Karma’s return to Gaza in July, for a month, was meant to be a joyous surprise for her father after four long years. Little did she know that this visit would turn into a farewell to familiar landscapes, cherished memories and beloved people of her past.
“Honestly, I can’t describe the exact emotion I feel right now. It’s a mix of every terrible feeling and I’m constantly hoping it’s all a bad dream but, sadly, it never is. The war is a reality,” she said.
As Israel intensifies its bombing and ground incursions in Gaza, the routine of reaching out to her father has become an agonising ritual, with 50 calls and texts a day. Each response brought fragile reassurance that he is still alive.
Gaza has endured repeated phone and internet blackouts due to strikes on telecommunications infrastructure, deliberate shutdowns and power cuts since the war started on 7 October.
Since that very night, Karma has been suffering from a headache that will not go away. All she can think about is what might happen to her family. She wakes up every night, scrolling through the news and social media for images or names of her family members.
Having grown up in Gaza her whole life, Karma Eleiwa, 21, left to study in Jordan in 2019 and then moved to Dubai, where she currently works at Blinx Media.
“I call and message at least 50 times a day. And when he can, my father lets us know that he is alive and that they are all okay even though they’re really not okay. They’re just trying to look strong so I can stay strong, too,” she said.
“We have also yet to hear any updates about my cousin, Dr Saleh, since he was kidnapped. It’s just all unbearable.”
Dr Saleh Eleiwa was among dozens of medical staff Israel targeted at Gaza’s biggest medical complex, the Al-Shifa Hospital, last month after soldiers had rounded up the Palestinian staff and detained them with no charge.
Among his patients was his cousin, Dalia, who became the sole survivor of her family after an Israeli airstrike destroyed their home. Before that tragedy, Dr Saleh had been treating Dalia’s mother in the hospital’s pregnancy wing until she fell victim to an Israeli airstrike.
“Before the soldiers came for them, he would tell us of the very difficult conditions they had to endure, such as the limited food and water. There was no room to sleep. He would have to go down to the basement in the storage and lay something on the ground to be able to sleep,” said Karma.
Moreover, showers were unavailable due to lack of water, which also made it challenging for everyone to use the washrooms. Karma further shared how Dr Saleh had to sacrifice his own meals and starve himself so that his patients could have enough food.
When the Israeli forces stormed the hospital, everyone feared for their lives. However, none of the doctors wanted to abandon their patients and chose to stay with them to ensure they received the necessary care.
Israeli airstrikes have targeted all hospitals in Gaza, in clear violation of international law, which stipulates the protection of hospitals, schools and all medical facilities during times of war.
Al-Shifa Hospital was raided multiple times, with Israel alleging that Hamas was using the facility as a command centre. However, the Israeli army has failed to present evidence of Hamas-run tunnels or a military command centre beneath the hospital. Evidence it has provided has repeatedly been refuted or found to be forged from historic videos circulating online of other countries.
“The only reason Saleh stayed at hospital for as long as he did was because there was an overwhelming number of patients and not enough doctors to take care of them, and the conditions were awful to try and go back to his family or his house in Shuja’iyya,” explained Karma.
“Despite the dangerous situation, they kept their identification documents handy and waited either for contact from the Israeli forces or for a safe moment to move between hospital wings.
It was only on 19 November, after the Israeli forces directly shot the displaced Palestinians who were seeking shelter at the hospital, including those in intensive care units, that Dr Saleh had left the hospital with his cousin to return to her home in the Shuja’iyya district of Gaza City in the north.
He had sought shelter in another ward as soldiers opened fire while ordering everyone to evacuate the hospital. Palestinians say Israeli tanks, warplanes and snipers encircling the hospital at the time adopted a “shoot to kill” policy, which does not discriminate between medics, wounded Palestinians and those seeking refuge within the hospital’s walls.
“November 19th was the last our family had spoken to him. Just right before he dropped off Dalia to Shuja’iyya and began heading south to go see his family using Salah Al Deen Road, where he was stopped with other people and doctors by the Israeli military forces.”
Salah Al-Din Street, the main north–south highway running the length of Gaza, connecting major cities and towns was a route designated a safe passage for Gazans fleeing their homes in the north by Israeli officials, but Palestinians in Gaza have described it as a “death trap”. Witnesses said streets were lined with corpses and burning cars and reported Israeli shelling targeting the street.
“It is not a safe route. Israeli soldiers were picking elders, women and doctors, including Saleh. No-one knew Saleh was abducted for hours, until another doctor called Saleh’s brother-in-law and told him that he saw the Israeli forces take Saleh forcefully with other people. Till now, Saleh’s phone rings but no answer. No clue of his whereabouts, either.”
As additional videos emerge of blindfolded Palestinians being paraded by the Israeli military in Gaza, there is growing concern in Karma’s family that Dr Saleh is undergoing torture, possibly in an effort to coerce a fabricated confession related to military activities in Shifa.
“Seeing my country, my family and my people, even the places like my grandpa’s house, my school, favourite restaurants and cafes that all hold so much of memories, just being bombed apart is heartbreaking. It’s unimaginably painful watching this genocide against my very own people and not seeing an end to it. It just gets worse.”
“I want this to stop. I want my cousin back home and safe,” she pleaded.