By Chip Le Grand
Musa Al-Madhoun was watching TV when he learnt an Israeli missile had destroyed the Al-Madhoun family compound in Beit Lahia, killing 14 people.
Hadeel Al-Madhoun, like so many Palestinian Australians, has hardly slept for three weeks. Her face carries an exhausted hollowness as she scrolls through her phone in a Craigieburn cafe, looking for something that will help explain what is happening in Gaza.
She finds what she is looking for. It is a document written in Arabic, issued by her family patriarch in Gaza, listing 33 people killed since October 7. All 33 carry the name Al-Madhoun. They are all from the one family, her family. Elderly uncles and aunties, cousins and their wives and children; all killed since the Israeli bombardment began in response to the Hamas atrocities.
She recalls how the news of the first of these deaths reached her 78-year-old father, Mousa. He was sitting in the loungeroom of his Mickleham home, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, watching Al Jazeera, when a reporter announced an Israeli missile had destroyed the Al-Madhoun family compound in Beit Lahia, an area in the northern part of the territory, killing 14 people.
Mousa Al-Madhoun dropped the cup of coffee he was holding, stared at the screen and started crying. An October 10 report by the International Middle East Media Centre, which operates in Gaza independently of Hamas, confirmed the Beit Lahia homes were owned by Mousa’s cousins, Mohammad and Ahmad. They were killed alongside their wives, children and their grandchildren.
Since then, Hadeel has learned of the deaths of another group of extended family members, on October 14. They had evacuated their home in northern Gaza and, while on the road heading south, were killed by a missile strike, she said. Her family has also been told a further 12 relatives had been killed in recent days.
“When you start seeing on the news the amount of children that are dying… the amount of blood, the amount of killing and death… I am not sleeping,” she says. “I wake up at 1.30am, I wake up at 2am, I wake up at 4am. I am not eating because I feel guilty to eat.”
Hadeel is a high school science teacher. The biggest stress in her life should be managing the anxieties of year 12 biology and chemistry students sitting VCE exams. Instead, she is consumed by the unknown fate of family trapped in Gaza. She doesn’t want to apportion blame or debate the politics of this conflict, she just wants people to understand what it means for families living within Gaza’s walls. “I don’t think the world is really seeing what is happening,” she says.
In Australia, the escalating humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is still largely, and necessarily, viewed through the prism of Hamas’ killing and abduction of Jews in southern Israel three weeks ago, which has muted criticism of Israel’s reprisals.
More than 1400 Israelis were killed and 229 taken captive when Hamas carried out its killings, prompting the Israeli government’s vow to eradicate the terror group from the Gaza Strip. The consequence of this, according to figures compiled by the Palestinian Ministry of Health and broadly accepted by the UN, is that more than 7000 Gazans – almost 3000 of them children – have so far been killed by air strikes, numbers certain to rise.
Throughout Friday night and into Saturday morning, Israel escalated its aerial bombardment and sent ground troops into northern Gaza in apparent preparation for an invasion.
Some Australian Palestinians are wary of speaking openly about the conflict to people outside their communities, and mistrustful of how it is being reported by Australian news outlets. They are fearful of reprisals, both here and in Gaza, if they say too much. “You put the mask on and go to work and pretend life is good,” Hadeel says. “I don’t talk about this at work. You can’t. You can’t talk about this to anyone. You can’t talk about this to the outside world. A lot of people don’t want to talk about their families because they are scared. They are scared about their families in Gaza.”
The details of deaths in Gaza are also difficult to independently verify, with increasingly few journalists reporting from the territory and Palestinian and Israeli authorities fiercely contesting basic information about the conflict.
Omar Dawwas, a 37-year-old engineer and father of three children living in Melbourne, tells the story of his cousin, Munir. In the early days of the bombardment, Munir travelled a short distance across Beit Lahia with his wife Nida and their daughter Siwar and son Mohammad, to have lunch with Nida’s family. A missile struck when they were still seated around the table. It took hours to recover their bodies from the rubble. “They were just having a meal, checking on the family and wanting to be together,” he says.
So far, as best as Omar can tell from information gathered by relatives in Melbourne and Gaza, he has lost 21 members of his extended family. Others, though, are missing. He says it breaks his heart to see what is happening to people in Gaza and it angers him that the Australian government, while full-throated in its support of Israel’s declared war on Hamas, has done and said little to stop the killing of Palestinian people. “They have broken the trust of Palestinian people and that adds to the pain,” he says.
Nadia El Hissi says it is difficult to reconcile the comfortable life she has in Melbourne with what her extended family is enduring in Gaza. She is 31 and a qualified lawyer at the start of a promising career. For the past three weeks she has sat with phone in hand, waiting for the next update, hoping for news and wishing it never arrives.
Nadia was born in Melbourne. She has never set foot in Gaza, a narrow strip of land hemmed by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea which, for the past 75 years has served as a cramped holding pen for Palestinians. She doesn’t blame people for failing to understand the scale of the losses there. “For people who haven’t grown up knowing much about the situation it is very hard to comprehend,” she says. “I don’t think we are built to compute this sort of thing.” She is witnessing Gaza’s destruction largely through the eyes of her father, Tayseer El Hissi. “He is shattered” she says. “I think he is just in disbelief. He sits and watches the news day-in, day-out.”
One of Tayseer’s best friends in Gaza was his cousin, Najib El Hissi. The pair remained close after Tayseer immigrated to Australia. On Wednesday, he learned that Najib had been killed.
Nadia El Hissi says that, from information gathered from family members and news agency reports, it appears that an Israeli missile destroyed Najib’s home in Al-Shati refugee camp on October 23. He died alongside his wife, their three children, their partners and their grandchildren, she was told. A relative later told them that 20 members of their family had been killed.
Nadia says she first saw news of the missile attack on a Facebook post from a family member living in Sweden. She immediately told her distraught father.
Al-Shati, or the beach camp, is one of Gaza’s largest and most densely populated refugee camps. Prior to Israel’s evacuation order, an estimated 90,000 people lived there in an area covering less than half a square kilometre. An Israel Defence Forces spokesman told Reuters the missile strike was ordered to destroy a staging ground used by Hamas.
Nadia says they believe they have lost 78 members of their extended family since the Israeli bombardment began.
“It is soul-shattering,” Nadia says. “Every day we wake up and when we see the news, it is like someone steps on your heart. I don’t even know what words I could use to describe this period. I think we are all just desperate and sad and exhausted. And scared of what’s to come.”
The siege tactics that have accompanied Operation Iron Sword, Israel’s military response to October 7, have created what UN agencies last week described as a “catastrophic situation” within a territory that is home to an estimated 2.3 million people including 1.1 million children. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that Gazans were confronting “an unprecedented avalanche of human suffering”.
For three weeks, Gaza has been largely starved of food, fresh water and medical supplies and Israel has cut both fuel and electricity supplies to the territory. Since Friday, Gazan time, it has also been blanketed by a communications blackout. Normally, about 500 trucks a day access the blockaded territory to deliver supplies, according to the UN. About 10 a day are now getting through. UN World Food Program executive director Cindy McCain described the flow of humanitarian aid as a dribble.
Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network president Nasser Mashni said children in Gaza were drinking salt water from makeshift wells, hospitals had cut power to life-saving humidicribs and dialysis machines and some parents had taken to writing name tags on their children’s arms and legs so their bodies can be identified. The cessation of fuel supplies has left Gaza without diesel to power desalination pumps, which are needed to make water from the aquifer beneath the territory drinkable.
While some inventive Gazans have rigged up car batteries to charge their phones, communications within the territory have been brief and sporadic since the bombardment began. Mashni described the anguish of Australian Palestinians trying to stay in contact with family and friends in Gaza as a “visceral pain and suffering”. He says his own teeth have started aching from the stress.
Samah Sabawi, a Palestinian playwright living in Melbourne, says every conversation she has with someone in Gaza ends with the tacit understanding that she may never hear their voice again. She says condolences are rarely expressed for one person but for groups of people at a time; the entire family of her colleague’s wife, a cousin’s wife and children, a neighbouring family. She describes a “tightening circle of death,” where every survivor in Gaza and every Palestinian living in Australia knows of dozens of people who have been killed.
But for all the death in Gaza, it isn’t what people fear most – it’s being left as a lone survivor, stranded in a war zone.
“I have a voice note from my brother-in-law in which he says we are careful about keeping together because none of us want … to … be left [alone] in a war zone,” says Sabawi, who was born in Gaza City.
“They all expect to die. They are just waiting for their turn. The ones who died in the beginning are really the lucky ones.”