For days, Tareq Hajjaj has been asking anyone who can or will listen to him to help keep his stories alive so he and his family stay alive.
Hajjaj, 30, is the Gaza Strip correspondent for Mondoweiss, a news and opinion website that covers the Palestinian territories, Israel and American politics in both places. He is married, has a 10-month-old son and a large family. He helps care for his 79-year-old mother, whose diabetes has caused her blindness. Hajjaj has been working as a news editor and translator since 2015.
Since the war between Israel and Hamas began on October 7, more than 13,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and the West Bank, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, and at least 48 of them have been journalists and health workers. outlets like Hajjaj, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. (The Palestinian Journalists Union, an industry group, says at least 53 Palestinian journalists have been killed.) Many more have been injured. Some have seen their entire families murdered.
International news organizations, once a heavily covered area of the Palestinian territories, began slowly reducing their operations in Gaza in 2007 after the Hamas takeover, withdrawing reporters and closing offices. In addition to the deadly pressure they face from Israel’s forces, according to Freedom House, a Washington think tank, Palestinian journalists in Gaza face repression from Hamas. Israel has allowed some media outlets to briefly base their military in Gaza in recent days, but strictly controls what these journalists see and can report.
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Amid disrupted phone and internet connections, Hajjaj has been reporting in apocalyptic conditions while trying to care for his family. He has written about what it is like to see buildings collapse, about young mothers and friends who died while sheltering in their homes from Israeli airstrikes, and about the feeling of helplessness when there is nowhere left to flee. She has recorded videos on his phone that combine reports and accounts of her disrupted home life.
“Last night my mother woke up in a panic,” begins one of those videos, posted on Instagram on November 1, in which Hajjaj recounts how a house next to hers was being bombed. Amid the resulting chaos, his mother asks, “Do we die?” He replies, “Not yet, Mom, not yet.”
Hajjaj is currently in Khan Younis, southern Gaza. He and his family were evacuated from Gaza City on October 12, joining the ranks of 1.5 million internally displaced people in Gaza. Over several days, USA TODAY communicated with Hajjaj through brief audio notes and messages sent through WhatsApp, one of the only ways to stay in touch with people in Gaza. What follows are some of these messages, condensed and edited for clarity, that Hajjaj was able to send while he was reporting and trying to stay alive.
Hi, Kim. Thanks for communicating. I’m having some problems with my Internet connection. I rarely connect to the Internet. Sometimes I need a couple of hours to upload a recording (voice memo). Anyway, I can help you in any way I can. You can send me your questions, one by one, please, and I will answer you as soon as I have a good (connection).
(KH: Hajjaj does not answer any of my messages for the next 24 hours. Your WhatsApp notifications are marked as not received. He finally writes to say that he needed to change phones and get a different SIM card.)
I am in the European Hospital (in eastern Khan Yunis). It is a dangerous place to go and return home safely (Hajjaj, his wife Timaa and his son Qais stay at his father-in-law’s house in Khan Younis). But I take that risk because my entire (extended) family (3 brothers, their wives, 13 children) was evacuated to this hospital after my older brother was bombed while he was at his house (in Gaza City). He received critical injuries. …All members of his family suffered serious injuries. But they are still alive.
The situation on the ground is harsh and harsh. We are seeing things and scenes that we are not familiar with. People are fighting all day. From morning until evening just to get bread for their families. In the bakeries, thousands of people queue. They spend all day to get their food. And sometimes many of them return home without any.
I used to go out to report in the field wearing my press uniform (protective vest and helmet). But after the attacks on journalists in Gaza I stopped doing it and now I go out without any sign indicating or reflecting that I am a journalist. I hide from the Israeli drones and air force because I believe that when they get the chance, they will bomb me too.
(KH: Israel denies that it deliberately targets journalists and civilians in general. But when they see their friends and colleagues being killed every day, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank say they don’t believe them. Before the recent clash between Israel and Hamas in May, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report that found that Israeli military fire led to the deaths of 18 Palestinian journalists in the past 22 years. The report, titled “Deadly Pattern,” concluded that “investigations into the IDF’s killings of journalists follow a routine sequence. Israeli officials dismiss evidence and witness claims, often appearing to exonerate soldiers of “The IDF’s procedure for examining military killings of civilians, such as journalists, is a black box.”)
Everything on the ground is really tough. Far beyond imagination. … Getting water is like an impossible mission.
I have a family that I need to take care of. And I have a duty and a job I must do. I’m really distracted between the two. I (feel like) I can’t leave my house every day to go out and report. And I can’t stay home either.
(KH: For the first time, Hajjaj sends a long text message.)
Today I was able to see my nephews and nieces after a month of our displacement. They all take refuge in the European Hospital. When they see me for the first time, all of them and I rush to hug each other. I hugged them all, one by one, and kissed them all. I missed them a lot. I missed the days when we all lived in our building (in Gaza City), which was destroyed by Israel, and every morning they came to my apartment on the ground floor asking me for sweets and treats. I always bring them everything they want.
Today their faces look different. They are no longer the same children after a month of daily bombings and killings around them, they seem to me to have aged a hundred years. They do not ask for candy, the stories they tell are not about toys or sweets, they talk about death, about the people under the rubble, about the continuous bombings, about the horror, about their companions who were murdered and they ask for a ceasefire.
Yes, they age. Older than her years, her childhood was shattered by Israeli horror.
I’m so sorry, kids, I’m sorry I can’t help you this time. They weren’t even very happy with the big bag of candy I brought them. They asked me with their innocent faces, why don’t you bring Qais, my son, with you? They always play with him all day. I lied to them telling them that I will bring it next time. But the fact is, I can’t take it anywhere until the war is over.
Inside our house (Hajjaj’s father-in-law’s house in Khan Younis), the situation is not so good. We are sleeping on the floor next to each other. We spend most of the night listening to the radio, the only tool we have to listen to the news. …We all gathered around him, desperate to hear anything about a ceasefire.
Kim… I’m sorry I can’t give you long answers and details. I am always distracted and it is not possible for me to think clearly.
This is our last day of good meals. We are running out of gas to cook. We’re out of flour for bread. Starting tomorrow we are going to queue (at the bakery) for (wait) six or seven hours to get bread. We eat mainly from cans. Nobody asks what it is. We just eat. We are grateful that we still have something. Thousands of families have nothing.
I really miss the bad conditions and the life we had (in Gaza, referring to Israel’s blockade, in place since Hamas took control of the enclave in 2007) before October 7. I miss everything. I miss my mornings. I miss my son’s smiles. I miss my house (in Gaza City) which I will never return to because it was completely destroyed. I miss the views of the olive trees. …I just miss normal days, normal life.
After October 7, all of us in Gaza have been (accused of being) supporters of Hamas. In fact, I’m not. And I never will be.
(KH: Another text message, written in response to a question about a journalist from a television channel called Palestine TV who collapsed on air upon hearing the news that his colleague, Mohammed Abu Hatab, had been killed in an Israeli airstrike. “We can’t take it anymore, we are exhausted… They are going to kill us, it’s just a question of when. There is no protection, there is no impunity… Nothing protects us. Nothing protects journalists. We lose lives, one by one “, said the Palestine TV journalist live.)
I was terrified. I heard the news and asked: Why? Did they start attacking journalists inside their homes with their families? I tried to look at Muhammad’s background. He was a normal journalist.
(KH: Hajjaj has enough connectivity to write on X, formerly Twitter.)
Another friend and colleague, Mohammed Al-Jajja, was killed with his entire family in Gaza. Israel bombed his house, leaving no survivors.
(KH: He then follows up with a Facebook post, where he also posts a photo of his friend, including his press ID and protective vest).
Mohammed and I shared high school in the same bank. He was a great English speaker and writer. He always helps all his colleagues. He works as a journalist in Gaza. Last night Israel killed him along with his entire family, his wife, his adorable children and more than 10 people in a single airstrike. Sorry Mohammed, we are all guilty.
Learn more about Tareq’s story with this video: