Society / Palestine
One year on, war-torn Gaza struggling to survive
Karl Schembri - 26/12/2009
Nawer Thabet, 35, from Juhor Ad Dik, cannot hold her tears as she remembers the day her mother and younger sister were killed by Israeli forces last January, when they were surrounded by tanks and soldiers outside their home. In less than a minute, her dearest family members were gone as they tried evacuating the building carrying white flags. A year later, Nawer is still in trauma, recounting, in tears, how she is unable to go back to the house where her mother always welcomed her.
“I remember this tragedy everyday, I can’t get it out of my mind. … I keep thinking of them carrying a white flag in the street. … I still can’t go back to our house in Johr Al Deek, I can’t face it,” she says.
Further north in Izbet Abed Rabbo, Mohammed Zaid Hader is still living in a tent with his family, facing rain and the second cold winter in the shadow of what remains of his former three-storey house. Like the rest of the owners of more than 3,500 homes that were totally destroyed last winter in what Israel called ‘Operation Cast Lead’, he cannot get the material to rebuild it as the Israeli blockade bans reconstruction material. For the last year, he has been one of the 80% of Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid.
Himself a former builder who used to work in Israel on construction sites, for Mohammed the irony could not be more poignant.
“We built Israel with our Jewish friends, and look at what they did to our houses,” he says. “Why did they have to bomb our houses like this?”
Israel’s blockade since Hamas took over control of Gaza in 2007 means that none of the essential reconstruction material can come into the strip – from cement and tiles to plastic pipes and glass. Demand in Gaza for window glass alone would cover 30 football fields with glass. According to aid agencies, only 41 truckloads of construction materials have been permitted into Gaza since Operation Cast Lead. A year since the war on Gaza, most of the coastal strip is still at a standstill, waiting for a political decision from Israel, and for pressure from the rest of the world, for the blockade to be lifted.
Billions of dollars pledged for reconstruction remain out of reach, making reconstruction and recovery impossible. Thousands of truckloads are required to rebuild all the houses destroyed and all the schools, hospitals and water network damaged by the attacks.
In Shajaiya, Al Wafa Hospital has just managed to get a consignment of cement and glass smuggled from the tunnels to be able to repair the extensive damage to the new state of the art four-storey building for rehabilitation and the elderly.
“We had a totally new building that was meant to be inaugurated in January 2009,” says the head of rehabilitation, Dr Kamees Al Issi. “The Israelis inaugurated it for us. Not one window pane was left intact.”
In Zeitoun, Sameh Sawafiri had a poultry farm of 30,000 chickens providing most of Gaza’s supply of eggs. Israeli soldiers flattened them all in their cages. Now he has managed to reopen with one-third of the chickens had a year ago, and a lot of debts.
The owners of El Bader Flour Mill in Beit Lahiya were not so lucky. Israeli planes targeted the central nerve of the mill, leaving it totally out of action.
“Since the war we had to stop completely,” says Hamdan Hamada who still pays 25 of the 85 workers in the hope they will be able to resume work soon. “We need iron, cement and equipment, but Israel is not allowing us to get anything. We are waiting for a political decision from Israel to get the material to reconstruct our flourmill. So far we only got promises.”
Beyond the immediate and urgent reconstruction needs, thousands of lives have been destroyed with the death and suffering of relatives, friends and neighbours. Children are perhaps paying the highest price. The war taught them that not even their homes were safe, and not even their parents could protect them.
Ten-year-old Subhi Awaja was huddled with his father and younger brother Ibrahim in their house in Beit Lahiya when on 4 January a piece of shrapnel ripped through Ibrahim’s abdomen. As they regained their senses under the rubble, Subhi realised his nine-year-old brother was dying and kissed him on his forehead.
Since the day of his brother’s death, his parents say Subhi has changed completely. Formerly a high achiever at school, he can now barely stand five minutes with a book and is regularly visited by an outreach psychologist for therapy. The dwindling grades are accompanied by alarming cases of aggression towards other school children and teachers. In the tent where his family is now living, he repeatedly beats his sisters for no apparent reason, destroying their toys and spending most of his time alone or playing violent video games at an internet cafe nearby.
A study published by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme almost a year after the war found just under 50% of children aged 6-17 who were exposed to the last war that lasted 23 days and claimed the lives of around 1,400 Palestinians, think “often” or “almost always” of seeking revenge on whoever is responsible for the death of close people.
Everyone says they were used to attacks from the Israeli army, but this was something else altogether. The attacks were coming from everywhere, leaving nowhere to escape as people were forbidden to leave the Gaza Strip to seek refuge far from the conflict zone.
Ahmed Hdeir, father of six from Beit Lahiya, told his children the war was just a computer game.
“But when they hit our house I couldn’t keep up that story,” he says. They still suffer from nightmares and he takes them to psychologists for counselling every week.
In the last Eid at the end of November, thousands of children were playing in the streets with toy guns. Gazan psychiatrists are concerned about the widespread trauma and further radicalisation they are inevitably faced with. When everything is lost, the only glorious way seems that of the martyr.
While the bombs were falling all over Gaza, Abdul Salam from Beit Lahiya spent his time sleeping, even when his neighbourhood was fiercely bombarded.
“Everyone was exposed, so there’s no place to hide, nowhere to go,” he says “You can do nothing. You wait for a bomb to fall from the sky, to destroy your house. You just have to empty your mind, relax, and whatever happens, let it happen. I would sleep all day long. Even my wife was surprised. She used to ask me ‘Don’t you hear the bombs and the shooting?’ But what can I do?”
Gazans are known for their resilience and creative ways of getting by against all odds, but they are paying a very high price. Even before the war, the blockade was collectively punishing an entire population, leaving scars that will take decades to heal.
Young people are dying to get out, to travel and see the world, but they know they cannot plan a trip abroad. In fact, they can plan nothing at all. In Gaza, everything is inshallah (God-willing).
A whole generation of children has never been out of Gaza. Unlike their parents, most of whom used to work in Israel and have Jewish friends, the only Israelis they have seen were armed soldiers keen on destroying their houses and killing their relatives.
Now, the Egyptian government is reportedly erecting yet another wall in Rafah – an iron barrier meant to stop tunnel smuggling. Tunnels are the only lifeline left for Gazans, and in their creative resourcefulness they might also find way around this latest obstacle. The question is, for how long will they be forced to live like this?