Saturday, January 17, 2009
Trauma and Terror in Gaza
I never imagined I would, but now I know what it feels like to be stalked by death. Last week, I had just arrived for an engagement at a media building in Gaza City only to find the studio crew huddled in fear and peering out of the window. An Israeli rocket had just landed, killing four pedestrians close to where the car that drove me had turned just minutes prior. On Thursday night, media offices in that same building were rocketed by Israel's air force. Later the same evening, I called on relatives who live about 100m from our house. On my way back, one of Israel's angry jets, which have covered Gaza's skies for more than 20 days now, seemed to release a bomb. Suddenly panicking, I let go of my torch and, unable to see anything in the dark, crouched on the sidewalk – even though I knew that would be no protection from an F-16's bomb if it landed nearby. I was lucky; the bomb never came – it was just my anxiety.
But for ordinary Gazans, this is a real fear; it is hard to take seriously Israel's claims that it is not deliberately targeting civilians. I am still alive, but I feel I am losing hope. How can we rebuild the Gaza Strip once this all ends when we fear even to raise ours heads? Our business and commerce had already been destroyed by the long blockade. Now, Gaza's public sector and civil institutions, as well as a hospital and several clinics and schools, have been reduced to rubble. Gaza's civilian population is left without any safety net or feasible means of subsistence.
While the world witnesses from afar the tragic destruction, death and injury visited on Gaza, with grim effects on its civilians, the international community is deliberately shielded from how it is carried out by Israel's refusal to admit foreign media to Gaza. It has been incredibly traumatising for ordinary people here to be subjected repeatedly to massive and simultaneous attacks from air, sea and land, in assaults that seem to target large areas at once. For the people of Gaza, it is a process of psychological torture – like being in prison and hearing a guard beating an inmate in the cell next door. It is only the Gaza Strip's community spirit that has come to the rescue. Those who have a generator running on benzene exchange a few extra litres of diesel, if they have it, with some excess benzene someone else may have. Those who run out of cash borrow from friends to buy basic necessities if they can find them. Friends and family offer their homes to each other when families evacuate their homes under fire. Incredibly, as I ran out of cash while banks are closed, a poor man I had helped for years offered to come to my rescue with a few hundred Israeli shekels – less than £100 – he had set aside for "dark days". Those days are here, and no friend or neighbour can now replenish our dwindling water supply or other necessities.With most of Gaza's deposed government officials forced into hiding for protection since the war began, and as the Palestinian National Authority, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, is distant and so weakened as to be unable to help even if it wanted to, Gaza's ordinary people feel lost and abandoned. After having already endured siege and shortage, they are without resources to withstand Israel's onslaught.
As the war rages on, we wonder whether part of Israel's strategy is to engineer a reinstalled PNA presence in Gaza. But most believe that the PNA will not permit itself to reenter Gaza "on an Israeli tank", and hope instead for some kind of rapprochement with Hamas, particularly in Gaza.Israel's government created a much graver problem for itself than Palestinian rockets landing in southern Israeli towns. It is the profound disrespect of Gaza's population towards it for having slipped into what people clearly feel is a brutally disproportionate and deliberately abusive war, in the name of stopping rocket fire. It would not have escaped severe criticism from its own people either, had Israelis not been exposed to censored news as journalists and diplomats have been barred from entering war-torn Gaza.
On January 7, in what Gazans saw as a transparent manoeuvre to divert the attention of an increasingly critical international community from the scandal of its attack on a United Nations-run school in Gaza, the IDF announced a daily three-hour ceasefire, to allow residents to secure their basic needs in safety. It was also meant to facilitate the entry of trucks with limited supplies through a "humanitarian corridor" into the Gaza Strip. On the first day, during the period of its effect, three sisters were reportedly killed in Jabalia in northern Gaza. Unmanned surveillance drones and air force planes continued to patrol the skies, impatiently waiting to resume hammering Gaza after the brief respite.
What Israel's government seems not to understand is how the entire Gaza Strip is now united in resistance to protect its dignity and right to a peaceful and prosperous life. Despite what Israeli officials say, I see little evidence that ordinary people in Gaza have changed their position on the firing of rockets. What Israel continues to miss is that when people are harshly deprived of such basic needs, rights and simple hope, they become increasingly desperate. One unfortunate symptom of that has been the launching of rockets. We wish they would stop, and they had, until Israel broke the truce with Hamas on November 4 and tightened the grip of its blockade.It is an illusion that Palestinians can be beaten into submission; this will not bring long-term stability. Instead, a never-before-seen solidarity with Gaza's plight has emerged the world over. Surely this must shake Israel's policymakers awake.
Gazans eagerly await the success of Egypt's initiative to enact a ceasefire. However, they also see how complex and delicate Egypt's role is, especially as Gazans are suspicious that Israel would be eager to maintain control over Gaza by a policy of "divide and rule". We appreciate that Egypt is rightly wary of any move that would compromise the notion of a contiguous Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem. For the same reason, many, like me, are anxious to see an early end to political divisions on the Palestinian side.
Once the war has ended, the US, UK and the other major European countries must challenge Israel's rogue policies and realign a misguided peace process. In the absence of a genuine and just peace with Israel, merely pouring vast funds in aid and development to rebuild Gaza's ruined infrastructure will only paper over a failed process and Palestinians' forgotten rights.