Gaza and the Empathy Gap

How we Americans feel about Gazans living under Israeli bombs does matter, since we’re the ones financing it.

GAZA CITY, GAZA - OCTOBER 18: A Palestinian woman around the belongings of Palestinians cries at the garden of Al-Ahli Arabi Baptist Hospital after it was hit in Gaza City, Gaza on October 18, 2023. Over 500 people were killed on Al-Ahli Arabi Baptist Hospital in Gaza on Tuesday, Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told. According to the Palestinian authorities, Israeli army is responsible for the deadly bombing. (Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu via Getty Images)

A Palestinian woman cries in the garden of al-Ahli Arab Hospital after it was hit in Gaza City on Oct. 18, 2023.

Photo: Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu via Getty Images

This article was originally published as a newsletter from Ryan Grim. Sign up to get the next one in your inbox.

At the end of 2015, I worked with Israeli journalist Amir Tibon on a long story about the devolving relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. My role was to help report out the U.S. side of that fracturing relationship, relying on my sourcing inside the Democratic Party and the White House. I still remember what a privilege it felt like to work with Tibon, whose own sourcing on the Israeli side gave us a window into the strategic thinking of Bibi and his inner circle that one simply never sees here in the U.S. Instead, all we get is a flattened gloss on Netanyahu as a tough guy and a political survivor. 

I did a double take when I woke up on Saturday, October 7, and learned that Amir had only narrowly escaped being murdered with his wife and two young girls by Hamas. In a story that has since become famous, he and his wife woke first to the sound of mortars — not uncommon in their kibbutz near Gaza — quickly followed by the sound of automatic gunfire, quite uncommon. 

They rushed to their safe room — effectively a concrete bunker that can withstand a mortar blast, and where children often sleep — as the sound of gunfire drew closer. Group texts with neighbors soon let them know Hamas had overrun the kibbutz, and a text with a source of his told him the militants had overrun all of southern Israel. 

The family was hours from being rescued, and he was sure they would die. He texted his father in Tel Aviv before he lost reception, then spent the next many hours huddled with his family in the dark, gunfire ricocheting through their home.

His 62-year-old father, meanwhile, grabbed a pistol and headed south, picking up another 70-year-old veteran and a handful of lost soldiers along the way. As Amir told The Atlantic: 

We were just hearing the gunfire getting closer and closer. The girls had fallen asleep, but now they woke up. I think it’s 2 p.m. They haven’t had anything to eat since last night. There’s no light, and we don’t have cellphones anymore, so we can’t even show them our faces, and there’s one sentence that is keeping them from falling apart and starting to cry—I’m telling them: “Grandfather is coming.”

I tell them, “If we stay quiet, your grandfather will come and get us out of here.” And at 4 p.m., after 10 hours like this, we hear a large bang on the window, and we hear the voice of my father. Galia, my oldest daughter, says, “Saba higea”—“Grandfather is here.” And that’s when we all just start crying. And that’s when we knew that we were safe.

The story of Amir and his family hits me hard (I’m sure it hits all of us hard) for what it tells us about love, faith, and resilience in a time of terror — and because behind it are hundreds of stories that did not end with grandfather making it. In a must-read essay, Palestinian American journalist Sarah Aziza reflects on one of the horrifying details that Amir and other survivors relayed — that children tend to sleep in bunkers in the communities near Gaza. 

I find this detail so chilling. I wonder, what kind of world does one imagine one lives in, in which such structures are normalized? What kind of status quo does one abide, in which one’s children shelter each night this way? Does it really feel like peace? Does it ever occur to the architects to wonder at the reason rockets are thrown? Or has this society fully accepted that the mortars launched from Gaza are merely missiles of hate?

Don’t their daughters miss waking up to the sun?

One of the cruel ironies of the Hamas assault, in fact, is that the kibbutz that was home to Amir’s family, and many of the nearby villages, are populated by left-leaning Israelis who abhor both the occupation and the current Israeli government. When that right-wing government withdrew military resources from the south to help support rampaging settlers in the West Bank instead, it was understood in Israel that the political lean of the south contributed to the Israeli government’s willingness to pull those resources away. 

I’ve thought about Amir’s story a lot the past two weeks, and it resonated with me again when I saw a viral tweet from my colleague Murtaza Hussain about the role of culture, circumstance, and empathy. Though I don’t have a safe room in my home, the fear of gun violence coming home is a real one for me and most Americans, even if our perpetrators are more likely to be lone nuts in a school or a mall rather than organized terror cells. It’s much harder, bordering on impossible, to imagine war planes and drones flying over my home, firing missiles into my neighborhood. “I don’t think Americans appreciate the horror of dying under bombing or airstrikes because they have no experience of that themselves,” Murtaza wrote. “Being shot or stabbed is more tangible horror to the public but dying under bombs is a completely alien experience to which they cannot relate.”

Yet even as I write these words, I recognize the trap we fall into in the West, taking an event happening to people somewhere else in the world and transmuting it into the all-important question of how we feel about it, of whether our proper feelings have been properly shared on social media. It’s a sickness, but how we Americans feel does matter, since we’re the ones financing all this. 

Most Americans who have no Palestinian lineage don’t know anybody in or from Gaza, which would be the case for me if I wasn’t a journalist. Through that work, I’ve met a number of people who were born there and some who still live there. The stories they’re telling of the past two weeks suggest an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe that is far greater than we understand. However bad you think it is there, it is probably much, much worse. One young man who I met reporting last year said that he has lost 30 members of his family on his mother’s side, and seven on his father’s, and this is just the beginning. A photographer I’ve worked with in Gaza evacuated from his middle-class apartment building and watched as it and the surrounding ones were bombed into rubble. What does he do now? 

The numbers — at least 4,000 killed in Gaza so far, and my guess is it’s several times that — don’t tell the whole story, because the entire concept of living in a city getting carpet-bombed is alien to us. Because Israel has cut Gaza off from energy and water, the average Gazan is down to less than a liter available per day for all purposes. The United Nations says the bare minimum for survival is 15 liters per day. Going days on end with barely any water is literally unimaginable to me. 

In the wake of the assault by Hamas, many in both the U.S. and in Israel were shocked that in some corners of the internet and on some college campuses, Hamas’s violence against civilians was either excused as a necessary element of resistance or celebrated as a step toward liberation. Even if those reactions came from small, powerless pockets, any glimpse into that degree of inhumanity is chilling. It also exposes the depth of our crisis of empathy and disconnection. Notice that many of those who were rightly appalled at the cynical cheering of innocent lives lost took barely a breath before cynically cheering on the loss of innocent lives in Gaza. The Gazan population elected Hamas, so they’re guilty, too, goes one argument. (The election was in 2006, and most Gazans alive today were not yet born or of voting age at the time.) Israel warned the million people of north Gaza to flee, so if they don’t, that’s on them, goes another argument. Or, rhyming with those who defended Hamas, civilian casualties are regrettable but they’re a part of war. 

For years, Israel has publicly promised that it does everything it can to minimize civilian casualties, and argues correctly that doing so is fundamentally different than deliberately targeting civilians. But what becomes of that argument when Israel dispenses with even bothering to make it — “The emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy,” Israel Defense Forces official Daniel Hagari said — and systematically deprives the civilian population of the basics it needs to survive? Perhaps a way to close our empathy gap a bit is to connect with the justified rage that was felt at those who refused to condemn the atrocities committed by Hamas and imagine how it feels to civilians on the other side — to imagine how it feels to see unconditional support being given to a military operation that is killing thousands upon thousands of innocent people. To see the largest news aggregator in Europe actively suppress news of atrocities and push a narrative away from reality. How it must feel to see calls for a humanitarian ceasefire attacked as not just wrong but “repugnant” — not from a college student group, but from the podium at the White House.

In her essay for The Baffler, Sarah (who has done much great work for The Intercept) offers a window into that feeling: 

“But what about Hamas?” I grew up with this question whipped at my face every time I declared my people’s right to survive. “What about Hamas?” It didn’t matter if I’d just asked for clean water or the right to return to our stolen land. “What about Hamas?” they’d ask, holding my humanity hostage. Their smug smiles at this question, which they saw as a rhetorical coup. I gave them hours, pages of my words. I filled rooms with my hot breath, panting, “We are not terrorists — Hamas is a symptom of oppression — yes of course I condemn extremism — this is a struggle for human rights — Israel propped up Hamas for years — please look at our children — please, don’t you see our helpless elders? — please, if you don’t respect us as humans, could you spare some pity?”

President Joe Biden and Netanyahu spoke by phone yesterday and, according to a readout provided by the White House, discussed the handful of trucks that have finally been allowed into the enclave of what was, at the beginning of the siege, some 2 million people, but by the end of it may be considerably fewer. “The President welcomed the first two convoys of humanitarian assistance since Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack, which crossed the border into Gaza and is being distributed to Palestinians in need,” according to the readout. “The leaders affirmed that there will now be continued flow of this critical assistance into Gaza.” The pair also discussed the two American hostages freed and “ongoing efforts” to secure the release of the rest. 

What’s shifting, though, is that the world’s population does not seem unconditionally OK with what’s happening. Stunning polls in the U.S. show a majority oppose arming Israel’s assault; major protests have broken out in the U.S. and Europe. In Israel, much of the public has put the blame for the catastrophe at Netanyahu’s feet. “The protests that Israel saw in the last year are going to be a children’s game compared to the anger of the public after this,” said Tibon, who, like his news outlet Haaretz, has been unsparing in his criticism of Netanyahu. 

In the U.S., support is growing for a ceasefire. More than 400 staff members on Capitol Hill have circulated a letter urging their bosses to back one. Sen. John Fetterman’s former campaign staff have done the same. And a ceasefire resolution introduced by Reps. Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib recently picked up support from some important corners: Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with Reps. Maxwell Frost and Greg Casar, who had been the targets of fierce AIPAC lobbying during their primaries, plus North Carolina Rep. Alma Adams. (That lobbying campaign is a big focus of my new book “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution.”)

Adams’s decision to sign on should scare AIPAC, as she’s gone on multiple AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel — most recently last month. Her decision to step out on the issue turned a lot of heads inside the Democratic caucus. Perhaps ironically, it is the political element described in Washington as anti-Israel that — in calling for a ceasefire — is working to save Israel from the looming catastrophe of a ground invasion. 

This weekend, the House Armed Services Committee was briefed by the Pentagon on the status and prospects of Israel’s war effort. People who were in the briefing tell me and my colleague Ken Klippenstein that the Defense Department is far more pessimistic about the upcoming ground invasion than has been allowed publicly. If you were also there and can share some details, you can reach Ken on Signal at 202-510-1268 or me at 202-368-0859. 

Join The Conversation