It’s been two weeks since Khalil Abu Yahia, his wife, and two daughters were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza.
Every day that passes, I try to put words to paper, as others have before me, to offer a tribute to this very special friend and partner.
But writing about Khalil, rather than writing with Khalil, is devastating. Writing about Khalil is impossible to do without him and without his words – words that defied those that tried to silence him and keep us apart.
I lit the Jewish ceremonial memorial candles last weekend in memory of Khalil, his family, and others who have been killed in this incomprehensible violence.
I recalled a message Khalil sent me on my birthday this year: “As they say, don’t count your candles, but see the light they give.”
As I write this in disbelief, I know that Khalil would be comforted that his partners are holding on closely to his words as a source of light, and as a source of hope for a just future, and a climate resilient future, in all of this.
I first met Khalil in the summer of 2021. As regional climate specialists, Mor Gilboa and I were setting out to write an investigative report on the effects of climate change on life in Gaza.
While Mor is a long-time Israeli climate and environmental justice activist, and I had spent years working on water security in Gaza, it was clear from the start that we could not do justice to this issue without the guidance and partnership of a local expert.
A friend of mine suggested we reach out to Khalil, a passionate and curious student and researcher from Gaza.
At that point, Khalil had been connected to friends and political activists across Israel and abroad through solidarity efforts with Gaza’s Great March of Return protests.
Khalil agreed to be a part of our reporting team. This decision was not a simple one – publishing with Israel-based co-authors was a major risk for Khalil.
Our initial conversations were spent getting to know each other, learning about our political outlooks, understandings of justice, and goals for this report.
We began a relationship building process that was made near-impossible by the barriers that prevented us from knowing each other in the first place.
Over the next six months, Khalil, Mor, and I began researching and writing. We wanted to understand and articulate what climate breakdown in Gaza looks like.
We scheduled meetings based on when Khalil would have electricity access, while we wrote about the chronic instability of electricity supply in Gaza and how it affects the availability of essential services, including health, water, and sanitation.
Very quickly, we understood how deeply the very same barriers that made it difficult for us to know each other and work together – particularly the decades-old siege on Gaza and relentless cycles of Israeli bombardments – were also fundamentally changing the way Gazans can build climate resilience.
Under Israel’s uncompromising restrictions on the movement of people and materials in and out of Gaza, the most basic life-supporting infrastructure, including clean water and continuous electricity, have been under threat for years.
These resources are also the most susceptible to climate breakdown and are fundamental in building climate resilience.
The blockade on Gaza, which has been maintained by Israel and Egypt since 2006, along with frequent rounds of violence, has fueled an economic and humanitarian crisis in Gaza for the past fifteen years. Gaza can barely ensure livable conditions at present, let alone in an increasingly uncertain climate future.
While Mor and I would try to meet together to co-write about this crisis from our homes in Tel Aviv/Jaffa – a city far more equipped to deal with climate breakdown than the Gaza Strip, we could only dream of meeting Khalil.
Meeting online was also challenging: his limited access to the internet reduced our ability to work efficiently, hold stable zoom calls, or co-work on the same document. But we made up for it in dozens of voice notes and messages.
Khalil’s voice notes always started the same: “Hi Natasha! Hi Mor! How are you? I hope you are doing well.”
He would offer us a range of wishes, always attuned to whatever developments in our life we had shared with him.
He congratulated me on my sister’s wedding, he wished me a speedy recovery when I had Covid-19 while we were working to meet a writing deadline.
“I wanted to ask about you.” He said to me in one voice note, “I hope you are ok and that you are fighting this Corona. I am really very worried about you and thinking about you. I know it’s maybe a bit difficult to fight this Corona, but I also know that you are up to the task. Please, if you want anything, just don’t hesitate, just ask me. Regards, and sending love.”
Our process of writing together in many ways was an act of resistance to the systems we were writing about.
We built a friendship, first and foremost, and we also got to shed light on the situation in Gaza through our reporting.
Reflecting over these last couple of weeks, Mor reminded me about one of the conversations we had with Khalil while we were working together.
“During one of our video calls, I was sitting outside on a bench in Jaffa. Khalil shared about his grandmother who fled from Jaffa to Gaza in 1948, and how much he would like to come visit here. He asked me to show him the area around me on video. I remember his great excitement and also his desire to come and see Jaffa.”
“I was also excited to meet him,” Mor continued, “and in general to research climate and environmental issues in Gaza. This has interested me for many years, but is almost inaccessible to me as an Israeli… Getting to know him was a point of light in a very large and lasting darkness.”
I felt like we were defying the odds in building this partnership. In one of the tributes to Khalil published last week, Maya Rosen and Erez Bleicher reflected on Khalil’s belief in the radical potential of friendship, and how Khalil – whose name means friend in Arabic – reminded them that borders could be overcome and that the systems keeping us all apart could be broken.
“Khalil understood that a just solution must be found for everyone who lives here,” Mor shared with me. “Even as someone who lived for over two decades under blockade, poverty and oppression, his heart was wide, loving, open and optimistic.”
Khalil deeply embodied this in our work by showing curiosity, offering love and support, and letting us into his own experience. He shared openly when he was frustrated or upset in the process, inviting us to do the same, and through this we built a radical friendship that lived beyond our reporting.
Our report was published in +972 Magazine in January 2022. Through the voices of residents across Gaza, who Khalil took great efforts to meet and interview, we offered an analysis on the bleak future for Gaza.
We called it “a climate change hotspot within a hotspot that is being denied both its basic humanitarian needs, and the capacity and resources to prepare for and minimize the impacts of climate breakdown.”
Since we published the article, we kept closely in touch. We exchanged birthday wishes, photos, and other life updates, but also exchanged reflections on developments in our research.
Khalil would update me and Mor on things like Gaza experiencing the first day in a while of having 24-hours of electricity across the Strip, when a new water desalination plant was constructed but didn’t have the fuel to operate fully, or when he saw our article being posted or shared in networks he was connected to.
Over the past month, we also stayed connected. But we didn’t talk about the intersections of the climate crisis with the ongoing bombardment.
We didn’t talk about how safe water supplies are almost entirely inaccessible, how frequent electricity blackouts have devastated Gaza’s ability to provide essential services, or how toxic white phosphorous bombs are being used indiscriminately across the Strip.
It is near impossible to think about the climate crisis amongst this much death and destruction; but the reality is, this last month has set Gaza even deeper into a humanitarian crisis, and its two million residents are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than ever.
With severely limited access to food, water, energy, and health services, and with the devastation to homes and shelters across the Strip, the population has very little capacity to cope with any major climate event or disaster.
On top of this, the increasing restrictions on Gazan movement or humanitarian support is barring their access to key adaptation strategies, such as migration or adaptive agriculture.
Plainly, whatever the end of this violence brings, Gaza will need to prioritise reconstruction and restoration over advancing climate resilience.
Khalil understood this, and in the messages I received from him before he died, he still held onto his vision for an alternative future.
He sent wishes of safety. He shared updates on his family and his efforts to escape the bombings.
Khalil shared his thoughts and reflections on this hope for something different. “I believe that my voice will hopefully change something,” he wrote, “to make people move or, at least, speak truth to power.”
Even with the barriers and systems that divided us higher than ever before, he also continued to share his love.
“I hug you deep inside my heart,” Khalil wrote to me. It was his last message to me before he was killed.
Over ten thousand Gazans have been killed since October 7, and I keep asking myself how many other people like Khalil did we lose to this violence, who we never had the opportunity to meet, to work with, or to love.
In the same way that Khalil understood his own mortality as a Gazan, especially in these last few weeks, I also know that he believed that safety, justice, and freedom for all people was possible.
I hope that I, and the many others he inspired, will continue to be rooted in his optimistic yearning and unwavering commitment to solidarity and justice. Rest in power, Khalil.
Natasha Westheimer is researcher and practioner in the fields of climate change and water governance in Israel/Palestine