Life in Gaza: Seven years old. Your third war
The futile, self-defeating conflict of the past three weeks is part of an endless cycle of violence that has been thoroughly assimilated into daily life in Gaza and Israel
Unsafe haven: Palestinian children take refuge at the UN school in Jabaliya before it was shelled this week. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters
Dazzling: Israeli forces’ flares light up the sky during an overnight bombardment. Photograph: Khalil Hamra/AP
The call came just beore midnight on Monday. “Don’t leave your hotel tonight,” said the man from the Israel Defence Forces. He didn’t need to explain why. Already, the sky above the hotel was illuminated orange as the dazzling, ominous army flares – the familiar opening sequence to an overnight bombardment in Gaza – began exploding overhead.
It was to be the most ferocious pounding of the city centre since the three-week-old Israeli assault began, a sustained six-hour pummelling that involved drones, Apache helicopters, warships and, as night gave way to morning, a series of F-16 missile strikes so forceful that they blew out hotel windows and caused the building to sway.
There’s something uniquely unsettling about lying in a darkened room, waiting for the deafening whistle and slam of missiles that sound as if they’re just outside the window. The rational part of your brain knows a little about guided missiles and assumes that a hotel is unlikely to feature on a target list. Yet you can’t help but imagine some young soldier, sitting in a command centre somewhere, and what might happen if he punched in the wrong co-ordinates. You guess that everyone in the city must be thinking similar thoughts, and few of them are sitting in the relative safety of an international hotel.
The day had begun with a tentative lull in the bombardment for the feast of Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and ended at the chaotic emergency department of al-Shifa Hospital, where colleagues and I watched the aftermath of an explosion at a playground.
As the injured screamed and cried, the mutilated bodies of eight dead children were zipped into small white body bags and brought to the ramshackle morgue, where pools of blood formed on the tiles.
I had watched Mohamed El Helw standing beside the body of his father, Sobhi, his head partially severed at the neck – just days after Sobhi’s 78-year-old mother was killed in shelling in the neighbourhood of Shuja’iyya.
I spoke to Naji El Dini, who was visibly stunned, his shirt drenched with blood, as his nine-year-old son, Ahmed, was rushed away to have dozens of little bits of metal picked out of his back.
OverwhelmingDays like that can be overwhelming. People didn’t speak much at the hotel that night. As darkness came and the apocalyptic bombardment grew in intensity, an experienced Italian reporter was so terrified that she pushed her mattress against the window to protect against shrapnel and lay down on the floor in her body armour. In the morning she was still shaking, and decided it was time to leave.
Leaving isn’t an option for the great majority of Gazans, of course. They have nowhere to go. In normal times the Gaza Strip, with a population of 1.8 million people packed into a space less than half the size of Co Louth, is one of the most crowded slivers of land on Earth. In recent weeks it has contracted even further, as about 40 per cent of that land, mostly in the east and north of the enclave, has in effect been declared a no-go area by the Israeli military, forcing people to the relative quiet of the western districts.
But even there the most mundane decision can come down to a fine judgment call that could mean the difference between living and dying. Do you stay indoors and take the risk of finding yourself next to one of the houses on Israel’s hit list or do you go out and risk walking down the wrong street at the wrong time?
Wherever you go you know that above you will be the incessant buzzing drones, unseen and all-seeing. Twice – once near the beach, then at the burial of a Hamas member – I found myself close by when militants launched rockets towards Israel.
Your first instinct is to put some distance between yourself and the launch site as quickly as possible, but at the back of your mind is the story of the four al-Bakr children, who were killed by a follow-up missile on the Gaza City beach as they ran away from a bombed-out shack near where they had been playing at the harbour.
These are unlivable conditions. One of the most distressing sights has been to observe how children deal with it. Some weep constantly, or show clear signs of shock: frozen, silent, clenching their mothers’ clothes. But others just carry on, laughing and playing as the city crumbles around them.