Palestinian Israelis near the Gaza border know the grief of this war on both sides
Updated October 17, 2023 at 1:20 PM ET
In Rahat, an Israeli city about twenty miles from the border with Gaza, the sound of military planes is constant overhead. On the day we arrived, people were in mourning.
Sheikh Hassan Abu Ghalyun was returning from a burial when he welcomed us to Rahat. He is the tribal reconciliation chief in this city.
His Bedouin courthouse is an airy, carpeted tent on the roadside. From here, he solves feuds and resolves marital disputes. But this war is something he can't solve.
"Both sides are losing. No one wins in a war. People only lose in a war," Abu Ghalyun told NPR's Morning Edition through an interpreter.
The burial was for Tariq Mohammed, who was killed when Hamas attacked on October 7. In total, 17 people were killed in this Palestinian Bedouin community in Israel.
One entire family lost their lives. They lived in a tent in an unrecognized community closer to the Gaza border. Abu Ghalyun said a rocket fell nearby, and the family's four children left their tent to see what was going on.
"Just as they were returning to their tent, another rocket came and killed them," he said.
Hamas didn't seem to discriminate among its victims. The more than 1,400 people killed included Jewish people, Arabs, women and children.
Here in Rahat, the bonds of family stretch across divided lands. Residents here suffer loss, fear and anger on all sides of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Abu Ghalyun has relatives in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
"My heart is bleeding for the ones on the east side or the ones on the west side," he said. "All of them are the sons of Adam."
He took us to meet the family of Tariq Mohammed, the man killed by Hamas. In a concrete room with a corrugated tin roof, men were gathered to mourn with his father, Hamd El Kamalat.
35-year-old Mohammed was a garbage collector living on the Gaza envelope. He was among many killed in the nearby town of Ofakim, home to a largely Sephardic Jewish community, when Hamas militants breached the border.
"They shot him," Hamd El Kamalat said.
He was reluctant to name his son's attackers or speak about how he felt. "All of us feel the same. This is not a situation that only involves me. It involves everybody," explained El Kamalat.
He pointed in the air, paused, then looked down at the concrete floor.
"I have pain," he added.
The men come from one extended family, the Kamalats. Some live in Israel, and some live in Gaza. The Palestinian enclave is under siege by Israel, with civilians cut off from food, water, electricity and fuel. Israel has ordered more than one million people to leave the north of Gaza. And it says it is prepared to launch an air, ground and naval offensive in retaliation for the brutal assault by Hamas militants on October 7.
Communication is spotty. And already around 3,000 people have been killed by retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
So, in this room in Rahat, news from Gaza was scarce. Mohamed El Kamalat, sitting nearby, held up his phone. From Israel, he had been trying to reach his family.
"There, we don't know if they're alive or dead. And here, we have a state of war," he said.
With families living on both sides of the conflict, many in Rahat get quiet when you ask them who is at fault. They don't want to criticize Hamas, which rules the Gaza strip, because they have family there and members of their community are being held hostage. Nor do they cast blame on the government here in Israel, where they live and are citizens. So, there's a lot that's left unsaid.
Mohamed El Kamalat, though, blames all.
"The leadership in Israel and the leadership in Palestine. These are the two entities I blame," he said.
For Mohamed El Kamalat, the responsibility lies with Hamas, whose attack on Israel was a clear declaration of war, as well as Israel's far right government, which has carried out a policy of annexation and eviction of Palestinians in occupied territories that has killed any possibility of a two-state solution.
We said goodbye to the men, when Tariq's mother, Karima Kamalat, arrived.
"When we found out he was dead we wanted to go see him," she said. "There were dead bodies everywhere. And no one was allowed to reach that area."
After three days, she was allowed to go, and she found her son among the bodies. He was taken to the morgue. It was two days later, on the day we visited them, that the family could finally bury him.
"There were too many dead bodies. So it took them a while to release his body," she said.
As we left, there was an audible reminder of the war near us, as we heard rockets being fired by Hamas. In Rahat there is only one shelter, a sign of the lack of infrastructure in this Palestinian Israeli city. So everyone stood outside in the open and waited until the booms stopped.
The radio version of this story was produced by Taylor Haney and Nina Kravinsky and edited by Arezou Rezvani. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.
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