The Children of War: A Humanitarian Catastrophe Unfolds in Gaza
Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip triggered a bloody war. Brutal images of dead and injured Palestinians have circulated widely, but a cease-fire still appears to be a long way off.
Ahmed is hungry. Eyes closed, he clutches his mother's breast and drinks, oblivious to everything around him. He ignores the rattling of the ceiling fan, dangling precariously. And he doesn't notice the dull thuds that cause the walls to shake and his mother, Marwat al-Asasma, to cringe. Sometimes his body trembles, and he balls his tiny hands into fists.
Her son now weighs a little over three kilograms (6.6 lbs.), says al-Asasma, 18, and he is healthy and gaining weight. She sounds as if she can hardly believe what she is saying. Ahmed is just over two weeks old -- born in the night when the Israelis sent their first tanks to the Gaza Strip border.
Ahmed is both a child of the war and one of its victims. Ten days after he was born, he lost his father, his grandparents and his home. His mother doesn't know how much is left of the family house. She remembers only dust and smoke, but is trying to forget even that.
She and her siblings used to live in Shejaiya, a suburb east of Gaza City. Now, though, no one lives there anymore. Shejaiya, where entire city blocks were demolished, now lies in ruins. The Israeli army, after identifying Shejaiya as a Hamas stronghold and a center of resistance, sent in tanks and combat units. At least 100 Palestinians were killed there on the Sunday before last. The exact casualty figures are unknown, but the Red Cross expects that there are significantly more dead, people who were burned to death, crushed or buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings, some of which were still smoldering days later. The ongoing fighting has made it difficult to recover the bodies.
Shejaiya has become a symbol for the people in Gaza, for the brutality and relentlessness of this latest war, one that they cannot escape. There is no longer anywhere in the narrow, sealed-off Gaza Strip that can be considered safe; no place where the lunacy of death and suffering is not palpable.
In a Handcart Through the Rubble
Before Shejaiya came under Israeli fire, thousands of people living even closer to the border had fled there seeking shelter from the advancing tanks. Now, the displaced have moved even farther from the border, into Gaza City, that dense tangle of tall buildings and narrow streets. According to the United Nations, the number of people now in the city has almost doubled, from 600,000 to more than a million. An estimated 100,000 people have lost their homes, some temporarily and some for good. They now live in building entrances, on parking lots and in schools. And they are not even safe here, as evidenced by the death of the German-Palestinian Kilani family. Having heeded Israeli warnings, the family moved from the north into an apartment in Gaza City. A rocket fired by the Israeli army destroyed the building a short time later.
On the Sunday when shells struck the neighboring building and then her own, Marwat al-Asasma was still so weak from giving birth that she could hardly walk. Her sister Noura put baby Ahmed carefully into a backpack and placed Marwat and her own daughter in a handcart before pulling them two kilometers through the rubble to a church.
A little boy is sucking on his toes, making noises to imitate the impact of artillery fire. He presses his lips together and then pops them open. Noura al-Asama is even afraid to take her five-year-old daughter out into the courtyard to use the toilet, worried that they will be killed along the way.
The women from Shejaiya who have fled to this church with their children yearn for a ceasefire. Both sides must stop the killing, says Noura al-Asasma. "We're not a buffer zone, we're people." She has nothing but contempt for Hamas. "If Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashal lived like us, they would think twice about continuing this war." Instead, she says, the former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas leader Mashal live safely in exile in wealthy Qatar.
'Prepared for a Lengthy Campaign'
Only a few weeks ago, the two sisters still felt optimistic about the future. They hoped that the unity government formed recently by Fatah and Hamas would improve the situation in the Gaza Strip. But it didn't happen. The sisters believe that Israel began this war to prevent a more tolerable life for the Palestinians.
The death toll is mounting on both sides. According to Tuesday media reports, 53 Israeli soldiers have died along with three civilians. More than 1,100 Palestinians have reportedly been killed in the fighting, most of them civilians. Dozens of children have been among them, and there is no sign the violence is going to stop anytime soon. Despite international efforts to at least establish a temporary ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address on Monday evening that the offensive will continue until the tunnels used by the Palestinians to hide and launch rockets into Israeli territory are neutralized. "We need to be prepared for a lengthy campaign," he said.
During the three weeks the war has lasted thus far, the women have learned that there are different kinds of threats. They recognize the thundering noise of F-16 fighter jets, and they can distinguish between the reverberating detonation of bombs dropped from the air and the dull thud of tank artillery. Shells from ships off the coast are always fired three at a time and produce a ghostly echo. When it is quiet in Gaza City, the drones buzz in the hot air like nervous insects. But it is rarely quiet, and whenever a ceasefire is agreed upon, it is almost immediately violated.
For days, US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have tried unsuccessfully to put an end to the fighting. Their goal is a humanitarian ceasefire that would last several days, so that an agreement could be negotiated to guarantee a long-term cessation of violence. The plan calls for Hamas to stop launching attacks on Israel, while Israel would pull back its army. Egypt would also open the Rafah border crossing to allow both people and goods to pass through once again.
But on Friday evening the Israeli government rejected the proposal for a prolonged truce. The majority of the Israeli cabinet called for a continuation and even intensification of the attacks on the Gaza Strip. A high-level Middle East conference in Paris, which Kerry attended over the weekend, made little headway.
Both parties to the conflict appear to have an interest in continuing the war. Hamas is placing its bets on resistance, losses be damned -- and each dead child drives the price of negotiations even higher. Every day on which flights to Ben Gurion Airport remain cancelled or life in Tel Aviv comes to a standstill is a small victory for the militant organization. Israel, for its part, has taken the ground offensive so far that even moderate members of the government like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni now want to see its continuation until Hamas is incapacitated. Even though the country hasn't suffered this many casualties since the 2006 Lebanon war, recent opinion polls likewise show that popular support for the Gaza Strip offensive remains strong.
This stands in contrast to the rest of the Western world, where social networks are full of expressions of outrage over the deaths of so many innocents, of so many children. The war has become a duel of images, and in contrast to the battlefield, this is where the Palestinian side has the tragic upper hand. No matter how often government officials from around the world insist on their support for Israel's right to defend itself, public opinion would seem to be firmly on the side of the Palestinians. Twitter and Facebook are filled with disturbing photos of dead children, and the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack offers eyewitness reports from the combat zone. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right when he speaks of "telegenically dead Palestinians." He knows that Israel cannot win this war of images.
Many in the US and Europe are seeing such unfiltered reality in Gaza for the first time. Reports in newspapers tend not to include the most brutal of images. But pictures and videos posted directly by Gaza Strip residents are unfiltered and often originate from the victims themselves.
One mobile-phone video in particular has been viewed almost 2 million times on YouTube. It shows a young man in a turquoise T-shirt searching for his family members in the wreckage of Shejaiya, only to be shot dead by Israeli snipers.
The pain of losing a child is no different for a parent in Tel Aviv or Beit Hanun. But the two sides are not suffering equally in this war -- and it doesn't take a comparison of the casualty numbers to reach this conclusion. In contrast to Israel, where people still go to work and the beach despite rocket warnings, normal life no longer exists in Gaza. The people of Gaza, unprotected and at the mercy of the violence, are suffering most of all. Streets are empty and life is concentrated into small spaces, all of them illusions of safety, such as hospitals, schools and international facilities. Last Thursday, when an Israeli missile struck a UN school where many families had taken refuge, 16 people died and more than 200 were wounded. On Tuesday, Israeli air strikes heavily damaged the Gaza Strip's only power plant.
"What's happening here is totally unacceptable," says Canadian national Pernille Ironside, 40, who runs the UNICEF office in Gaza. She says the Israeli army is destroying the civilian infrastructure, and not just Hamas's tunnels and arsenals. She runs her hand through her hair as she sits in front of a clothes rack full of bulletproof vests in UN blue. She used to work in Eastern Congo and Yemen, she says, but "Gaza is worse." She estimates that the war directly affects about 120,000 children and many of them are seriously traumatized. She supports the UN Human Rights Council in its effort to create a commission to investigate possible Israeli war crimes in the Gaza Strip.
Last week, the army even issued a warning that an airstrike on Al-Shifa Hospital was planned. Israel justifies attacks on hospitals and schools by claiming that Hamas uses them to store weapons. Furthermore, there have been unsubstantiated rumors for years that Hamas maintains a secret command center beneath Al-Shifa Hospital, though no proof has been forthcoming. What is certainly true, however, is that Gaza extremists fire rockets from residential areas, and that many of the tunnels it has built for attacks on Israel start in private homes. This has prompted Netanyahu to accuse Hamas of using civilians as human shields, and he asserts that the Islamists are committing a war crime because international law forbids such tactics. It also, however, also forbids the targeting of civilian facilities, even if there is reason to believe that the enemy is hiding there.
"Bombing hospitals is not allowed," says Mads Gilbert, 67, a professor of emergency medicine, as he stands in his turquoise scrubs in the driveway of Al-Shifa Hospital. His voice cuts through the noise of sirens, announcements and the screams of the wounded. The smell of disinfectant is almost completely overwhelmed by the effluvium of hundreds of people. It is hot and it stinks, but there is hardly any water for bathing. Gilbert has been working in the emergency room at Al-Shifa Hospital, sometimes 36-hours at a stretch, since he arrived in the Gaza Strip from Tromsø, Norway about three weeks ago.
Everyone in Gaza becomes a human shield almost perforce, says Gilbert. Hamas doesn't even have to plan. There are simply too many people in too little space, he explains. But this, he adds, is precisely the reason hospitals and schools should be off-limits, since the Israeli army knows full well that civilians seek shelter in such buildings.
Gilbert also worked in Gaza during the last two wars -- in 2012 and in the winter of 2008/2009 -- but he believes that the situation has never been as dire as it is now. This time, he says, many of the severely injured are children. After the attack on Shejaiya, ambulances brought entire loads of dead and wounded to the hospital. "We just pulled them out and placed them on the ground, anywhere, wherever there was room."
There is no space left in Al-Shifa Hospital, not in the wards and not in the yard or the parking lots, where newly-homeless families have laid out pieces of cardboard and rugs. "Where else should we go?" asks a woman who calls herself Um Abulata, or the mother of Abulata. She too fled from Shejaiya, first to her grandfather's house and, when it was bombed, to her aunt's. After moving three times in the last four days, she now lives on a piece of foam mattress under the stairs in a wing of the hospital. She hopes that she will at least be safe there.
Aside from her hope for a rapid end to the violence, Um Abulata has only one wish: that one day she will once again live in a building with running water and won't have to wash herself in the sea every morning. That could take some time: Seventy percent of Gaza residents lost their drinking water after bombs destroyed the main water pipes.
It is Mahir Salim's job to repair them, but the engineer, wearing a white shirt under an orange fluorescent vest, says the damage is too extensive. A 48-year-old who went to university in the German city of Hanover, Salim is in charge of the water supply for Gaza City. He is now sitting in his office, in front of shelves stuffed with yellow binders, but he has to head out again soon. "To be honest, we don't know what to do anymore," he says. Four of the six wells that supply the Gaza Strip with drinking water are no longer accessible because they lie in the contested border zone. Three of Salim's men have died while on duty, killed in Israeli attacks.
The army apparently mistook the pipes the men were trying to replace for rockets, says Salim. He is a polite man and cloaks his criticism in a question: "Why do they destroy everything so that we can no longer live here?" Gaza was already anything but a paradise before, he says, but now it's become hell on Earth. "We're not their adversaries, and we're trapped here."
Even before Tuesday's attack on the Gaza power plant, there were no more than three hours of electricity a day. But sewage treatment plants cannot operate without power. "The Israelis say they are hunting terrorists. If that's true, why are they striking civilians most of all" Salim asks? Each new war is more vicious than the one before, he says. Last year, the UN warned that Gaza was well on its way to becoming uninhabitable.
Salim fears that people in Gaza could soon be fighting over water. "Just imagine that a baby survives the war and then dies of diarrhea, because there is no longer any clean water." Once the fighting is over, he says, the slow dying will begin.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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