War stranded Gaza workers in Israel. How it dashed their dreams.

They pace the spartan hotel lobby, moving back and forth between the faux leather couches.

They all seem to be in a hurry, but with nowhere to go – holding phones, anxiously awaiting yet dreading the next call.

These unplanned guests – Palestinian residents of Gaza who were working or getting medical care in Israel when the war erupted – showed up at this three-star Ramallah hotel in the middle of an October night with little more than a change of clothes.

They do not know if their checkout date will be next week, next month, or next year.

Now stranded in the West Bank, these Gaza residents are receiving few answers but are finding rare solace in one another. Most decline to give their full name, to avoid running afoul of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, or Israel.

“Our entire lives were turned upside down in an instant. We went from a dream to a nightmare, and we have no idea where we are heading next,” says Ahmed as he awaits a text update from his teenage son in Gaza City.

“Our bodies are physically in Ramallah, but our souls are in Gaza. We are lost.”

More than 12,000 Gaza Palestinians were working, living, or receiving medical treatment in Israel when Hamas attacked Oct. 7. As a gesture to relieve economic pressures in the besieged Gaza Strip, Israel had issued 18,000 permits to Gaza residents between 2022 and 2023.

Within hours of the attack, the Israeli government annulled all their work and residency permits and arrested several hundred.

The rest were unceremoniously dumped into the West Bank. Several thousand workers repatriated to Gaza during this past week’s cease-fire; today more than 4,000 Gazans remain stranded in shelters and hotels, separated from family members navigating missile strikes, food shortages, and damaged or destroyed homes as the war resumes.

Hotel Gaza

At the Retno Hotel at the edge of Ramallah, 100 Gaza residents awaiting the war’s end are in the lobby – always in the lobby.

On one November afternoon, the talk in the lobby is of loss – of homes, children, jobs – and needs, for food, water, and shelter back home and a clear future for them in the West Bank.

“You’re lucky your house lasted this long,” one woman says, consoling a shrieking woman who just received news her family home was destroyed.

Hanan, a mother of five who had been receiving cancer treatment in Israel and Jordan, returns to the lobby from a round of treatment at a nearby Ramallah hospital, yet all she can think about are her four young children trapped in Gaza.

“When your 5-year-old son calls you and tells you he feels like he is starving, he misses bread, and asks why you aren’t there to feed him, how do you think that makes you feel as a mother?” Hanan says. “Could you even think about putting food in your own mouth?”

“We cannot eat, we cannot sleep, we cannot rest. We are like the living dead,” she says.

Lost future

The chatter inevitably drifts to the promising future that might have been. A future, they say, that was robbed.

“We were moving forward; it was a new chapter. There was hope,” says Ahmed, who was working for an Israeli construction firm in northern Israel when conflict erupted. “Life was just becoming beautiful again.”

When Ahmed received an Israeli work permit in December 2022, he went from earning 20 shekels a day ($5.40) as a Gaza City barber to making 300 shekels a day ($81) painting and plastering apartments with a company in the majority-Arab town of Sakhnin in the Galilee.

It was “life-transforming,” he says.

He eagerly swipes through photos on his phone of the dream house he built in Gaza City with nine months of salary in Israel, proudly pointing out the floodlights, gypsum ceiling decor, brand-new velvet sofas, and oak-wood closets.

It was a major upgrade from the aluminum-sided shack he had lived in with his five children.

He had only spent nine days in his dream house while on leave in Gaza in late September; he does not know its fate today. It is believed the house was struck by an Israeli missile.

“We were having big dreams for the future, ourselves and our children, for the first time in two decades,” Ahmed says.

“Just weeks ago, I was buying a TV for my son’s bedroom,” Ahmed says. “Now I am begging people on the phone, trying to find a working hospital or a way out of Gaza so he can finish chemotherapy.”

Mutual support

A feeling of helplessness grows with the losses. Abu Mohammed, in his late 50s, patiently waits to speak to a reporter as a “release.”

Sitting in the same lobby chair where he heard the news Oct. 17 that a missile strike hit his home in Gaza and killed his eldest son, Mohammed, he receives text updates from his two surviving sons. On broken legs, they were searching Rafah pharmacies for painkillers, but found none.

On this day, like every day since Oct. 17, “all I can do is look at the photo that changed my life forever,” he says.

He lifts his phone, displaying a photo of Mohammed’s concrete-dust-covered hand poking out from the rubble of their home. The 19-year-old was going to study medicine to become a doctor; Abu Mohammed dreamed of dancing at his wedding. The thought brings him to tears.

“Where is the humanity? We have lost our humanity,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like animals treat each other more humanely than people.”

Ahmed rushes over and gives Abu Mohammed’s shoulder a squeeze.

“We were strangers before, but now we are family,” Ahmed says. “We must lean on and support one another.”

Blame all around

As the war stretches on, anger toward Israel and bitterness toward Hamas grow.

“The money we were sending home was transforming lives and communities. Hamas didn’t think about that when they launched this attack and took us to war,” Ahmed seethes. “Did they think about our future? Our families’ lives?”

Abu Mohammed, eyes still welling up, says, “I am not absolving Israel of its culpability in murder, but the decision-makers in Gaza led us down a path of destruction, hardship, and war.”

“Our time working in Israel proved to me that Jews and Arabs can work and live together,” Ahmed says. “But the extremists on both sides have pulled us apart.”

Charity

The plight of the stranded Gaza residents has mobilized charity.

Leading the push is Mahmoud Quffah, a Gazan who had been working at a Ramallah fast-food restaurant when the war erupted. Unable to send his salary back to his wife and two young children in Gaza, he quit his job and volunteers full time organizing donations.

The Palestinian Authority pays to house the stranded Gazans while Mr. Quffah gathers donations of food, clothing, and medicine.

Entering the lobby carrying bags of medicines, he ruffles the hair of a toddler waddling across the lobby with a Palestinian flag painted on his right cheek.

“There is nothing I can do to stop the war or help my family, but the very least I can do is help them,” says Mr. Quffah, gesturing to the guests. “They are Gazans like me. This is my extended family.”

He steps outside and tries to call his wife, whom he had not heard from in two days. His family had already survived a missile strike on his in-laws’ home in the Jabaliya camp. Once again, the call could not go through. He puts on a smile, walks back into the lobby, and lifts a toddler into the air.

His phone remains open to the last text message he sent her: “Tell me how you are doing. Just let me know you are alive.”

Days later, she responds, indicating they had evacuated to an UNRWA school in Gaza City. When war resumed Friday, he lost contact with her again.

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