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These Injured Palestinians Made It Out Of Gaza. Their Loved Ones Did Not — And The Distance Is Agony.

Samira Thari was evacuated from Gaza to Qatar after she was injured and her young granddaughter was killed by an Israeli strike.
Samira Thari was evacuated from Gaza to Qatar after she was injured and her young granddaughter was killed by an Israeli strike. Akbar Shahid Ahmed / HuffPost

DOHA, Qatar ― Samira Thari recently told her six children still in Gaza that she doesn’t want to hear from them.

She thinks of them constantly, especially those most hurt by the violence there ― like her 22-year-old son, who is in a wheelchair after being hit by shrapnel, and her 14-year-old daughter, who’s been rendered speechless by the shock of the war. But she knows that for the family to get cell service, they have to leave their tent shelter and climb up a hill that has previously been targeted by Israeli forces.

“Don’t try to call me, because I won’t answer,” she told them on Feb. 23.

Thari has been in Qatar for nearly three months, since she woke up there after she was injured in an Israeli strike on a United Nations school. The attack killed her 3-year-old granddaughter, who had been sitting with Thari as she made bread for her family, and wounded Thari so badly that emergency workers put her in a body bag ― only realizing she was alive when her grieving sister noticed Thari’s eyes were still moving.

Medical teams moved Thari and her injured husband from hospitals in Gaza to an Italian hospital ship, then to Egypt and eventually Qatar. She’s now had five surgeries, and is awaiting one more in her back.

“If I had the option to stop treatment, I would go back in a heartbeat,” Thari, 39, told HuffPost last week. In addition to the concern for her children, her “heart burns” for her parents, who are 70 and 75.

“I’m not able to heal because of my mind and emotional state,” Thari said. “My therapist tells me to stop watching the news, but how can I stop? I have to check the lists of people being martyred. How can I stop?”

Since Israel began its devastating U.S.-backed campaign in Gaza on Oct. 7, retaliating for a shock attack by Gaza-based Palestinian militants that killed some 1,200 people, only a handful of the region’s 2.3 million residents have gotten to safety. Up to a thousand are believed to be living in Egypt after relying on their dual nationalities or bribes to travel through the Rafah Crossing, currently the only functional pedestrian exit point into and out of Gaza. And medical and diplomatic personnel have overcome bureaucratic and logistical hurdles to evacuate some Palestinians, like Thari, who needed urgent, specialized care.

About 700 Palestinian civilians ― among them 300 children ― are now in Qatar, local officials say, a group that comprises mostly wounded people but also some of their companions. In interviews with HuffPost in the Persian Gulf state, a U.S. ally that plans to treat at least 1,500 injured Gazans, evacuees described heartache over separation from their vulnerable loved ones, and deep disillusionment about the global response to Israel’s offensive. Despite Israel’s claims that its military operation is focused on the militant group Hamas, it has killed more than 30,000 people, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian authorities.

Perched on a beanbag chair in the courtyard of a residential facility just a few miles from the offices where Israeli representatives have visited for U.S.-backed discussions about a possible truce with Hamas, a 30-year-old mother named Watfah described watching coverage of President Joe Biden discussing the prospect of a cease-fire on Feb. 26.

“He’s doing it while eating ice cream, mocking us,” Watfah said.

Now in Qatar, Watfah hopes to reunite with her children.
Now in Qatar, Watfah hopes to reunite with her children. Akbar Shahid Ahmed

Thari had particular disdain for governments in the Middle East. Palestinians have traditionally looked to fellow Arab nations for support, but in recent years, Israel has successfully convinced several of those states to establish ties with it without an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

“The only reason this is happening to us is because of the silence of the Arabs,” Thari said, tearing up. “Arab leaders are too scared to stand up to Israel and America ... It’s like spraying pest control on animals, that’s how many people have died.”

Views like these reflect not only how the ongoing war has traumatized Palestinians, but also a widespread wariness about discussions in Washington, regional capitals, and beyond about halting the fighting and negotiating a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. Simultaneously, the evacuees’ stories underscore the yearning for a respite among those who understand conditions in Gaza ― a goal that Biden and other key figures say they are working hard to achieve before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins on March 10.

“Our hearts are still back in Gaza,” Thari said. “I die a hundred times a day for my kids.”

Family Separation

Mohammed Obaid, 42, and his 13-year-old son Bahaa have been in Qatar since Jan. 18. Since they were hit by an Israeli airstrike on Nov. 6, both have had complex surgeries. Bahaa has lost his left leg and is hoping to soon get a prosthetic.

“We’re tired,” Obaid said. “We just want peace.”

He fought back tears remembering how he tried to hold his wife’s hand after the strike, and how he realized, once they were taken to a hospital, that she had lost too much spinal fluid to survive.

Obaid’s uncle, a surgeon, was able to help him and Bahaa get to Egypt for treatment. But Obaid’s other children are still in Gaza, and he has only been able to speak to them once a week. Struggling to feed themselves, they always ask him what he and Bahaa have been able to eat.

“They’re living with their uncle, but they need their father,” he told HuffPost. “They already lost their mom ― they need their father.”

Many at the Qatari facility said reuniting with their loved ones was their chief priority. Some had already been separated from family members during the war, as more than 70% of Gaza’s population has been displaced into makeshift refuges amid Israeli evacuation orders, bombardments and troop advances.

Naheel, 35, and her five children have only seen her husband for a handful of days since Oct. 7.

On Oct. 11, a premonition prompted her to move with her kids into a U.N. school. Her husband didn’t want to abandon their home. Attacks in their neighborhood, initially designated a safe zone by Israel, soon wounded him, putting him in a hospital bed for months.

Meanwhile, the relative safety of Naheel’s shelter had limits. When she went out to a balcony to check that her kids had not strayed off the school grounds, a large piece of shrapnel hit her in the back. “It felt like I was on fire,” she said. Amid chaos at the local Nasser Hospital, she only got a dressing for the wound, then hurried back to her children.

Still, she couldn’t watch them at all times. One day in late October, two of her sons ― 15-year-old Anas and 10-year-old Adham ― joined a group of boys in search of wood for cooking. Suddenly they were engulfed in what Anas called “toxic bombs” that made them feel like they were suffocating.

By the time they were taken to a hospital, Adham was near death. Doctors told his family his brain had run short on oxygen, leaving him disfigured and unable to speak or control his limbs.

Anas (left) and his brother Adham were hit by Israeli bombing while seeking firewood for their family.
Anas (left) and his brother Adham were hit by Israeli bombing while seeking firewood for their family. Akbar Shahid Ahmed

By late December, bullets through the windows of the U.N. school, as well as airdropped Israeli messages about continued attacks, convinced Naheel to move again. Her husband went to Rafah and secured a tent, and Naheel and their children traveled three hours on a donkey cart to reunite with him on Jan. 10.

Four days later, she heard that Egyptian authorities were willing to let her and Adham exit through Rafah. She hoped that permission could extend to their whole family. But when they arrived at the crossing, border guards refused to let her husband cross.

“My kids broke down,” she recalled.

Since they have been transferred to Qatar, she and the children have had minimal contact with him, but she says nothing could be more important for them, especially Adham. She showed HuffPost a video of him reacting excitedly when she mentioned his father. She said she is “begging” multiple governments for help, awaiting the day she sees his name spelled out on the Rafah exit list: Mohammed Abu Al Ola.

Fear and longing are paired with guilt for some evacuees, making each day of the war harder to bear.

Watfah, who arrived in Qatar two weeks ago with her severely injured 13-year-old son, is wracked by thoughts of her other children. Her 9-year-old daughter “is a parent now,” she said, caring for her young siblings. The family has already endured a loss: Watfah was seven months pregnant when the war broke out, but due to malnourishment and dehydration, her baby was stillborn, she said.

Iman, a young woman from Gaza City, told HuffPost she thinks constantly about her decision to get in an ambulance with her daughter Aleen after the girl was hit by shrapnel on the balcony of their apartment on Dec. 10. Emergency personnel brought the pair to a hospital through Israeli checkpoints. Because of the extent of Aleen’s wound, which left a gaping hole in the side of her face, doctors kept her in a hospital and ultimately sent them to Egypt, then Qatar.

Iman wonders if she could have snuck her other two children ― boys aged 12 and 4 ― into the ambulance too. She says she’s regularly asked that question by other people. But she also knows Israeli soldiers would have likely pulled them out of the vehicle.

“I didn’t expect my daughter to need this much treatment. I can’t handle one more day without my other kids,” she said, expressing particular concern about Israeli forces’ pattern of treating men and older boys like her husband and her 12-year-old as potential combatants. As Iman receives meals provided by the Qatari government, her children in Gaza can rarely get rice, she said: “They’re starving.”

Northern Gaza, where Iman’s family and about 300,000 other Palestinians live, is enduring near-famine conditions and children there are dying of hunger, U.N. and aid experts say. Though Israel controls the area, it has offered little support to efforts by donor groups and Israeli partners like the U.S. to send in a huge surge of food and other supplies.

Aleen and her mother, Iman.
Aleen and her mother, Iman. Akbar Shahid Ahmed

‘We Kept Getting Let Down’

Worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza, and fears that continued bloodshed there will spark broader violence over Ramadan, are intensifying a U.S.-led attempt to negotiate a pause in fighting, allow in more aid and release Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

As HuffPost interviewed evacuated Gazans, Israeli technical experts and Qatari mediators with Hamas were assessing the possibility of trading Israeli hostages for Palestinians. Since then, however, talks have stalled over the questions of whether Israel will withdraw its troops from Gaza and whether Hamas will share details about individuals it wants included in the deal.

From evacuees to well-connected sources, there’s little optimism among observers that a meaningful stop to the war is imminent.

“They’re all liars. We were hopeful, but we kept getting let down,” Thari said in Doha.

A U.S. official familiar with senior Biden aides’ thinking told HuffPost that top American officials know how dire the situation is ― and even anticipated a scenario like the tragedy last week, now being called a “flour massacre,” when more than 100 Palestinians trying to get aid were killed amid trampling and Israeli gunfire.

Yet the president’s refusal to pressure Israel in a tangible way, for instance by suggesting limits on the American support fueling its Gaza offensive, is shaping U.S. policy, the official said. “Pushing Israel to allow food in is totally off the table,” they said. “Biden is not budging on anything.”

The official, who has worked under both Democratic and Republican presidents, described a mix of incompetence and Biden’s “singularly” harmful views, like leaning more reflexively pro-Israel than other Democratsand, according to administration officials, viewing Israel as it was 30 or 40 years ago, rather than acknowledging its current strength and hard-right politics.

The upshot, they said, is that the Biden administration would try to address the crisis through “complex, hard-to-do and low-yield PR stunts like airdrops.”

Spokespeople for the White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Experienced humanitarians have condemned Biden’s new policy, launched over the weekend, of airdropping aid into Gaza.

“The world’s wealthiest, most powerful, ‘greatest’ nation should not have to resort to needed, but inefficient and last-resort airdrops to get life-saving aid in,” Sean Carroll ― a former U.S. Agency for International Development official who now runs the group American Near East Refugee Aid ― recently wrote on LinkedIn.

Given its influence, many say the U.S. could do more to change Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach. Netanyahu this week refused to even send an Israeli delegation to truce talks, and Israel has not permitted aid to enter northern Gaza through crossings it controls.

“The Americans should be much tougher. They still don’t fully understand who they’re up against,” said a former senior Israeli official who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Advocates like Dylan Williams of the Center for International Policy argue that the U.S. should legally already be compelled to cut off military aid for Israel because the country is hindering the distribution of American aid.

“It defies credulity for the administration to act as if it hasn’t made known to the President that the government of Israel restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of US humanitarian assistance, which is the standard set in the law,” Williams told HuffPost by text message. “If there is not a massive increase in aid into Gaza, I think you can expect congressional calls for enforcement of this law to grow.”

Palestinians with lives in the balance say a change in course is overdue.

Evacuees described how their loved ones’ days are dominated by anxiety about Israeli airstrikes, how their chronically ill relatives are unable to get treatment as hospitals focus on war injuries, and how their own futures feel inextricably tied to the war.

“We’re resisting food, on hunger strike,” said Thari, telling HuffPost she only accepts a couple of spoonfuls of food to take her medication. “How can I eat when my dad is eating grass?”