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Stories of devastatingly normal suffering in Gaza

I got an email from a man asking if we could help him and his family escape Gaza if war broke out. It seems so reasonable, until you realize there is no precedent for evacuating Palestinian civilians in time of war.

By Tania Hary

Palestinian men sit in the rubble of a destroyed home in the Nusseirat Refugee Camp, which was shelled by Israeli forces a few hours earlier, Gaza Strip, May 6, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

Palestinian men sit in the rubble of a destroyed home in the Nusseirat Refugee Camp, which was shelled by Israeli forces a few hours earlier, Gaza Strip, May 6, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

A popular social media figure from Gaza tweeted yesterday that if he had to choose a movie that most resembled life in the Strip it would be Groundhog’s Day. In the 1993 comedy, the main character is forced to re-live the same day over and over. It may seem like a flippant observation, given that yesterday was the single deadliest day of fighting between Israel and Gaza since the 2014 military operation, with 27 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces and four Israeli citizens killed by rockets fired from Gaza. The death, destruction, and fraught anticipation of another war experienced by millions are hardly things to be light-hearted about.

The observation was of course about something much more sinister – a pervasive feeling that we’ve all been here before, watching the same movie. We wake up, there’s an escalation, people (mostly Palestinians) are killed, a ceasefire whose details are never fully revealed goes into effect at just the moment when it feels like things could really spiral out of control, and then cut, the movie ends.

However, as many analysts have rightfully observed, the agreements reached in these obscure ceasefires are not being implemented, thus propelling Palestinian factions to take up arms again and reinforce their negotiating positions. We wake up, there’s an escalation, people (most Palestinians) are killed, etc. over and over again, you know the sequence.

I’m watching that movie too, from my own perspective outside the Strip, mostly from the Tel Aviv office where I work as the director of an Israeli human rights organization that promotes freedom of movement for Palestinians. But of course it’s not a movie and people are living the reality of life in Gaza – when the media is reporting and when it is not.

I heard many stories yesterday from our friends, clients, partners and other contacts in Gaza. They weren’t necessarily the most dramatic stories; they didn’t make it to the nightly news. They were the devastating but normal stories of the lived experienced of so many people in Gaza. They were the stories of the new normal of Groundhog Day in Gaza.

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An email with the subject line “Evacuation in the case of war,” where a man asked if Gisha could help evacuate him and his family. It seems so reasonable, until you realize that there is no precedent for evacuation of civilians from Gaza during the last three major military operations. The only people evacuated were a few hundred foreign passport holders, and that only after the fighting had stopped.

Our field worker in Gaza shared that he tried to tell his children that the explosions they were hearing were either nothing, or were distant, or didn’t pose a threat, but lamented (half-proudly) that his young sons know better than to believe him.

A young man, just 29 years, sent us photos, before and after, of his destroyed clothing shop. He shared that he’d sunk his meager life savings into the shop and pre-ordered clothing for Eid-al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan when people who can afford it buy new clothes. The ground-floor store was reduced to a pile of rubble and all his merchandise destroyed in one of the strikes that took down an entire building. A missile strike put him and his two employees out of work and plunged him into the abyss of unmanageable debt in just a split second. They were maybe lucky to have escaped alive, rendering their story almost unremarkable. They don’t even make it into the macabre count of “their” dead versus “ours” on the evening news programs.

The Samra Fashion store, before and after it was bombed by Israel. "Everything I had is gone and I can’t get it back. I don’t know what to do," owner Mahmood Said Al Nakhaleh told Gisha.

The Samra Fashion store, before and after it was bombed by Israel. “Everything I had is gone and I can’t get it back. I don’t know what to do,” owner Mahmood Said Al Nakhaleh told Gisha.

So many civilians have paid, are paying and will pay the price for the folly of morally rudderless leaders heaving us towards, and then just as suddenly away from, war. There aren’t just “two sides” to this story, there are multiple ways this can end and not all of them promise war on millions of people.

We’re stuck in a loop not just because the ceasefire agreements aren’t being implemented, but because Israel and many of its allies refuse to acknowledge that civilians make up the vast majority of the population of the strip. Their lives and every element of life in the strip have been reduced to bargaining chips – will the fishing limit be six nautical miles or 12 or 15 or back to six again? Will strawberries reach the West Bank next season? Will you get to see your sick father in the West Bank?

Israel is the main actor making choices about whether Palestinians in Gaza will live or die during any given escalation, but also about how they live in between those violent escalations – whether the shop they own will get its wares, whether they’ll get to the medical treatment they need, whether they can fish or farm safely. Other actors – Hamas, other Palestinian factions, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Qatar, and the rest of the international community – are all playing roles too.

But if Israel wanted out of the loop, it could, at any given moment, take any number of steps to change course in Gaza and recognize the ordinary lives of ordinary civilians who have a right to live – meaning, not just survive, but thrive. The guns have fallen silent, so to speak, but this isn’t the time to look away. It’s not about implementing or not implementing the ceasefire, it’s about breaking the curse of repeating the same script over and over again.

Tania Hary is the executive director of Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Lewis from Afula

      Stop their devastating suffering………………………by kicking them out to Egypt.
      Remember No Arabs = No Problems

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lewis: I thought it was Jordan? Just give us the details: how will you transport them, how long will it take, exactly where will you leave them in Egypt/Jordan/Liberia, what will you do with the recalcitrant ones, how many IDF soldiers will it take and so on. If you’ve got a plan we’re hungry for the specifics.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        I could say the same about Israelis. Things in the region weren’t perfect, but most everything was fine for everyone up until a bunch of late-19th/early-20th century European intellectuals told other Europeans to “return home.” Has it REALLY been worth it? Worth all the hassle and ruckus, for the purely emotional/”spiritual” benefit of going back to the sand-blasted s**thole your ancestors left thousands of years ago?

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      I suspect “No Arabs No Problems” Lewis is kind of busy right now manning the picket line with his fellow “no-Arabs” townspeople:

      Israeli City Votes Against Absorbing Arab Village, Aiming to ‘Preserve City’s Character’
      The mayor of the northern town of Afula has also pushed through a city council vote that would keep out of a park Arabs from nearby villages
      https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-town-votes-against-absorbing-arab-village-aiming-to-preserve-city-1.7198294

      Reply to Comment
    3. Dov K

      So tell them to stop shooting rockets at Israeli civilians so they won’t have to suffer! There’s no occupation and if it weren’t for their rockets there would be no embargo!

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “There’s no occupation…”

        This is why the Israeli regime and its supporting populace has to be regarded at this point as a dangerous, militaristic, self-destructive cult that cannot be reasoned with but has to be skillfully talked to temporarily, only to keep it from blowing up the place, while forcible outside intervention will be put in place and brought to bear. To save both the Israelis and the rest of the place. And prevent needless suffering.

        You think the Branch Davidians at Waco could be reasoned with? You think the Scientologists (an organized criminal outfit, masquerading as a religion, that preys on vulnerable people including the mentally ill) can be reasoned with? You think fanatical starving eating disorder patients can be reasoned with? The severely drug addicted? Think again.

        Now, it is true that, as Noam Sheizaf and others say, the price Israelis have to pay has to be increased. Before they will listen to reason and motivational dialogue. Which is why boycott, divestment and sanctions, and the ruckus raised by talented, rising American politicians like Ocasia-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, are necessary and promising.

        Increase the price. (Non-violently, is the humane hope.) It’s the only way. There has long been a price ceiling in place—put there by the Europeans’ fecklessness and their lingering Holocaust guilt, easily manipulated, and by multiplex fatuous American phenomena— fundamentalist Christian stooges and their cynical Republican Party exploiters—but as we know, long term price controls are ultimately dysfunctional and destructive to a healthy economy.

        Reply to Comment
      • David

        @Dov K

        “There’s no occupation.” Au contraire:

        Human Rights Watch, 2005: “…Israel will continue to be an Occupying Power [of the Gaza Strip] under international law and bound by the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention because it will retain effective control over the territory and over crucial aspects of civilian life. Israel will not be withdrawing and handing power over to a sovereign authority – indeed, the word ‘withdrawal’ does not appear in the [2005 disengagement] document at all… The IDF will retain control over Gaza’s borders, coastline, and airspace, and will reserve the right to enter Gaza at will. According to the Hague Regulations, ‘A territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised’. International jurisprudence has clarified that the mere repositioning of troops is not sufficient to relieve an occupier of its responsibilities if it retains its overall authority and the ability to reassert direct control at will.”

        The International Committee of the Red Cross: “The whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, ratified by Israel, bans collective punishment of a civilian population.”

        “In practice, Gaza has become a huge, let me be blunt, concentration camp for right now 1,800,000 people” – Amira Hass, 2015 correspondent for Haaretz, speaking at the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University.

        Dov Weisglass, PM Ariel Sharon’s senior adviser:
        “‘The significance of the [then proposed] disengagement plan [implemented in 2005] is the freezing of the peace process,’ Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s senior adviser Dov Weisglass has told Ha’aretz. ‘And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda….’ Weisglass, who was one of the initiators of the disengagement plan, was speaking in an interview with Ha’aretz for the Friday Magazine. ‘The disengagement is actually formaldehyde,’ he said. ‘It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.’” (Top PM Aide: Gaza Plan Aims to Freeze the Peace Process, Ha’aretz, October 6, 2004)

        Reply to Comment
    4. Ahmed

      Why do you think the Palestinians are suffering?
      It is at the hands of those who goven Gaza. They are the true oppressors. The mouthpieces of hatred l. Their main goal is for the death of millions of innocent Israelis, no matter the cost. Even if that cost is the deaths of their own people. Hamad are the true face of evil.

      Reply to Comment
      • Tom

        But Who is responsible of the Hammas ? Don’t forget it was encouraged during the Israeli occupation of the strip, against the Fatah.

        The more Israel opress the palestinians and the gaza people in particular, the more Hammas (or even more radical groups) is stronger.

        After 12 years of blockade, The Hamas is still there, and not ready to leave. Things are only worse and worse for the Gaza people and the blockade have only brought poverty, tears and hatred between Israelis and Palestinians.

        When a strategy failed during decades, Israel should change the methode. Because obviously, the continuous oppression of the palestinian people, putting the gaza’s people in jail will not bring down the Hammas, only strenghen it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Re: “Who is responsible for Hamas?”

          The same people who voted them in, that is who.
          In other words, Gazans are responsible.

          Reply to Comment