Metro Atlanta woman says at least 100 relatives have been killed in Gaza

Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment, adjunct to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi)

Credit: Jehad Alshrafi/AP

Credit: Jehad Alshrafi/AP

Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment, adjunct to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi)

Ghada Elnajjar’s family Facebook group used to be filled with joyous posts celebrating graduations, weddings and new baby announcements.

The Alpharetta mother of two used the platform to keep in touch with her relatives in Gaza, where she enjoyed spending summers as a child. Now the area she remembers as a coastal paradise has become a war-torn nightmare.

The Facebook group, once used to share happy news of her loved ones’ various accomplishments, has become a place to keep tabs on which family members have died in Israeli airstrikes, she said.

“Since Oct. 8, I’ve lost over 100 family members,” said Elnajjar, a descendant of Palestinian refugees who works as the director of operations at a financial firm. “As more people are being killed, our fear is who is next. It’s devastating.”

Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment, adjunct to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi)

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Israel’s military campaign followed the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since then and at least 81,000 have been injured, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health.

The United Nations estimates 1.7 million Palestinians are displaced amid bombing campaigns that have reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble.

Nowhere to go, no time to mourn

Elnajjar said several members of her extended family died last weekend in western Rafah, an area they were told would be safe from the bombings.

Most of those killed since the start of the war have been women and children, she said, and some children in her family have lost both parents.

“This is generational trauma and this is going to be lifelong for them,” she said. “We don’t even have time to mourn.”

“When a bomb is dropped on a home, it kills an entire branch of a family because you can have 60 to 80 members in one house seeking shelter,” Elnajjar said.

Elnajjar said some members of the Joudah family, her relatives in Gaza, have had to move three or more times in search of safety. But she fears there’s no truly safe place for them to go.

“Some of them relocated several times between Rafah and Dier al Balah, depending on where the bombings were happening,” she said. “Thank God we don’t have anyone in the tents, but my cousin who just died in an airstrike was in a house.”

FILE - A tent camp housing Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive is seen in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Feb. 27, 2024. The tent camps stretch for more than 16 kilometers (10 miles) along Gaza’s coast, filling the beach and sprawling into empty lots, fields and town streets. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali, file)

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There are more than 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza. The majority of them — about 80% — are either refugees or the descendants of refugees displaced from their homes and villages in the lead-up to Israel’s creation in 1948, or in subsequent wars, according to the U.N.

Palestinians refer to the mass displacement and ensuing diaspora as the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe.

‘The situation keeps getting worse’

Elnajjar’s grandparents were originally from the coastal village of Isdud, now called Ashdod, but she said they were expelled to Gaza 76 years ago. Both of her parents were born in refugee camps in the densely populated strip.

Elnajjar was born in Libya and spent her formative years in the United Arab Emirates before moving to Georgia in 1986. She remembers fondly the summers she spent in Gaza as a youth, where she said she connected with her roots.

Ghada Elnajjar and her husband, Nidal Ibrahim, live in Alpharetta. She says more than 100 of her relatives and extended family members have been killed in Gaza since October. (Courtesy photo)

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Credit: Contributed

She hasn’t been back to visit since 2005, ahead of the Israeli government’s blockade on the Palestinian territory.

“My children are now 15 and 18 and they’ve never met their extended family in Gaza,” she said. “Every year I wait for the siege and blockade to be lifted but the situation keeps getting worse.”

A self-described lifelong Democrat, Elnajjar said she campaigned for Joe Biden in 2020 with the group Arab Americans for Biden, encouraging Arab voters to get to the polls in swing states. She does not plan to vote for the president again in November, citing his handling of the war.

“The United States is funding this genocide and that makes them a responsible party,” she said.

Bloomberg’s latest polling shows Biden lagging behind former President Donald Trump in Georgia and other swing states. In 2020, Biden edged Trump by nearly 12,000 votes in the Peach State. Navigating the Israel-Hamas war has been a huge issue for the Biden campaign and sparked protests across the country on college campuses.

The poll was released before Trump was found guilty on all counts in the New York hush money trial.

Elnajjar’s husband, Nidal Ibrahim, said Israel is flaunting international law and repeatedly crossing the “red lines” laid out by the Biden administration.

“Each and every one of those red lines has been crossed and there’s been utter silence,” Ibrahim said. “There’s been no action. There’s been no decision to hold Israel accountable for its flagrant human rights violations.”

Biden and his top advisers have repeatedly warned the Israeli officials against carrying out widescale operations in Rafah without a plan to secure the safety of innocent civilians. But the administration this week made clear that it would not move – at least not immediately – to curtail any support for Israel as a result of last weekend’s strike.

By continuing arms shipments amid the mounting civilian death toll, Ibrahim said the Biden administration has “abandoned the principles of the Democratic party and what the U.S. has long stood for.”

Speaking out

In the U.S., Israel faces growing criticism from faith leaders, human rights activists and students on college campuses.

Darryl Winston, the pastor of Greater Works Ministries in metro Atlanta, is among hundreds of Black faith leaders who have called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

“This genocide has gone too far,” said Winston, who served for several years as a chaplain in the U.S. Army. “People across the nation are outraged over this notion that Palestinian lives are expendable. It is inhumane and it should not be normalized.”

Fahed AbuAkel, a retired Presbyterian minister who was born in Palestine in 1944, said he’s never seen so much support for the Palestinians. He credits social media for the recent shift in public opinion, saying that Americans scrolling on their phones are being exposed hourly to horrific images rarely shown on the nightly news.

“In seven months, the American people have started to learn about our story, our pain and about our suffering under occupation for 76 years,” said AbuAkel, who first came to Florida in 1966 and moved to Atlanta four years later.

Born in Kuffer Yassif in Galilee, AbuAkel was 4 when the state of Israel was established.

His family was among about 150,000 Palestinians who remained in their homes and received Israeli citizenship decades ago. But AbuAkel said the nearly 800,000 Palestinians who fled to Gaza or surrounding countries were not as fortunate. The vast majority were never allowed to return.

Even as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, AbuAkel said he and other Arabs faced discrimination in just about every aspect of their lives. If he wanted to visit neighboring towns, for instance, he said he needed a travel permit approved by the Israeli government. Palestinians caught traveling without the proper permits faced court dates, fines and even jail, he said. Today, Arab-Israelis make up more than 20% of Israel’s citizenry.

For AbuAkel, the scale of destruction in Gaza reminds him reminds him of the suffering he witnessed 76 years ago as a boy.

“Anytime I see the children of Gaza, I see myself,” he said, adding: “The Nakba never stopped.”

FILE - Arab villagers who fled from their homes during fighting between Israeli and Arab troops, on Nov. 4, 1948. (AP Photo/Jim Pringle, File)

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Though some of her relatives have lost everything, Elnajjar said they remain hopeful that things will get better.

“I’m in awe and amazed by their strength and resilience,” she said of her family and Palestinians in general.

She recalled a conversation she had with her cousin, Yasmeen, who recently lost her son, daughter-in-law and her unborn granddaughter. Elnajjar was able to help her cousin evacuate to Egypt so that she could get medical treatment for her daughter’s pre-war injury. Most of their immediate family is still in Gaza, however.

“I said, ‘I’m so sorry, I have no words,’ and her response was ‘Alhamdulillah.’ She thanked God,” Elnajjar said. “Their faith is so strong, and they don’t have any choice but to move on and keep going ... They want to live life just like everybody else.”

Natalie Mendenhall contributed to this article.