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Stuck in the Middle—Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide
A personal story of a friend caught in the Middle East's latest war.
Author’s Note: This article is not a policy analysis or a political argument. It’s a personal account relating the day-to-day experience of a friend and his family trying to endure through difficult, complicated, and increasingly violent circumstances. The past few weeks have put into sharp focus the pain experienced by so many around the world in the wake of the crimes against humanity committed by Hamas on October 7 in its brutal attack on Israel. The images and stories of that initial attack—which included rape, torture, and mutilation—continue to shock. It is a horror that still hasn’t ended as more than 200 babies, elderly, women, and men were violently kidnapped from Israel and are still held hostage in Gaza.
The scenes of innocent civilians dying in the war have provoked strong reactions and a complicated debate, one that too often forgets the basic humanity and decency of those who feel the war’s effects directly in their lives. It is unclear how it all ends. This account is not intended to lift up one person’s humanity at the expense of another’s. It will be the first in an occasional series that will look at how war is impacting Palestinians, Israelis, and others in their daily lives.
Origin story of a friendship
Bassam Nasser, 54 years old, has lived in Gaza City all of his life, except for time away studying at An-Najah National University in Nablus in the West Bank and Tel Aviv University for his Masters of Contemporary Middle East Studies. Trilingual in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, Bassam also knows some Spanish too. He has spent all of his adult life working with American organizations delivering aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the crowded, impoverished sliver of land along the Mediterranean Sea between Israel and Egypt that is now the central battlefront in the deadly war between Israel and Hamas.
Bassam and I met and became friends in 1996, when I was working for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), a U.S. non-governmental group that works around the world on helping people build the fabric of civil society, political parties, and fair election systems. It was a more optimistic but still complicated time for Palestinians: the Oslo agreement had been signed just three years earlier, and the Palestinians had just held their first national elections for a legislative council and president in the newly created Palestinian Authority, a self-governing body with limited powers.
I would split my time between the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, where NDI worked with dozens of Palestinians like Bassam. While NDI’s work didn’t take deep roots, my friendship with Bassam did. I’d look forward to hearing his balanced, detailed takes on what was going on in Palestinian politics, U.S. foreign policy, and just the normal things in life.
One of these conversations took place over ice cream in Gaza City on a peaceful evening in September 1996, just after an episode of violence that was dangerous but nothing like we see now. We’ve stayed in touch through the years as we started families and moved forward in our career paths.
Building a family and life
Bassam continued his career in Gaza, with brief interludes away including the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship at the University of Minnesota in 1998 and 1999. He returned to the United States as a member of a State Department International Visitor Program in 2009. Those sorts of experiences were set up as part of U.S. public diplomacy, outreach to people around the world just like Bassam aimed at building the people-to-people contacts and mutual understanding between societies that some saw as essential to making the world a better place.
The most important part of Bassam’s story isn’t his education or career. It’s the thing that most of us find important in life: family and friends. Bassam married Rolla, a pharmacist who worked at Gaza’s central hospital. They have four children, one son and three daughters:
Mohammed is a third-year student in medicine, and Bassam recently told me that his son earned the top grades in his class, just like a proud father would brag.
Ayya, one of his daughters, studies Arabic-English translation.
Yara, another daughter, is in the eleventh grade.
Lana, their third daughter, has a mild case of cerebral palsy and goes to a special education school. She will run out medication soon, because restrictive policies set by Israel on the Gaza Strip may prevent her from getting the necessary refills.
Bassam has an elderly mother in her late 80s who is showing signs of severe dementia during the current war. He shares photos and videos of family celebrations, and they’re a lot like the ones you’d see from your own circles. As he describes it in his own words in a string of texts to me:
This is a tiny, small piece of our family. We raised our children with basic human values. Our kids are engaged in sports and volunteering. I would say our lives are exactly as they would be in America or any other country…You know Brian, we never complained and tried to live our lives as normal as possible.
Bassam and Rolla built a home in Sheikh Ijlin, south of Gaza City.
We built a home with everything we earned. We still have a mortgage with the bank. Even with both of us working, we couldn’t afford to get the kids out of Gaza. [Before all of this] we were thinking maybe next year we could leave, as one of the loans will end by then.
Among the many problems Palestinians living in Gaza have faced through the years is a blockade intended to prevent the attacks that Israel saw on October 7. Combined with the autocratic misrule of Hamas, this blockade has led to the de-development of Gaza’s economy.
Gaza lacks some of the basic things that Americans and others around the world take for granted, like home insurance. If a family home gets bombed, they lose it all. Early when this latest war broke out, Bassam sent me the GPS coordinates of his home, stressing, “this is all I have in life and for sure won’t survive if I lose it. In fact, I don’t think I have enough to rebuild it.”
The latest war uproots Bassam’s family and destroys a community
In giving me the green light to write about his family’s story in our conversations as this war escalated, Bassam repeatedly hesitated as to whether he wanted people in the world to hear it because he saw the circumstances changing in dramatic ways for people around him—family friends already losing people in their lives to the airstrikes in Gaza.
Just yesterday, one of his daughters got the news that her best friend was killed in an Israeli airstrike. He sent a video that was already in the media of her grieving father asking to be buried next to his 18-year-old daughter killed in the bombing. Seeing this, Bassam told me that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to tell his own story for one main reason:
I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I want people to feel sorry for themselves or for the decisions of their damn politicians.
After the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, Israel started a bombing campaign targeting Hamas terrorists—but the impact has been felt far and wide in Palestinian society. In the first few days of the bombing, Bassam would send messages like “worst night of our lives,” trying to convey the gravity of his situation. He described the impact of the cutoff of water, electricity, and food announced by the Israeli government was having on the community.
In the initial aftermath of the attacks and the ongoing hostage situation, he explained that he was spending time trying to help Americans and other expatriates get to locations where they might be safer, places like the compounds of the United Nations Human Development Programme. In the early days of the war, he casually mentioned the hostages and told me,
Some may find it strange. But if there were a chance for me to host all the civilian hostages in my home, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to do that until they go back to their families.
Along the way, he expressed his frustration about what was unfolding and his views about the policy decisions made by Israeli, American, Palestinian leaders, and those around the Arab world. He expressed his resilience in face of the war and the impact it was having on his family and circle of friends and his anger at the situation.
Bassam holds strong views on policy and where things were headed, but this piece is aimed at talking about the human impact on one person I know. He told me that he didn’t think my writing this piece would matter to those who are making decisions and that they would only see him and his family as “side damage.” He doesn’t want the sympathy or mercy of people who couldn’t see him and his family as human, but he wanted this story to go out because he thought that others have decided it is “game over” for him and his family, and he wanted our circle of shared friends to read this.
A week after the war started, he sent a message saying that they moved from their home to another location, Deir Al-Balah. After the bombing worsened there, Bassam moved his family to Rafah, a town close to the border with Egypt where they have been living with his sister-in-law. On their journey there, they encountered people carrying their clothes, mattresses, and blankets as they made their own way south. Some limited aid supplies have gone in through the Rafah border crossing, but so far no one has gotten out of Gaza.
Even though they moved south, Bassam and his family stayed in touch with their community and circle of colleagues and friends. Every day came with a new story of death and loss, a growing circle of horror that seemed to take more lives of people who weren’t members of Hamas or supported their rule or their vicious attack against Israel. Bassam shared news of a church Israel struck in an airstrike last week, along with video of the funerals and friends speaking about what happened in these strikes. He spoke with dread about how this situation was likely to get even worse and risks ending his life and the lives of his family, too.
No way out?
In the course of our ongoing conversations, I asked Bassam if he was getting any guidance from the network of groups that worked on U.S. aid programs. His blunt answer was no. Today, the shadow of America’s treatment of its Afghan allies in the botched 2021 withdrawal from their country looms large.
In my conversations with friends and colleagues working in the U.S. government and in the network of organizations who spent decades delivering humanitarian assistance and other forms of aid into Gaza, I realized that there was no clear pathway or plan for to help Palestinians like Bassam who had worked with or for the U.S. government or American aid agencies.
Hundreds of American citizens also remain trapped in the Gaza Strip as Israel’s airstrikes continue and it prepares for a ground invasion. No pathway to safety for foreigners has yet been found by U.S. and international diplomats, either. Hamas and other groups still hold more than 200 people hostage, including a number of Americans.
The stories of ordinary people like my friend Bassam and his family, stuck in the middle of a war that looks like it will escalate but with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, aren’t so much in the spotlight as the big picture policy questions.
In seeking to shine the spotlight on my friend and his desperate circumstance, I’m doing it not to make some sort of policy or political statement. I’m also deeply concerned and have been impacted by the multiple stories of my many friends in Israel who remain traumatized by the horrors of the attack their country has experienced and will continue to see in the months ahead.
So how does it end?
If you’ve made it this far in the article, some of you may be angry or upset, thinking that I should instead be writing about those many Israeli families who were brutalized and traumatized by the horrific attack on some of the most vulnerable people in society. Others might think I didn’t go far enough in detailing all of the things that Palestinians are facing now and have faced for years. To those criticisms I’d say: you’re probably right. No account is ever fully complete, and we all have our own individual perspectives shaped by our experiences and who we know.
A big part of my vocation is to offer policy analysis on U.S. foreign policy, and I do my best to offer a clinical, balanced perspective with the goal of shaping the discussions on those issues. My hope is that my work adds some value to those who are in decision-making positions and those in the general public who are seeking some frameworks for understanding the situation. Because of my personal connections to people affected by this conflict—Palestinians and Israelis alike—doing policy analysis these days isn’t like solving a math equation. The nature of the debate that has unfolded with this latest war is deeply emotional and in every way human with the full range of emotions. Like most issues, it has divided us.
No one knows how this war will end or what comes next. But I think that if we keep our eyes and ears open to the full range of stories from people who are directly caught up in this conflict and listen as best as we can to the broad spectrum of perspectives, we might find a better pathway forward.
Just last night, when I was checking some basic facts for this article with Bassam, our chain went dark after Bassam texted, “They’re attacking here, Brian.”
Hours later, the text conversation continued and went on into the night.