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.
There was a time when full-blown military confrontations in this part of the world came around every decade; lately the intervals have shortened to three or four years. A seven-year-old Gazan has already lived through three wars.
That grinding cycle is self-perpetuating. In Haifa and Nazareth, Israeli cities with large Arab populations, where the turmoil in Gaza set off a wave of violent protests, the talk is of growing radicalisation among the younger generation.
In the refugee camps of Ramallah, in the West Bank, many older people are weary and dejected, but I had difficulty finding a twentysomething who didn’t want to see a third intifada, or uprising.
The centre ground of Israeli politics has moved to the right. And, in Gaza itself, Mahmoud Abbas of the PLO looks peripheral and Hamas, which had been at a low ebb just a month ago, is being cheered by many as a defender of the people.
On both sides the extremes are ascendant and the centre ground is thinning out.
Yearning for a quiet lifeAnd yet, among so many ordinary people on both sides of the fortified Israel-Gaza border, there is a yearning for a quiet life. “We want to live like people everywhere else in the world,” was a remark I have heard constantly over the past three weeks, from Nazareth to Tel Aviv to Gaza City to Ashkelon.
For Gazans that means a lifting of the blockade, the freedom to move around, the retrieval of their dignity. For Israelis it means not having to live under the threat of rocket fire or abductions. And for Palestinians in the West Bank it means an end to the occupation, with all its restrictions and humiliations.
Fear is another recurring theme that straddles the border. For the Gazan it’s the visceral, primal fear of a missile falling from the sky, a tank shelling the house, loved ones never coming home from the market.
The Israeli is statistically much less likely to be struck by a rocket or abducted by militants emerging from a tunnel, but these fears are real nonetheless.
In My Promised Land, his recently published personal history of Israel, the columnist and writer Ari Shavit suggests that there are two “pillars” to the country’s condition. One is the occupation of the West Bank, a policy implemented through midnight interrogations, harassment, crackdowns and other forms of oppression. “As malignant as it is, occupation has become an integral part of the Jewish state’s being,” he writes.
Shavit’s second pillar is an existential fear that emanates from a sense of Israel’s fragility. “Precisely because we are shrouded in uncertainty, we Israelis insist on believing in ourself, in our nation-state, and in our future,” he writes.
“Yes, our life continues to be intense and rich and in many ways happy. Israel projects a sense of security that emanates from its physical, economic and military success . . .
“And yet there is always the fear that one day daily life will freeze like Pompeii’s. My beloved homeland will crumble as enormous Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defences and eradicate its existence.”
In Israel right-wingers emphasise Israel’s sense of intimidation when faced with hostile neighbours; left-wingers emphasise the occupation. “But the truth is that without incorporating both elements into one worldview, one cannot grasp Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Shavit writes.
Gazans see Hamas as the resistance force, defending its people with rudimentary home-made rockets against one of the world’s mightiest armies. Israelis look at Hamas, with its close ties to Iran and its aim, set down in its charter, of Israel’s eradication, and see a threat to its existence. That Israeli stance can be challenged, but understanding it is essential.
Although the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has been under intense international pressure in recent days to call an immediate ceasefire, at home the pressure has all been in the opposite direction. In one opinion poll 86 per cent of Israeli respondents were against a ceasefire. Others show even stronger support. That’s why this war is still going on.
Yet it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is not just a futile war but a self-defeating one. More Israelis have died in the past three weeks than have died from the Hamas threat – the one the military operation is supposedly designed to remove – in the past five years. Never before have international airlines suspended flights into Ben Gurion, Israel’s international airport, as they did last week.
The West Bank, which has been relatively quiet for years, has erupted in anger in the past two weeks; a “day of rage” brought thousands of young Palestinians on to the streets and set off violent confrontations with the Israeli security forces.
In other words a war that was meant to make Israel more secure appears to have made it less so.
The only viable long-term route towards security and peace is political, not military. But the war, regardless of when and how it ends, has already delivered a severe blow to the prospects of any serious negotiated settlement.
Last year the US secretary of state, John Kerry, as David Remnick notes in the New Yorker, warned that if Netanyahu and Abbas did not find a way to make serious progress on ending the occupation and creating feasible borders and mutual guarantees, the outlines of which have been known for decades, the consequences could be catastrophic, from a third intifada to the end of a two-state solution.
Just months ago Kerry failed in an attempt to revive the moribund peace process. Now he finds himself being openly ridiculed in Israel for proposing a ceasefire deal that the Israelis felt gave too much to Hamas.
President Barack Obama has urged Netanyahu to call an immediate, unconditional ceasefire, but the plea has been ignored. Israel is going it alone, and the US – the most likely sponsor of any renewed attempt at a long-term peace deal – could be forgiven were it to decide it has had enough of this for another few years.
Meanwhile, Abbas is 79 and talking about retirement. Hamas – which the Israelis appear disinclined to topple, perhaps for fear that something worse could emerge in its place – is emboldened.
And, in Israel, senior government ministers state openly that their peace plan is the annexation of much of the West Bank.
What we’re left with is a feeling of conflict as a never-ending cycle, a permanent condition.
Barely blinkThis is the second time I have covered a war in Gaza. On each occasion one of the most striking things to observe was the way conflict and violence can become assimilated so thoroughly into daily life. You see it in the routine walk to the rocket shelters in Israel or in the way people in Gaza barely blink when an F-16 roars overhead.
Children are especially good at absorbing this. On the day the last Gaza war ended, in 2012, I watched six-year-old boys play with papier-mache rockets as if they were water guns.
One of the most difficult conversations I had last week was with Aya Abdan, a 16-year-old girl whom I met at the Sahaba medical complex, a private clinic that had agreed to accommodate the patients from al-Wafa rehabilitation hospital after it was shelled by the Israelis.
Aya, like the other 16 patients at al-Wafa, is paraplegic, having lost all feeling in her legs as a result of a tumour in her spinal cord. The Israelis, who said Hamas was launching rockets next to the hospital, had warned management to evacuate, but staff said they had nowhere to go.
The shelling began at night. Fire broke out inside, electricity was cut, water stopped running and the sound was deafening. “Glass broke and the hospital was full of dust, so you couldn’t see anything,” Aya said. She was carried out in a blanket as shells exploded all around. As she lay in bed the next morning, recalling what happened, Aya – her eyes alert and intelligent, her voice gentle and calm – could have been describing any other day.
“We’ve got used to living like this,” explained another Gazan, Shadi Qdada. “We have wars, we have ordinary life.”