Steven Aiello

Gaza Perspectives 6: Choosing Religion and Helping Others Over Violence

Note: This narrative is from 2014, and the speaker would be 32 today. Tragically he was killed during the current war. He had at least one child under 10 years old.

For prior stories from Gazans, see here.

Mohammad’s story

My name is Mohammad. I’m a 23 year old guy born in Gaza. I’ve lived here for my whole life. I have four siblings. My parents are religious and I began religious school at the age of 4. The school was run by the local imam with his wife, aunt, uncle and cousins as teachers. I grew up in a neighborhood with Muslims and Christians and played a lot with both. When I was 8 the religious school closed and I was placed in a UN-funded school. I met many children from refugee camps. It was less religious and more directed towards the ongoing situation in the area. Besides the normal subjects we also learned self-control and self-defense.

At home my father continued teaching Islam to me and my siblings. He held us under strict control, which I didn’t agree with as I got older. I wanted more freedom to play, be at the beach with my guitar and play music and hang with friends. At the age of 12 I was allowed more freedom. But I still joined his learning sessions. I was with a crowd of 8 friends. We would do most things together, like play soccer, go swimming, play music, study and talk about everything that young guys talk about.

Despite continued violence, the area we lived in was sort of protected from it all. Dad had his store which sold fruits, vegetables etc. and Mom was home with us kids. Little did we know that this would change. It all changed when Hamas came to power. Dad’s store was suddenly illegal because it had products from Israel. It was closed. Schools closed and were replaced with Hamas schools, Christians schools and Islamic Jihad schools. Many gangs went to the border which seems to move closer and closer. Some of my friends wanted to throw stones instead and show anger. Civil war broke out and Gaza turned into a war zone. 

Dad’s plans to open a new store together with some fishermen were destroyed in a raid by hs. Dad then decided to work for a person who owned a market. My older brother, me and our two younger brothers started working. Our close gang split, with only me and three others left. The others moved closer to Gaza City. One became an active fighter. I didn’t want to throw stones and be among those screaming and hating. Me and my friends went to the beach but we were removed from there. It was haraam (forbidden) to play music. Haraam to have a party. Haraam to laugh too much.

Militants started walking on the streets, and if you had the wrong hair style, wrong clothing etc. you could be arrested or beaten down. I was often scared and started to stay inside more. My friends would come by or I would go to them. We didn’t go out much anymore. We listened to music in secret, and studied together. At school we didn’t have religion as a subject anymore, so we made our own study group. 

Violence on the streets made everyone suspicious, and different organizations came, people joined 1 or 2. Missions were carried out against the enemies. I tried to ask who the enemies were, but those who were part of the organizations refused to answer me. It was status to be in an organization, to dress like them, act the same. I didn’t want to participate, I preferred to study and to concentrate on religion. Despite all the happy talks about success and heroic acts, there were also rumors that civilians were dying. But that was told in secret. 

Those rumors grew, the organizations were pressured, and people wanted answers. The war of 2008-2009 was the first time my family was affected by it all. Just days before it started my mother had hurt her leg and was in bed with a cast. Dad was in the store, and that day I was home with my youngest brother. He was 6 years old. We knew there had been many rockets launched towards Israel, and there were rumors that Israeli civilians had died. Even if we knew it, the attack took us by surprise. It wasn’t long before the first airstrike came, and people ran out in panic from the house. Mom told us to run but I refused; I wouldn’t leave her there. 

Then the fighters came. They grabbed me and my brother, told us to be quiet and follow instructions. Then we could survive. One dragged me up on the rooftop, my brother was screaming and crying, calling for me to come. But I had a weapon in my back and got the Palestinian flag in my hand. I had to get up there, wave the flag and in that way show our presence. The airplanes came and I was scared. I stood there waving the flag and cried like never before. I was even shaking from crying so much, one helicopter came, circled around me, then started shooting. 

At that moment I threw the flag and ran towards the door that led inside. The fighter pushed me down the stairs and yelled at me that I was a betrayer. The entire house was shaking; I didn’t know if it was on the way to collapse or not. The fall hurt my head, but I ignored it. I got to our apartment, helped Mom to get down the stairs and finally outside. Then a large explosion came and our whole building collapsed. 

My mother was screaming, screaming for my youngest brother Mahmood. When the planes had left we went to our building and started to lift things away. But we didn’t find him. For hours we searched for him; my father and my other brothers came running from the store terrified of what had happened. I tried to ask a fighter if he had seen a 6 year old little boy somewhere? He pushed me out the way. I thought to myself: they say they fight for us, and our country, but at the same time, they don’t care at all about us.  

It became night time and we slept close together in a street corner. More airstrikes came and more people came to the corner we had found. I think we ended up being about 40 people all together, trying to get some kind of human support, because everyone was scared. The fighters were on rooftops looking over us, shooting towards the helicopters and airplanes. Like that would help. 

The next day we again went looking for Mahmood, but found nothing. We found a sort of basement that we hid in. But we kept looking for him. On the fourth day of war I found him. He was sitting on a street corner, beside a fighter. I lifted him up and he told me that the fighter just fell asleep. He had been with the fighter the whole time, safe. I took him away from there, because I saw that the fighter was dead. My brother hadn’t seen that. 

Reunited we hid; my two closest friends and their families came also. They said that there were ground troops here, and they shot at anybody who came in their view. So we were on high alert. I prayed and prayed for it all to be over soon. My friend had the Quran with him, and we read one surah (chapter) for every day of war, prayed to Allah, trying to comfort one another. Food we got sometimes, water we had because an abandoned store was there and we decided to go and take from there. Otherwise we wouldn’t have survived.

Then that war ended, and a lot of hatred and questions came. People wanted to know why there had been a war, while Gaza became more and more isolated. What was happening was not Islam, even if the leaders claimed it was. Islam is not isolation, it is freedom. Islam is not violence, it is peace. Islam is not a punishment, it’s a gift.

Then the suicide bombings in Iraq started, and people were then asking, that if now civilians died in Iraq from those bombings, what is there that says that civilians in Israel are not dying also?

Then later in 2009 the Internet started to be a big deal, more and more people had access to it, more computers came in, more phones. People started using twitter and facebook. The government hated it and said it was evil and haram and destroyed everything. But no one was listening; people were online instead. And the most dangerous according to newspapers back then, was that Gaza youths actually had contacts with Israeli youths. 

Despite hangings and shootings and dragging bodies after cars and motorbikes as a warning for not using facebook for talking to Jews, people did it even more.
Many fighters started to change a bit. I also liked it to be online. Even if a lot is blocked and filtered, censored, there are ways to fool the system. With fake IPs, proxies, etc.

That year I turned 18 and decided to become a physician. From the age of 15 already I had studied medicine, so 2 more years of studies and I was going to be a physician. I specialized in otolaryngology, which has to do with different ear, nose and throat conditions.

I never understood how the fighters had time to be fighters AND have a career AND a family at same time. I was busy with studies all the time. From our original gang of 8 guys, it was just me and two more. All the others had moved away to other parts of Gaza. Some I have contact with, others not anymore.

Then of course as a young guy I wanted to be married, here you get married between ages 16-22 or people wonder what is wrong with you. I wanted a religious woman, someone that wasn’t too serious, who could joke a lot and be someone I could spend the rest of my life with. To raise children with and to build a future. 

My friends and I did everything we could to find girls, which is not easy here, because almost everything is separated; you don’t meet girls that often. We would sneakily check the girls at the girl schools, and go down to the beach to see them. But at the beach you have the riding police, who check that everyone is behaving.  But despite all efforts to make us not interested in girls too early in life, and rather accept arranged marriages, we found our ways to talk about girls and to fall in love.

The years went by and the so-called Arab Spring came, when Hamas saw their greatest fear come true. People were protesting against them, and against Iran. Iran got so angry that they cut 80% of the aid to them, because of the horrible protests against them. 

People became older of course. Before more than 75% of Gaza were just little children, now those children were either adults or young adults, demanding more freedom, and that the infrastructure should be built. 

I didn’t participate in the protests, but I noticed them, people were so angry with Hamas, and Hamas went ahead and shot at every protester. People called for revolution, and the overthrow of Hamas.

They couldn’t calm down the masses, the old things like “but look at the Zionists!” didn’t work, nor did the “we have to unite against the enemy” work. People were simply tired of it all. Unfortunately that also meant that Gaza reached and still does reach, the top list of most suicides in the Middle East and close to the top in entire Asia.


The operations carried out by Israel were a lifesaver for Hamas. Power cuts, lack of food, lack of water, no salaries paid and extreme poverty made people go crazy. The ones in refugee camps that were promised a place to live and work, still lived there, while Hamas themselves built luxury quarters inside certain areas of the larger cities. Those who aren’t supporters are shot, not welcome. But of course the photos of luxury were all over the internet, saying that Gaza does have luxury. Yes, so does Zimbabwe, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, North Korea, Belarus etc, but only for the rich people.

Beside all the politics going on, I was mostly studying a lot. It was at university that I found my future wife. And in December 2012, we got married.

Now I am moving very fast forward as you notice, but not much exciting happened.

January 2013 was the Fatah celebration here in Gaza. Before it, the Hamas celebration was a huge failure, since less than 10,000 Gazans came, although more than 20,000 people from outside Gaza came. Outside there were protests, but the Hamas guards were on rooftops shooting at people.

HS tried to call for a third intifada, and 1000 suicide bombers. No one cared. Two people signed up for suicide bombing. One for Hamas and one for another organization. Hamas was furious, but nobody cared so much.

I then took my own political statement against Hamas, and so did many. Actually almost 1 million REAL Gazans went to the Fatah celebration, Hamas got furious (note that in January 2014 Fatah wasn’t allowed to have a celebration). Even if Fatah was a bit angry at Gaza for turning it all into an anti-Hamas statement, and not really support for them, they let it happen. And it was amazing. Then the media in Israel as well as in the rest of the world made it seem that we all supported terror, and misunderstanding the real message didn’t seem to bother anyone so much. People also asked for Hamas to join with Fatah, in that way get an election and then get rid of Hamas, FOREVER.

During the first few months of marriage my wife and I lived with my parents; then we moved to our own apartment. I continued studying and also working with my dad when I had a chance. The store/market was doing very well.

The year went by fast, violence came and went by, no reconciliation with Fatah and even more power cuts in Gaza. The usual 10 hours a day of electricity became 8 hours, 6 hours, 4 hours and then 1 hour.

By the end of 2013, there were severe power cuts, plus flooding. Water and sewer waste all over the roads. People were so angry with Hamas, which tried its best to blame Israel, but it didn’t work out.  Also salaries weren’t paid to people for months, which caused riots, protests and strikes.

2014 started with Hamas and Fatah finally coming together, which many were so relieved about, felt, and still feel, like the only chance to get rid of them. But you all know what is going on now, I don’t have to tell you.

I finished my studies and am now a physician, but the first year is an introduction year with a very experienced doctor. Then after that Inshallah, I can be on my own.

But there is something people are wondering, how come you aren’t violent, you do live in Gaza!

Which is true, I live here, in my dear, beloved and abused Gaza. It was easy to not become violent, sure there were roads leading to it, but those were built on breaking down people, their self-esteem. I didn’t let that happen to me, I never felt I needed to prove myself to anybody, I am who I am. And that’s it. 

My parents always supported me to study, we always studied Islam at home, prayed five times a day and followed the pillars. Islam is always there with me.  Fighters usually pray maximum 1 time a day, if even that often. I couldn’t do that.


Also I often felt that no single group of human beings can consist of only evil people. There is no way that for example all Jews are evil. Then those weird things being said, that Jews are descendants of pigs and monkeys (reference to a misquoted hadith, or Muslim oral tradition, of suspect veracity). Come on, Allah punished those who didn’t follow the laws regarding shabbat. Then the scholars still study and debate about if it was mentally they turned into monkeys or pigs, or if they actually physically did. Anyhow, those only lived for a short time after and never got offspring, come on! Learn about the religion you claim to have!

Same with a saying that we should hunt every Jew down and kill them all, based on the HADITH–not in Quran–about how Jews hide behind a tree and stones and they scream “HEY there is a Jew behind me!”  Yes, in the end of the days when the Mahdi (messiah) arrives, those who refuse to join the peace and freedom that will come, will be hunted down. And the stones will scream: HEY THERE IS AN UNBELIEVER HIDING BEHIND ME!” in other versions it is a “MURDERER” and in some it is Jews. First of all, where in the Quran does it say to put the Hadith in front of the word of Allah? Think about that before you claim to know Islam.

Thanks for reading.

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (, and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown;, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at
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