Okal and his wife, Wafaa Abuzayda, and their 1-year-old son Yousef left their home outside Boston last month for a long-planned reunion with their parents. They were supposed to fly home on Friday. Now they don’t know when they’ll be able to get back to the United States.
“It’s terrifying,” said Okal, 36. “I think my wife and I would be stronger if we didn’t have our son with us.”
Okal’s family is among a group of about 500 Americans caught in Gaza, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Following Saturday’s unprecedented attacks by Hamas, Israel has massed troops near the border with Gaza and pounded the territory with airstrikes.
More than 1,500 people have been killed in the strikes, according to Gaza’s health ministry, including hundreds of children.
As Okal spoke over the phone from the home of his wife’s parents in the wee hours of Friday, there were at least eight audible explosions, with others in the distance.
Sleep is elusive. The bombs shake them awake, Okal said, and they find themselves coughing in air heavy with dust from pulverized buildings. He and his wife get up early, taking turns caring for their toddler and trying their best to pretend, for his sake, that everything will be all right.
The electricity is gone. The family is relying on a few solar panels, some batteries and power banks to recharge their phones and turn on a television for news. Their supply of milk and diapers is dwindling.
The market across the street has no bottled water left. Soon they will have to choose whether to risk going farther away in search of it, exposing themselves to more potential danger, or start drinking the water from a tank usually only used for washing or bathing.
Okal works at pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb and lives in Medway, a small town southwest of Boston. He went to college in New Jersey and did graduate studies in Utah, where he developed a taste for snowboarding.
Once, when he was hiking in Zion National Park, he and a group of friends were trapped by a flash flood. After many hours, they managed to get out, but park rangers told them they were lucky to survive. Now that sense of visceral fear is with him almost all the time.
“This is probably the most traumatic experience of my life,” he said. He is frightened for his wife, his child, his parents, his siblings, his extended family. He has experienced periods of violent conflict in Gaza before, but nothing like this. “I’ve never seen things on this scale,” Okal said.
Okal and Abuzayda have tried to get on a list of people permitted to leave Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, but they’re not sure if it’s functioning or if they would be turned back. When Okal’s sister, also an American citizen, went to the same crossing with her children earlier this week, it was bombed, Okal said. They fled for their lives.
Okal and Abuzayda have made repeated phone calls to the U.S. embassies in Israel and Egypt, but there has been no concrete help so far — even as the United States announced Thursday that it would arrange charter flights to evacuate American citizens seeking to leave Israel.
If his son were at home, Okal said, he would be playing in their backyard on their swing set and going to day care. Now they barely step outside. He recently persuaded his parents to leave their neighborhood, which came under heavy bombardment, to come stay with him and his in-laws.
“We live together or we die together,” Okal said. “That’s the mind-set that we’re in.”
John Hudson in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.