her real name) has a disarming smile and effusive generosity about her. She is eager to tell me how she saved her husband from the clutches of Israeli soldiers.

She was married barely a year when Israeli bombing near their house intensified. The recordings that have emerged online from some of those nights are unimaginable. An army of dragons stomping and burning everything around them, shaking their buildings, breaking the glass, terrorising young and old; thunder and earthquakes, demons from above and below closing in.

Nina’s husband Hamad (also not his real name) made the decision to leave along with several members of his family – his parents, uncles, aunts, and their spouses and children -and a few of their neighbours. Together they were about 75 individuals, moving from town to town, unable to find a safe place to hunker down for more than a few days at a time.

Within a week of leaving, Nina learned that her family home had been bombed. In that single instant, at the push of a button by some 20-something-year-old Israeli, 80 members of her family were murdered – father, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, nieces and nephews.

She was initially told her mother had been martyred, but thankfully it turned out she had survived. She was badly injured and transferred to a hospital, where Nina had become her beloved caretaker. This is how I came to meet this extraordinary young woman.

Nina, her husband and the rest of the group eventually made it to a temporary stop in Gaza City, from where they moved along fencing walls to reach a shelter. They went one at a time, on the logic that if Israel fired on them, they would not all die. Losing one was better than 75 at once.

One person was indeed shot by a sniper after nearly half of them had made it, splitting the group for a while until they again mustered the courage to run for it, again, one at a time. Children were split up between the parents. Half a family killed is better than all of it. Such were the choices they had to make, not unlike “Sophie’s Choice”.

Before long, their shelter was surrounded by tanks. A “quadcopter” – a new Israeli terror invention – flew into the rooms, spraying the walls above their heads with bullets. Everyone screamed and cried, “even the men”, Nina said. “It broke my heart to see the strong men of our family cowering in fear like that.”

Eventually, soldiers entered. “At least 80 of them,” she said. They separated the men from the women and children, stripping the former to nothing but their boxers in the dead of winter. The women and children were crammed into a small storage room, the men split into two classrooms. For three nights and four days, they listened to the screams of their husbands, fathers, and brothers being beaten and tortured in the other rooms, until finally, soldiers ordered the women, in broken Arabic, to take their children and “go south”.

All the women complied, except Nina. “I didn’t care anymore. I was ready to die but I wasn’t going to leave without my husband.” She ran into the rooms where the men were being held, calling Hamad’s name. None dared respond. It was dark and soldiers were pulling her away. She fought them as they laughed, seemingly amused by her hysteria. “Crazy,” they called her.

She recognised her husband’s red boxers in the second room and rushed to him, pulling his blindfold off, kissing him, hugging him, promising to die with him if that’s what it took. She alternated between cursing the soldiers and begging them to release her husband. Eventually, they cut the plastic ties and let him go.

But she wasn’t done. As Hamad walked away, she went back inside to gather clothes for him and for her uncles sitting naked in the cold. They wouldn’t be released yet for weeks. Some of those men would be executed.

She and Hamad made it out together. When they finally arrived somewhere safe, they realised his leg had been broken, his wrists were cut by the plastic ties, and his back bore the Star of David.

Among the screams Nina had heard over the previous days had been her husband’s, as a soldier used a knife to carve the Jewish symbol into his back.

A photo of a Palestinian man's back with the star of David cut into his back with a knife by an Israeli soldier
A photo of Hamad’s back with the Star of David cut into his back with a knife by an Israeli soldier [Courtesy of Susan Abulhawa]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.