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Hear from two people with Wisconsin connections who recently lost loved ones to Mideast conflict

The conflict in Israel and Palestine that has escalated again in recent weeks weighs heavy on many around the world, including those with Wisconsin ties.

One includes a Jewish woman with Milwaukee connections who lost her niece to the Hamas terror attacks in the south of Israel. Another is a Milwaukee man who lost his sister to Israel’s retaliatory missile attacks in the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

Milwaukeean Mohammad Hamad was the main featured speaker at an event Friday night organized by the Islamic Society of Milwaukee called Standing Up for Gaza. It was an honor Hamad wished never happened. About a week ago, his 66-year-old sister Faheemah Jameel Hamad was killed by Israeli missile attacks in Gaza.

“For the last five days it's like a nightmare,” Hamad told the crowd. “You want to wake and you want to disbelieve in what you hear. It's very difficult when you lose a very close sister or a brother. I know our loss in Gaza — huge. I wish I can speak on behalf of every one of them. But I'm going to share just one story about my sister, which is encompass most of the story of the people in Gaza.”

With tears, Hamad shared memories of his sister. “Last year I was with her,” he said. “I spend around 70 days in the area north of Gaza. She was so thrilled to see me. I had been in this country for the last 23 years. She was singing and dancing as soon as she saw me.”

He recalled that the next day, she cooked him the most beautiful food. “[You] cannot imagine how much the whole night spent to prepare it. To make sure her brother, who had been the last 23 years living in this country enjoying a traditional Palestinian meal."

Hamad said that Friday, Oct. 6 was the last time he had contact with her. “She was so happy. It was the wedding of my niece. We were thrilled to see her, the happiness, how she dressed. And they were teasing her. ‘You are like a bride now.’ [She was] shining in her face. She went through a lot, my sister. The last 17 years when Gaza went under the siege, two of her houses has been demolished. In 2019, she was able to move to the new house. She was so happy. Finally, she settled. She's 66 years old. She had settled with her three kids and five grandchildren.”

Hamad said when the latest attacks started, his sister moved to a camp seven kilometers from her house. He said she was fasting on Monday and went to the market to prepare to break her fast. That’s when she was hit by an Israeli airstrike.

“They couldn't identify her body except from her purse,” he lamented. “They found her name. It is very difficult to me until now, to imagine what she went through at the last moment. How horrify the situation for her and for other people. Fifty-six people died in the same moment.”

Hamad said his sister was a speech therapist who treated hundreds of kids who went through trauma. He said she’s a beautiful soul and he will never forget her.

Hamad’s story is just one example of the devastation caused by the latest strife between Israel and Hamas.

President Joe Biden has pledged support to Israel in its retaliation against the Hamas attacks, which killed about 1,300 people and left 150 Israelis hostage in Gaza. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which includes Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan, has written a letter to Biden asking him to push Israel to follow international law and for the U.S. to establish an international corridor for Palestinians displaced by the conflict in Gaza.

In Milwaukee, speakers at Friday’s Standing Up for Gaza event called for immediate de-escalation and ceasefire. Milwaukee Attorney Munjed Ahmad was one of those speakers. He said the root cause of the violence is “75 years of colonial settler terrorism.” He referred to Israel’s takeover of Palestinian lands and the resulting oppression of Palestinians through checkpoints, settlements and home demolitions.

“As someone said earlier, it’s when Israel or the people of Israel feel a little pinch that, 'Oh, finally, the world cares about what's going on in that area,'” he said. “Well, you know what, we're human too. And you know, what? We damn well have the right to resist our occupiers. International law applies to us as well as it applies to everybody else. And we will use it. And don't blame us because you did nothing. Nothing! To get rid of the root cause of what is happening, which is the occupation," Admad said.

But many Jews want to know what that means to ask for Palestine to be free “from the river to the sea” or to end occupation since 1948, when the state of Israel was founded. They want to know if the message is to extinguish Israel altogether.

“There's one Jewish country in the world,” said Elana Kahn, a Jewish former Milwaukeean. “And Jews have been there continuously since the days of the Bible and are deeply connected to it. And there are plenty of people who want to dismiss all that.”

Before she moved to Chicago a few years ago, Kahn spent decades active in Milwaukee’s Jewish community. She was director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, served on the executive committee of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and was the editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

“I feel like I have spent my adult life trying to sort out how we make peace with each other, and how we live with each other and how we expand our ability to empathize with people who are different than us. And I've spent time in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank, trying to listen and understand and make space in my heart. And it's so painful. It's so painful, it would be so much easier to only care about my own people. And I'm just scared about what's going to happen here [in the U.S.], as well as there," Kahn said.

On Oct. 7, Kahn received a terrifying message from her daughter, who is attending university in Israel. “I woke up for whatever reason at 3:30 in the morning and saw that I had a text from my ex-husband, and a text from my daughter. And my daughter said, 'We're at war.' And so, I spent the day worrying and trying to be in touch with her, and my daughter was in Jerusalem at the time."

During the day, Kahn learned that her daughter and sister-in-law in Israel were safe. But there was one relative she hadn’t heard from. Her niece Stav, who lived in a Kibbutz just north of Gaza with her boyfriend Dvir and his two kids. Dvir had been texting with his ex-wife, the mother of his kids, during the attack and then he went quiet.

“And then one of the children took his phone and said, ‘Mommy, abba has been murdered, Stav also.’ Abba [means] father. ‘Dad’s been murdered, Stav also, HELP.’ They were in their shelter and terrorists came in. And Dvir tried to protect the children with his body, and he was killed. And then Stav tried to protect the children, and I guess tried to fight them off. And she was killed,” Kahn recounted. “And then [the terrorists], for whatever reason, took mercy on the children and covered them with a blanket and took a lipstick and wrote on the mirror: 'The fighters of al-Qassam don't murder little children.' And, of course, we know that in other places they did murder little children. But these children were spared, and they spent some hours there until one of the neighbors came in and got them.”

Kahn said her niece was four days short of her 34th birthday. She said the loss has been devastating. “So, I've been like a lot of us in the community, whether we know somebody individually, personally or not, but just sick with worry, just sick. Just sick. And not sleeping very well, of course."

She said she’s also terrified about the viciousness of the discourse on the Israel-Palestine conflict, online and in the community. “About what feels like so many people's inability to see humanity to recognize humanity of Israelis and Jews. And I'm really worried about the heating up in our communities, you know, we don't get to control what happens over there … but we do control how we treat our neighbors."

Kahn said she hopes amid the conflict and vitriol, people can take a step back and recognize each others’ humanity. Both Kahn’s niece and Hamad’s sister would have wanted it that way.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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