A woman mourns during a funeral for Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes at Nasser hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, on 9 December 9, 2023 (Reuters)

An additional layer of oppression: the silenced mourning of the Palestinian citizens

Thousands of Palestinians from cities centre of the country have relatives, including first-degree relatives in Gaza. When they receive news of loss, they are expected to keep their pain to themselves. Some find alternative ways to cope, and some are unwilling to remain silent. In any case, the mental and physical toll is high.

The Palestine Project
11 min readFeb 14, 2024


By Samah Salaime • Translated by Sol Salbe

Israel’s offensive on Gaza has already killed close to 30,000 people, from the northern tip to its south. Thousands of ordinary people died at the hands of the Israeli shelling machine, which has not stop for almost a moment. An inferno, which even the president of the state endorsed, shortly after the country’s church leaders visited his home on Christmas Eve. The president sent an enscribed message on a shell, a gift from the Israeli dove of peace to the children of Gaza, who were waiting for other presents from Santa Claus.

All the harsh words, such as massacre, ethnic cleansing, genocide, extermination, extinction, flattening and more, do not reflect the pain in the pictures seen after every shelling — white plastic body bags, tied on both ends, fill the courtyards of the hospitals that are still operating. Shocked injured children look for their parents. Mothers weep and howl, holding these death packages, of the bodies of their children wrapped in bloodstained white in their lap. Men pray over long rows of bodies on their way to burial.

In Gaza, burial ceremonies collapsed. The three traditional days of mourning turned into 4 months of great bereavement. Mass graves are full of corpses, and human remains that cannot find solace on this death-sodden land.

As long as it’s there, it hurts from afar. Horrors on a screen. But when killings and deaths reach family members, people you know, grief and bereavement from afar — in a hostile public environment that makes it impossible to express them — that puts even more strain on the soul.

Thousands of Palestinians from cities in the centre of the country mainly Ramleh, Ludd (Lod) and Jaffa (Yafa), have relatives, even first-degree relatives, in Gaza — brothers, sisters, parents, nieces and nephews. People who have lived here for many years, and most of them communicate with family from afar and have not been able to meet too many times, until receiving the terrible news — usually quite belatedly.

One of them is Adel (not his real name), a Gazan-born taxi driver who is married to an Israeli citizen and has lived in Israel for more than 20 years. He last met his brother 15 years ago. He received the announcement of his death through WhatsApp, three days late. The message read: “Your brother Muhammad was killed in a shelling three days ago. He is a fallen martyr. May Allah have mercy on him. We managed to get him out from under the rubble and the body was intact. Pray for the family members who remain.”

Amid Israel’s persecution of anyone who expressed solidarity with the victims in Gaza, Adel and his family feared that the authorities would go after them following the announcement.

Maryam (not her real name), Adel’s wife, says: “I didn’t really know my brother-in-law, I met him only a few times in my life. But my husband grew up with him. It’s his little brother. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. Ever since his brother was killed, he has been waking up at night crying, sitting quietly alone in the living room for hours. He can’t even scream. My husband is mentally broken. I see him sinking into depression.”

According to Maryam, her husband wants to understand what happened and know the details of that night when his brother and family’s house was shelled. “He searches the videos and communicates in every possible way to relatives and neighbours, but he’s afraid to share. He learned that his brother’s body had been under the rubble for several days until they managed to dig him out, and they didn’t know who he was, so the hospital called neighbours to work out where the body was found. No one dared to go out to the hospital to identify the deceased. In the end, the hospital announced that if no one came to identify him and take him for burial, he would be buried in the hospital’s backyard, where many unidentified people are buried. A young man from the family volunteered to risk his life and go to the hospital, and returned with the body.

Imagine your man gathering bits of information about his brother’s death and not being able to do anything about it. Feelings of guilt, grief, bereavement, anger, a lot of difficult emotions, which must not be displayed. He can’t tell his co-workers that his brother was killed. Who will he tell? To all the drivers who pasted ‘Am Yisrael Chai [the people Israel live]’ and ‘Together we will win’? Could he expect to receive condolences from such friends?”

Maryam says they didn’t dare post a death notice on WhatsApp groups. “From the outside, it has to be business as usual, and you can’t show anything, so they won’t think we’re Hamas supporters, God forbid. But inside, inside the house, a great loss and difficult feelings, in a silent state.”

In the end, Maryam decided to console her husband with an alternative mourning ceremony. She invited relatives and close friends to a generous dinner in memory of the brother, where they handed out gifts with a dedication in his name. After the meal, they recited prayers for the ascension of his soul, and held the special Islamic funeral prayer in a family-group manner, as if the body were in front of them.

“After the dinner in honour of the deceased, my husband was relieved. He felt that he had done something in memory of his brother after all. He spoke to another brother, who is abroad, and brought him in via video call, so that he could participate remotely. Adel took some comfort from the virtual burial ceremony, and he has calmed down a bit since then.”

The soul coping with loss and bereavement needs a separation process. When the situation forces a different reality on the mourner, which requires them to hide their grief, alternative rituals must evidently be invented.

Without a direct farewell to the deceased; without the ritual of preparing the body according to religious law; with No prayer in the mosque and no funeral procession to the cemetery; with no mourning tent; Without welcoming comforters with coffee and dates and reciting Quran verses; no sermons for three days; And without the multitude of neighbours who split the preparation of three meals a day for the family of the deceased. Even without a Facebook status.

When grieving relatives live in Israeli territory, and those who tragically passed away are buried somewhere in Gaza, how can one mourn while Palestinian citizens of Israel try to downplay their connection with Gaza?

Shirin Assaf’s sister, Iman, and her little daughter Mira. The two were killed together with other family members in an Israeli bombardment in Gaza on November 11, 2023 (photo: courtesy of the family)

“A person’s grief is grief”

Shirin Assaf, a social worker from Lyd, first heard about her brother-in-law’s death on Al Jazeera when they reported on the shelling of al-Mahdi’s private maternity hospital in Gaza City. The brother-in-law, Dr Raed Mahdi, and his two brothers, both doctors, ran the small, two-story hospital and lived within the compound.

“After days of nerve-wracking, I got a call from the US [where Mahdi’s sister lives],” Assaf says. “My niece said to me, ‘Aunt Shirin, may Allah have mercy on them, my condolences.’ I asked, ‘Who?’ and then she said, ‘Your sister Iman, her husband Raed and their seven children all died in the shelling of the hospital.’

“My world had fallen apart. 24 hours a day, between crying and shock, I was helpless, trying to gather bits of information. I couldn’t believe it had happened; I was sure someone would be pulled out from under the rubble. A neighbour of my sister’s managed to get in touch and say he had collected the bodies, put them in a room in the hospital that survived the attack, and locked the room.

“I was already on my way to the airport, to Canada, where my parents and two brothers live. I was in Canada for two weeks until they told us they had managed to bury them. My parents and two brothers found it very hard to believe that the whole family was gone, that no one had survived, until we received the burial documentation. In Canada, we held a burial and funeral ceremony from afar. Instead of nine bodies, we prayed behind nine pictures. A mourning tent was set up, and hundreds of Palestinians from Toronto and across Canada came to comfort us.”

According to Assaf, the comforters and supporters in Canada alleviated the feeling of loneliness a little and comforted the soul a little. “I didn’t want to go back to Israel. I thought that was it, that the children and the house I left behind in Israel were not worth a moment with my family. I asked my husband to go back alone. Who can live among those who killed my sister and her seven children?”

Eventually, Assaf returned and announced a day of condolence on social media. “I kept posting pictures and videos and messages about my grief. I was told to hide and delete, because the police might arrest me, like many others, but I don’t care. After the loss of nine souls, I don’t really care.”

You do live in a mixed neighbourhood in a mixed city, did the neighbours come to console you?

“Yes. Many friends, family, neighbours came. One Jewish neighbour got angry when the cars blocked the road and came to yell at us, but someone explained the story to him and he calmed down. A Jewish neighbour visited me and she said, ‘Any human’s grief is still grief. I share your grief. Everything is because of Sinwar!’”

Assaf was not satisfied with this, and sent a letter to the human resources management at the Clalit Health Fund, where she works. She noted in the letter that she was deeply hurt that she was not sent an official mourning and condolences notice, as is customary. Colleagues and close friends comforted her in mourning, but both her employer and state machinery chose not to commemorate the death of her sister and children, while many notices of condolences were issued for those who were murdered on October 7 or fell in Gaza.

“This letter is my way of coming full circle, telling my workplace that I am a human being, and that I have feelings, even as a Palestinian whose people are under the terror of shelling. After the terrible tragedy I faced, I expected the organisation to which I belong and to which I am loyal to give the respect, empathy and solidarity that it always knew how to give to employees who found themselves in difficult life situations,” says Assaf. “My expectation stemmed from the assumption that my grief and loss are equal to the grief and loss of others, and we at Clalit Health Fund do not differentiate between people.”

She said she had not received an official response to her letter to date, but her team, which includes social and psychological workers, read it, were moved by it, and supported her. “I didn’t get official recognition, but I did get a human and personal embrace” she says.

“Every day I put on a mask of normal life and go to work”

Abeer (not her real name), a teacher from Lyd/Lod, lost her aunt in Gaza. She decided not to tell her mother the bitter news, at least until the end of the war. “Mum is very sick, knowing this can make her condition worse. And even so, there’s not much we can do right now. No communication, no funeral, no mourners home. She will be alone with this pain, without meaning. At the end of the war, I will tell her.”

Abeer regales, “The younger cousins are in refugee camps and move from place to place. It is very difficult to understand what happened to them. I wait for a sign of life once a week at best. I don’t see how all this news will help Mum. She already suffers from loneliness, illness and feeling down. At the moment, she is like everyone else, is in general mourning for Gaza.

“Every day I put a normal-life mask on my face and go to work. I know it’s unhealthy and wrong, I know that one day all the denial and escape from reality will explode in my face, but right now I don’t have the mental strength to deal with more pain.”

Dr Hend Esmael, a clinical psychologist, lecturer in psychology and researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Loss, Bereavement and Emotional Resilience at the University of Haifa, follows the state of collective loss and bereavement of the Palestinian community in Israel. According to her, “A person has a natural need to process the loss, to mourn the deceased loved one. Religious and social ceremonies in different cultures are a huge emotional and social support mechanism for a person who is in a state of trauma and bereavement, especially in tragic circumstances.

The ceremony of preparing the body, the funeral and burial, and then the various condolence ceremonies, are an inseparable part of our coping with loss. In situations of war, such as the current one, Palestinian citizens of Israel have been robbed of this basic right to say goodbye to the father, mother, brother or sister. The circle does not close, and the wound will remain open, and of course this pain will come out in other ways, in the near or distant future.”

She calls the phenomenon “delayed trauma.” “Mental reactions such as depression, anxiety, anger and guilt are common, along with physical reactions such as lack of appetite, weight loss, the development of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure problems and body pain. In the 2014 Gaza war, for example, there was a woman who suffered a heart attack a few days after learning of her mother’s death in Gaza. Her heart couldn’t withstand the pressure and the immense pain, and she collapsed.

“In the shadow of the regime’s forceful silencing, another layer of oppression of grieving Arab citizens has been added here. I’m not talking about bereavement, the smell of death in the air. These are cases of citizens living among us who have lost loved ones, and they stand helpless in the face of a forbidden, silenced and illegitimate loss. In today’s Israeli society, this is even a desirable and legitimate loss. The bereaved Arab citizen is torn between worlds and is expected to reconstruct their emotions according to the majority’s prevailing ambience.”

Esmael notes that the insistence on using the term “Shaheed” [martyr] when referring to the mass killings in Gaza is intended, among other things, to deal with the pain, to think that all these innocent children and women and elderly people were not just killed. “The mobilisation to deal with the enormous bereavement is intended to give this unwarranted death religious significance and a social status of sacrifice for liberation and justice, so that it will not be a casual and empty death, which leaves a gaping hole of pain in the heart of the bereaved person.