By Aya Elamroussi, CNN
(CNN) — Wrapped in a blanket inside a makeshift tent, Ahmed Arafat tries to stay calm as the sounds of Israeli military drones echo through the night sky.
The red and white blanket was one of the few items Arafat, a 26-year-old Palestinian-American living in Gaza, was able to take with him as he and his family fled their home in Gaza City’s al-Rimal neighborhood early last week. Moments before they ran out the door, he had received a text message from the Israeli military telling him that the five-story building they lived in was targeted for an airstrike.
Not heeding the warning came with the risk of losing his wife, two young children and other family members that lived in the building. It wasn’t an option, Arafat told CNN in a phone interview early Saturday. Meanwhile, his parents and siblings sit by the phone a continent away anxiously awaiting reassurance of his safety.
But the warning quickly became a devastating reality. Much of al-Rimal, the city’s once vibrant business district and social epicenter, was reduced to rubble. Near-constant airstrikes gutted homes, offices, schools and places of worship. It’s unclear how many people died, but nearby hospitals said they were overwhelmed with casualties.
“They’ve been hitting everything. It’s appalling,” Arafat said. “They’re just killing indiscriminately at this point.”
Since then, Arafat and his family have been fleeing from home to home, often staying with friends and family. When one area becomes too dangerous, they escape to another. But there’s no reprieve.
“There are multiple bombings all around us,” Arafat said, the sounds of blasts interrupting his words. “It goes all day and night. It doesn’t stop!”
Arafat’s family, who are staying in a nearby home crowded with women and children, are among some 2 million Palestinians trapped in the besieged territory, which is being bombarded by the Israeli military in retaliation for a deadly operation carried out by Hamas in Israel on October 7. The militants killed at least 1,400 people and captured nearly 200 hostages now believed to be held in Gaza.
Israel has since declared war on Hamas; cut electricity, fuel and water to the territory; and launched a military operation so large that Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned it is “leading to a humanitarian catastrophe.”
More than 2,750 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza from Israeli strikes, the Palestinian Ministry of Health said Sunday. That toll includes more than 700 children.
“It’s genocide. … I’ve never seen killing at this level in my life,” Arafat said. “They’re hitting people in their homes without warning them,” he added, saying that not every Israeli strike is preceded by a text message like the one he received.
His children are distraught. To assuage their nerves, he tells them the bombings are “volcanic sneezes” and nothing to worry about. While his 1-year-old daughter is too young to question the explanation, he fears that his 3-year-old son is too old to buy that Earth could spew such carnage.
“He knows what’s happening,” Arafat said, before adding that his son wakes up every few hours crying due to the sound and shaking caused by the attacks.
As a father, all he can do is try to keep his family one step ahead of the next military strike, but he often finds himself wondering: “Will I be able to see my children go to kindergarten?”
‘We just sit next to the TV and pray’
More than 6,500 miles away, in Memphis, Tennessee, Anita Arafat sits at home with her eyes glued to the television screen.
“We just sit next to the TV and pray for God’s grace and watch these buildings fall down,” she said. “I can’t sleep. We don’t eat normally.” Her eyes and head hurt from constantly switching between television and phone screens, she added, searching for any bit of good news.
Sometimes, when Anita Arafat is feeling especially restless, she’ll stand up and pace back and forth in her living room – her heart aching for her son Ahmed Arafat, grandchildren and entire extended family.
They spoke by phone just days ago. Before Anita Arafat hung up, she asked her son to recite the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith which is often recited in times of grave danger. Since then, with electricity and reception proving unreliable, she has only heard news about his well-being through friends and family.
“He’s not afraid of the Israelis,” she said, but she still worries tensions will only escalate. “He’s afraid for his wife and his children and his grandmother and his uncles. But Ahmed is strong, and he came from a strong family.”
Anita Arafat was 16 years old when she met her husband, Ashraf, in Ogden, Utah, where the Palestinian immigrant was pursuing a college education. They married later that year and moved to Gaza, where she lived for more than 10 years, fell in love with Palestinian culture and forged lifelong friendships.
They also had six children, but only Ahmed Arafat remains in Gaza.
“I grew up with those people,” Anita Arafat, now 54, says. “They taught me how to pray; they taught me how to speak Arabic. And my mother-in-law taught me how to cook. She taught me how to be a wife. So those kids, those people, are not just in-laws. They’re my family.”
Having lived in Gaza for so long, the retired school teacher is no stranger to war – but now things feel different. “It’s obvious this time that Israel is trying to wipe Gaza off the map,” she said.
She and her husband are particularly disturbed by reports of entire families being killed in their homes, concrete walls caving all around them. They can’t stomach the thought that their family could be next.
“It’s been a stressful week,” Ashraf Arafat said. “You’re stuck on the TV. And when you have to go to work, you’re distracted on your phone. My phone is in my hand 24/7.”
The 58-year-old school principal spends hours scrolling through WhatsApp and Facebook group chats, scouring for updates from Gaza. “I don’t want to miss anything because I want to hear if anything happens to my brothers, siblings, my mom, my uncles, everyone,” he said.
“The people of Gaza deserve to live peacefully and freely,” he added.
For now, all Ashraf and Anita Arafat can do is watch the news and pray for a ceasefire.
Dreaming of a life without worry
Ahmed Arafat began moving his family from Gaza City to the south after the Israeli military notified more than 1 million residents last week that it would be safer there.
Although the territory covers 140 square miles, he’s had to travel slowly to ensure he and his family aren’t separated and are able to take cover from the seemingly endless barrage of Israeli airstrikes. Any wrong decision could cost them their lives.
As a US citizen, Arafat hopes he can get his family through the southern Rafah border into Egypt. There were reports on Saturday – and then on Sunday – that Americans would be allowed through. But he arrived on Saturday, that hasn’t proven true.
On Monday, the Israeli prime minister’s office denied there were any arrangements to open the Rafah border crossing, while Egypt has placed the blame for the continued closure of the crossing on Israel. On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged the crossing “will be open” and that the US was working with the UN, Egypt, Israel and others to coordinate aid efforts.
The diplomatic wrangling and an Israeli airstrike that destroyed a roadway leading to the border crossing have stalled the ability to leave, Arafat said.
“Maybe I can get these kids and my wife out, otherwise I’ll have to turn back,” he said in a text message from the border. “I’d love nothing more than to give them a life where they don’t have to worry about anything.”
Arafat was planning to set up camp by a school, where his wife and children can shelter with dozens of other families, and dream of crossing the border, he says.
“It could be weeks. It could be days. … It could be tomorrow morning. Who knows how long. I don’t know,” he said.
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