November 24, 2014

Features | July 26, 2014
The stifled voices of the war on Gaza
“Operation Protective Edge” takes the life out of the Gaza Strip, but not the will out of its people
Written by | Visual by Ralph Haddad | The McGill Daily

On July 14, hundreds gathered in Hamra, a downtown region of Beirut, Lebanon, to protest continued Israeli oppression on the Gaza Strip.

The Facebook event for the protest, initiated by the organizers, went viral online. Around 800 people instantly RSVP’d, a number which was reflected in the crowd that showed up.

The organization that initiated the protest was then only a week-old collaboration between Palestinian and Lebanese students in Lebanon’s major universities, whose membership mainly consists of the 12 presidents of the Palestinian clubs in those universities. “It is the first independent movement for Palestine [in Lebanon],” Mahmoud Alabassi – a Palestinian refugee, a student at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, and one of the main founders of the Student Coalition for Palestine – told me. “What we want is to shed the light on [the] Palestinian cause, it’s still alive, people are still dying in Gaza.”

Indeed, the struggle is an ongoing one. The protest came just as the Lebanese government announced that it would be turning away Palestinian refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. The crisis is also very real in the Palestinian refugee camps scattered across Lebanon. Their conditions deteriorate by the second, with only branches of the UN such as UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are taking care of them.

The refugee struggle is doubled by the situation back home, as Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” closes its 17th day of aggression against Gaza. The most recent Palestinian death toll (as of July 24) has climbed to around 800 – 80 per cent of whom are civilians – and continues to rise, with thousands more wounded, according to latest estimates from the Gaza Health Ministry. Sunday July 20 marked the deadliest day of the operation, which saw the death of over 100 Palestinians trying to flee Israeli shelling in Shujaiyeh, a suburb of Gaza City.

The reality on the ground

“The situation is so difficult. Continuous airstrikes target houses round the clock. So far over 580 houses were destroyed, some of them after the alleged ceasefire. In some of these house targeting raids, whole families were obliterated, at one instance a family of 18 was killed at once,” wrote Belal Dabour, a medical doctor currently living and working in Gaza, in an email to The Daily from the besieged territory. “The airstrikes which target houses proceed at sometimes more than four houses in just an hour, which adds much to the horror of the families. Gaza is a very crowded place, and when a house is targeted, the whole neighborhood is damaged. Sometimes we receive casualties by the dozens from just one attack!”

The situation is, indeed, dire. On July 15, Gaza’s Health Ministry declared a state of emergency, given the exacerbation of pre-existing shortages of medical supplies by the ongoing Israeli aggressions on Gaza, and by Egyptian border policies which still limit movement across the border, according to a report by The Electronic Intifada. “According to the World Health Organization, 30 percent of the essential drug list and half the disposable medical supplies were out of stock in Gaza – even before the current crisis,” the article states. Current estimates for medical funding needs are at around $60 million US – meanwhile, the international community remains silent, and UNRWA can barely keep business going as usual. A Doctors without Borders team was scheduled to arrive in Gaza late last week. Moreover, Israel has conducted airstrikes on the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Gaza’s emergency response paramedic team.

“Gaza lacks almost everything. The continuous raids affect transportation as well as entry of supplies via the crossing. […] The situation wasn’t pretty before to begin with. It was so bad that the current war only adds a little to the big suffering we’ve been dealing with,” Dabour adds. “For eight years our movement has been restricted, our sea closed, our economy looted, and our safety threatened. For eight years now we’ve been having power supply [sic] of 12 hours per day, many times [even] less. And for more than eight years now, unemployment rates have been fluctuating between 20 and 40 per cent. A recent report stated that Gaza Strip is in need of at least 80,000 housing units, and with this war the number is sure to have increased, but construction materials have been banned from entry since 2007! It’s a compound picture, but it’s a dark one in general.”

It is estimated that 30 per cent of those killed as a result of Operation Protective Edge have been children – not to mention that the majority of the 1,100 wounded are also children. To add to that, a staggering 80 per cent of those killed have been civilians, according to a UN report. UNICEF has already condemned the targeting of civilians by Israel, and and UNRWA has called on Israel “to end attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure which are contrary to international law.”

Osama Damo, a member of Save the Children’s emergency response team on the ground, runs a blog for the organization out of Gaza. He writes of his reality: “From my home I can hear the sounds of bombs falling in Gaza from Israel and sometimes rockets being launched here in Gaza toward Israel. Gaza is so tiny, the buildings rattle and shake with every bomb.” Damo adds that, “We have enough food here for a few days, maybe a week if we are careful. Once the fuel runs out, there will be no water either. I worry about this. Hospitals are reportedly running out of equipment and some supplies.”

Since Hamas is Gaza’s democratically elected government, any public building is subject to attack. As a result, Israel has also fired rockets at hospitals, and many now fear going to hospitals in order to receive aid because they fear attack. “Early Friday morning, Israel fired two warning shots at Al-Wafa geriatric hospital [sic], east of Gaza City. Israel claims that the hospital – which provides rehabilitation treatment for accident victims and houses the elderly – is hosting a cache of weapons,” writes Khaled Alashqar in an Al-Jazeera report. 30 Palestinian elders live there and cannot be moved. Numerous international activists have staged a sit-in at the hospital, hoping that their presence in the building will prevent it from being bombed. Israel also bombed a rehabilitation centre for people with disabilities in northern Gaza on July 11, killing four.

Moreover, reports from doctors in Gaza lead to the conclusion that Israel is using bombs that shatter into literally a million metal pieces upon impact at very high speeds, or DIME bombs. Rania Khalek writes for The Electronic Intifada, “DIME munitions were developed by the US Air Force in 2006 and have since been tested repeatedly on the people of Gaza, who have long served as involuntary lab rats for Israel’s weapons industry. DIME bombs contain tungsten, a cancer-causing metal that helps to produce incredibly destructive blasts which slice through flesh and bone, often decapitating the lower limbs of people within the blast radius.” Many injured in Gaza will be disabled and physically scarred for life as a result. Furthermore, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Israel is using flechette shells on Gazans – shells that spray out thousands of tiny lethal darts.

“We have a phrase in Arabic, literally translated it means ‘we have not even had the chance to breathe yet’ – since the last conflict in 2012. It seems we have not even had the chance to adjust ourselves, to convince our children they are safe, before they are not safe anymore,” Damo writes from Gaza.

Despite the crisis, Palestinians have not stopped speaking up. Voices of Gaza gives an online platform for Gazans to share their stories with the world. Omar Ghraib, a journalist and citizen of Gaza, writes, “There are two prominent types of explosions we experience: either you hear the sudden blast of the explosion, or you hear the missile fall and then the blast. This will sound crazy, but we all favour ‘Type 2.’ We prefer to anticipate death instead of being blown up without any warning. But if you hear a missile falling, it means you’re lucky; it’s near you but not targeting you.” He adds that the ringing of the telephone is now a dreaded sound for Gazans, because they fear it is the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) calling to tell them to evacuate their house. The IDF does call, sometimes; at other times it only sends a warning missile flying into the targeted house. This phenomenon is known as the “knock on the roof” warning. Ghraib goes on to write: “They bomb the house with a warning missile and, after that, if you are still alive, you have 1-3 [sic] minutes to leave, or less. If you are lucky. Many houses have been bombed with no warning missiles, hence the huge numbers of fatalities and casualties.”

The Independent recently published a video of an attack on a house that was preceded by a warning missile. The footage was uploaded via Wataniya news agency based in Gaza, and can be viewed here. IDF military commanders feel no remorse. Israel sometimes doesn’t use warnings when attacking houses in Gaza – which amounts to large numbers of civilian casualties, a war crime by any other name – and even when it does, it usually comes in the form of a phone call that urges civilians to evacuate their house in less than a minute or face death. Other times, it comes in the form of a “knock on the roof” ‘warning’ missile that gives residents less than 30 seconds to evacuate. Most do not make it out alive, as the death toll continues to mount.

Ghraib goes on to write: “As usual, the house was shaking while I was writing this story. It’s like I am watching an action movie, but instead of watching it this time, I am actually living it.”

Whose war is it anyway?

“First, while one can place blame on both sides for the continuation of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it remains the fact that it is Israel that is occupying Palestinian territory, not vice-versa. It is Israel engaging in illegal settlement construction (a war crime under international law), and denying Palestinians self-determination. The current Israeli government is clearly unwilling to offer the sorts of sensible middle-ground compromises that would make a two-state resolution of the conflict possible,” writes Rex Brynen in a status updated on Facebook, professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill, and an expert in Middle East politics.

Despite this, he still blames Hamas (Gaza’s main ruling party and, to put it simply, the one firing rockets at Israel from Gaza) for putting Palestinians in even more danger by firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel, also a “war crime,” according to Brynen. It is a never-ending cycle: Hamas fires rockets at Israel in retaliation for what Israel did in the West Bank, Israel fires back, Hamas responds, Israel uses even more excessive force, and civilians die by the hundreds.

Julie Norman, a visiting professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill and an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, told The Daily that Hamas is operating from a point of weakness. “It is understandable that Hamas leaders are frustrated, with the unity deal that they hoped would improve their financial and political standings backfiring almost immediately. In an apparent attempt to save face, they have fallen back on their tried-and-true identity as the force of resistance.” Norman iterates that Hamas is “hijacking” popular resistance in Palestine, as street demonstrations in the West Bank – a popular form of resistance circa the First Intifada – are on a decline, as the crisis in Gaza enters its 17th day.

“The international attention and media coverage that the street protests and demonstrations in Jerusalem had garnered have now shifted almost completely to Gaza and Hamas. In addition, the opportunity to start a meaningful discourse in and with Israel has been all but squandered,” she writes. Norman concludes that, “Hamas seems to have found itself in a corner and is trying to (literally) shoot its way out. Yet in doing so, it is hijacking Palestinian resistance and undermining the very communities it claims to represent.”

But, to reiterate, no matter what, Hamas is Gaza’s government elect, and so has a duty to defend itself as well – and so the cycle continues. As Gideon Levy editorializes in Haaretz: “What exactly were we thinking? That Gaza would live forever in the shadow of Israeli (and Egyptian) caprice, with the restraints sometimes loosened a bit, or sometimes painfully tightened? That the biggest prison in the world would carry on as a prison? That hundreds of thousands of its residents would remain cut off forever? That exports would be blocked and fishing restricted? What exactly are 1.5 million people supposed to live on? Is there anyone who can explain why the blockade, even if partial, of Gaza continues? Can anyone explain why its future is never discussed? Did we think that all this would continue and Gaza would accept it submissively? Anyone who thought so was a victim of dangerous delusions, and now we are all paying the price.”

The world is watching

While the international mainstream media has kept painting the overdone picture of Israel-as-victim, people across the world have not kept silent. Growing unease has lead to mass protests across the U.S., Israel’s main military and political backer. In Los Angeles, police opened fire on Palestinian supporters at a rally for Israel. Over 1,000 people gathered in Detroit in support for Palestine in one of the biggest Palestine solidarity demonstrations in the U.S. in years.

In London, hundreds gathered to protest the BBC’s portrayal of Gaza in the news, citing in an open letter to the BCC that any territory under occupation has the right to defend itself under international law, and that “Gaza has no army, air force, or navy, while Israel possess one of the strongest militaries in the world.”

Recent mass protests across the globe show that the masses are not blind, as world leaders would have us believe. The masses are slowly waking up from a very long Western hegemony-induced coma, and are finally coming to realize that the situation is becoming insufferable. Only so many times can a person turn a blind eye to a handcuffed man being beaten over and over again right in front of them.

It is paramount not to paint this war as an isolated incident. We need to historicize it, and remember the conflict has been happening for 66 years. And after 66 years, the world finally seems to be listening, but to what gain? Unless we collectively mobilize against these injustices, move past social media activism, and realize that everything is interconnected, then we will realize that in order to change the Israeli-Palestinian reality, we have to deconstruct and reshape the entire system the crisis plays out in. No longer should Western imperialism have a say in the daily lives of Palestinians, no longer should Western money (and Arab money, by proxy) play a role in civilian deaths, and against Palestinian resistance. In the end, we are all accountable and complicit, whether directly or indirectly.

Accountability

So far, an estimated 117,000 Palestinians have been displaced within the Gaza Strip, eliciting sentiments echoing those of the post-1948 Nakba displacement years, during which over 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes.

And yes, it is true that a ceasefire was brokered, which Hamas rejected, but the fact is that the ceasefire did not take into account the best possible option for Gaza, and for Hamas. Hamas proposed its own alternative to the ceasefire proposed by Egypt, which was promptly ignored by Israel and Egypt, and so the fighting continues. Netanyahu has gone on the record saying that he will carry on with the Operation for “as long as it takes,” and until then, the smell of death will continue pervading Gaza’s streets.

As PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi stated on ABC’s This Week, “These are war crimes being committed before the world, before the eyes of the whole world and I just can’t understand how people sit back and say [it’s] self-defence. I just can’t take the language, I can’t take the propaganda, I can’t take the mantra that Israel has a right to defend itself. Against whom? Against innocent civilians? More than 80 children have been torn to bits. Is this self-defence?”


A full list of the people killed so far in “Operation Protective Edge” can be found here. They had names, lives, and families. Now they are another statistic in the ever-growing death toll that is a direct result of Israeli colonialism, occupation, apartheid, and oppression.

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