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“A Catastrophe That Cannot Be Described”: Palestinian Poet in Rafah on Daily Hardships Amid Israel’s War

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We get an update from Rafah as the World Food Programme warns of worsening catastrophic hunger in the Gaza Strip and Israel continues to block most aid from entering the territory. Despite growing international criticism, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he plans for a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah, where over 1.4 million Palestinians are penned in after repeated forced evacuations from elsewhere in Gaza since October 7. “I’m hoping from the U.S. government to put a serious pressure on the Israeli government in order to prevent such a catastrophe,” says Mohammed Abu Lebda, a poet and translator from Rafah, who says an Israeli ground invasion could kill up to 100,000 more Palestinians. Abu Lebda describes the daily hardships in Rafah, including the severe mental toll, Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza has unleashed. “I’m not sure that I’m going to be the person that I used to be before the war,” he says. “I’m 100% sure that I was changed, and I was changed forever.”

(Mohammed Abu Lebda is currently fundraising to leave Gaza with his family. Find details on his GoFundMe page.)

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We begin today’s show in Gaza, where humanitarian agencies say a small amount of flour has been delivered in northern Gaza for the first time in months, as the U.N. food agency warns famine is imminent and 70% of Palestinians in Gaza are facing catastrophic hunger. This comes as UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, is reporting one in three children under the age of 2 in northern Gaza is now acutely malnourished as Israel continues to block most aid from entering Gaza. On Friday, a ship carrying 200 tons of aid arrived in Gaza from Cyprus, but aid groups say far more aid is desperately needed inside Gaza.

Despite growing international criticism, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is vowing to move ahead with a full-scale ground invasion of the southern city of Rafah, where over 1.4 million Palestinians are now seeking refuge.

For more, we go to Rafah, where we’re joined by Mohammed Abu Lebda. He’s a poet and a translator. He used to translate Edgar Allan Poe but now translates for the International Medical Corps.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mohammed. Thank you for joining us today on Democracy Now! Can you describe the situation on the ground in Rafah and tell us about your city?

MOHAMMED ABU LEBDA: OK. Hi. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Actually, as you may see in the background, I’m talking about the tents that are here, and I want to say that every single street in Rafah city is full of tents, because after people were forced to be displaced from the rest areas of the Gaza Strip, from north until Khan Younis in the south, and they didn’t find any shelter but Rafah city, which — actually, let me say that the border towns — Rafah is a border town, and the border towns usually are neglected. And it’s not known — it’s not even known, only for geographers or even border guards.

So, Rafah was suffering in the normal days from bad infrastructure, lack of many basic life needs. So, actually, let me say, in the war of 2014, the people of Rafah were demanding to have a hospital, because we here, until now — we are in 2024 — we don’t have a suitable hospital that can provide good medical services to the people of Rafah. To just describe the horrible situation that Rafah is living, Rafah used to have a population of 250,000 people only. Now we have more than, over than 1.4 million people, without any suitable infrastructure or without providing them with the necessary basic life needs.

OK, the situation in the north of Gaza is really horrible. But let me say, in Rafah, there is no big difference, actually. People here are suffering from several things. Actually, you need to wait in lines, and maybe you can — you may spend the whole day in lines just to have some bread or even to have clean water, because most of the water here is polluted, and it’s not suitable for the human use. And it’s important to mention that, above all of this, the shooting and the bombing is still continuing here in Rafah, actually, even if Rafah was declared as a safe place.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Abu Lebda, the Biden administration has said they have a red line, that would be the prime minister having the Israeli troops engaging in a full ground invasion in Rafah, if he doesn’t present a plan for how Palestinians would be dealt with on the ground, civilians. Israel announced it wants to transfer most of the more than million Palestinians in Rafah to what it calls humanitarian islands in other parts of Gaza. Can you explain what that means and what people are saying, how they are preparing?

MOHAMMED ABU LEBDA: OK, actually, to be honest, I don’t know what does it mean even, because I never heard about something called safe islands or something like that in Gaza Strip. So it is the first time I heard it, after reading the news. Actually, there is no effective plan that can easily transfer or move over than 1.4 million people here from Gaza Strip — from Rafah city, I mean, even to another areas, where the IDF is still working there. So, to be clear, it’s not an effective plan. Actually, to be honest, me and the rest of the Rafah people don’t know even what they are talking about, because it is the first time to hear about this.

But I can ask that the American government is to put real pressure and serious pressure on the Israeli government so they can prevent them seriously and honestly to invade Rafah, because invading Rafah means that there is a true catastrophe that is coming, even if we are still living in a catastrophe, actually, because the situation here cannot be described. So, invading Rafah means that you will end the little, the tiny hope that is still — we still have. So, what does this mean to me, actually? I am actually a little bit worried about the safety of the entire people here, because invading Rafah, which means that hundreds of thousands will be killed if something like that happened. So, I’m expecting and I’m hoping from the U.S. government to put serious pressure on the Israeli government in order to prevent such a catastrophe to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: What would it mean for your family, Mohammed, if the Israeli military does launch a full-scale invasion of Rafah? And can you describe what the process is for people to leave, to make their way into Egypt, the thousands of dollars that must be spent? I think, on average, it’s something like $5,000 per adult and $2,000 or $2,500 per child?

MOHAMMED ABU LEBDA: Let me say, first, leaving Gaza Strip toward Egypt, I mean, the entire people here, if there is an invade or march or there is any march into Rafah, actually, most of the world, including the U.S. government itself, actually they refuse that entirely. The Palestinians will not be moved. They refuse that entirely, to be moved to the Sinai or the Egyptian side. But let me say that I’m already displaced, because I lost my house by bombing some near houses near my house at the same square, so I forced to move to another place in the same area, Rafah city, because I’m from Rafah. And the same thing for the people who were displaced from the rest of Gaza Strip cities.

For me, or for my experience, for me and my family, we suffered a lot first when we were at our house in order to provide the basic life needs, as I mentioned, the basic food even. If there is any food here, you will find very, very high prices that the normal citizen or the normal civilians cannot really afford. So, it’s impossible to the people in such a situation to afford any kind of food. And let me say that anything that is entering from Rafah cross-bording, anything, literally, it’s not even enough for maybe half a million. We are talking about a number that — over than that with a big thing. So, from my experience, I face several things. First of all, we face, actually, very, very real threats — and it’s not once, it’s not even twice; we are even facing that daily. This is according to the physical thing.

And also I want to mention that we are facing severe symptoms related to our mental health. Actually, I’m not sure that I’m going to be the person that I used to be before the war when the war ends. I’m 100% sure that I was changed, and I was changed forever. It’s not me only. I’m talking about my family and the rest of the people here of Gaza Strip. We are facing severe symptoms when we are talking about the mental health. We are talking about children that are raising in such situations. Of course, they are going to have severe symptoms and many, many horrible things for their mental health, and they will carry that to all entire life, their entire life. So, from all sides, people here are really suffering, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed, you are a poet. You translate Edgar Allan Poe. Now you are a medical translator. Can you describe your work?

MOHAMMED ABU LEBDA: OK, yeah, I used to work to translate novels as a literary translator. But this war, or this catastrophe, let me say — I don’t prefer to use the word “war” because what we are witnessing is a catastrophe that cannot be described. Anyway, yeah, I used to translate literature, which means that I’m a sensitive person with many emotions. So, you need that in order to translate poetry or translate novels or something like that.

So, then, this catastrophe changed us forever, all of us, even our jobs. So, yeah, I moved to be a medical translator and a medical interpreter at a field hospital here between Rafah city and Khan Younis city in the south of Gaza Strip. Actually, my work as a medical translator, it was the first time to be in the field, actually, in such situations. And I can say that I’m witnessing very, very, very horrible situations. I’m witnessing daily many casualties that are arriving to the field hospital, because we don’t have any — we lost every governmental medical services because of the destruction of many, many hospitals, even the only hospital here in Rafah, which is al-Najjar Hospital. It cannot provide the necessary medical help, services. And the field hospital, which was established by the IMC, the International Medical Corps, they are actually — in only two months, they performed about 1,000 major surgeries, which is really, really a great thing to have. And even related to the outpatient departments, we are talking about consultations of maybe 30,000.

So, yeah, we are trying hard to provide our people with the necessary medical services, as well as the mental health and the CP, which is the child protection. We are doing our ultimate efforts in order to try hard in order to provide the people or the civilians and the innocent people here, to provide them with the medical services and other services. And let me use what Michel Foucault once said: Because we are no prophets, our job is to make windows where were once walls. So, we are trying hard is to create windows on the walls that this catastrophe is trying to build.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Mohammed Abu Lebda, we’re going to be joined by Rachel Corrie’s parents and the activist who held her hand as she lay dying. This is 21 years ago in Rafah. She was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home. You shared with us a picture from Rafah in 2003 — you were a little boy at the time — with the caption “my grandmother with her neighbor and my sister Rozan after their home was destroyed by an Israeli bulldozer,” right around the time Rachel was trying to protect homes as a U.S. activist. Your thoughts on her significance? And how is she remembered in Rafah?

MOHAMMED ABU LEBDA: OK, let me say that Rachel Corrie is being remembered. Every single person here in Rafah, and in Gaza in general, in Gaza Strip in general, and especially of Rafah, every single person knows Rachel Corrie, even the late generations, all of them. Allow me to tell you the main reason. Actually, Rachel Corrie became an icon, not only here in Gaza Strip and not only for the Palestinians, the Palestinian people, but for the rest of the world, because she was — she passed away or she was killed because of her — because she was trying to deliver a very important message. It’s the most important message in the world, which is peace.

And, actually, for me, this is the main thing that we need to focus on, in order to achieve what Rachel Corrie was dreaming to achieve, which is a peace for the Palestinians. So, what matters for me in Rachel Corrie’s story is that she left her home, she left her parents and her family, and she came to a very — to a country that she never visited before. And, actually, she came into a conflict zone, which is considered as a dangerous zone. So, even her ideas to come to here, actually, it’s a bravery.

She’s really — actually, I want to say that she is being remembered here because of the story and the message she tried to deliver. And this, actually, this and Rachel Corrie’s story, should strengthen us here while we are living these horrible situations. We need to remember Rachel Corrie and her courage to come to a dangerous area, not only that, trying to defend the people, the voiceless people, to be the voice of the voiceless people here and to stand in front the ultimate power. She stand in front tanks and bulldozers, trying to defend the people here in Gaza Strip, which, actually, I don’t know what is a greater — what act will be greater than Rachel Corrie dead. So, I’m really grateful for Rachel Corrie. And I want to say that people like Rachel Corrie will never die, ever.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mohammed Abu Lebda, poet and translator from Rafah, thank you so much. Your words are being heard around the world and by her parents, who are going to be joining us next. I’m looking at your GoFundMe page, Mohammed, which quotes another poet. You say, “All what we seek for is to live, like any human being in this earth. Helping us means that you are taking action, supporting humanity because the famous poet [Dante] said: 'The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.'” Thank you for talking to us today on Democracy Now!, Mohammed Abu Lebda.


AMY GOODMAN: Next up, we continue to remember the U.S. peace activist Rachel Corrie, killed 21 years ago, March 16th, 2003, when she was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of the home of a Palestinian pharmacist. It was three days before the U.S. invaded Iraq. Back in 20 seconds.

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Next story from this daily show

Rachel Corrie: Parents & Friend Remember U.S. Activist Crushed by Israeli Bulldozer in Rafah in 2003

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