Trauma, depression, destitution and hopelessness are the daily realities with which Gaza's besieged population must contend.
Sunday 8 December 2019
It all began with a savage detonation. It was still the dead of night, but the sky above Gaza lit up and the ground quaked. On 12 November 2019, at 4am sharp, the Israeli army bombed the house of Baha Abu al-Atta – one of Islamic Jihad's leading operatives. Soon one explosion followed another.
The bafflingly blue firmament was streaked with long dirty traces of the rockets the Islamic Jihad was firing in retaliation. Every now and then, the ground heaved with the force of a sharp detonation. The Israeli F-16s were bombing the positions of the second strongest force within the Gaza Strip. The Israeli bombs were also hitting a number of civilian targets, killing 35 people before a ceasefire was finally declared.
The Israeli side suffered not a single casualty, with 90% of the primitive Islamic Jihad rockets had been intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system. The air was redolent with smoke and the impending possibility of the next cycle of war. A war which, in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014, had already turned one of the world's most densely populated territories into an open-air hospice.
Just a mistake
After the sun had already sunk into the Mediterranean for the day, the apartment in one of Gaza City's most desolate blocks was suffused with a foreboding silence. The pictures and posters on the walls of the modestly furnished flat were telling a sad and all-too-typical Palestinian story – the story of a “shahid”, or “martyr”. It is a story virtually every Palestinian family in Gaza is painfully familiar with.
“Over here, it's like living in a tomb,” a 38-year-old woman named Nemra Maysoon explained quietly. “Anyone of us could get killed at any time. Our lives are clearly worthless.”
Last July, Nemra lost her 14-year-old son Amir to an Israeli drone strike. Also killed was Amir's schoolmate and best friend Loai Kuhail.
“That morning, Amir asked me for his lunch money. I gave him 10 shekels for a shawarma sandwich and a Coke. I knew he and Loai wanted to have a walk around, since school was out. They first played a bit of football. Loai was incredibly gifted, and Amir had to take it easy because of heart problems. To think we were afraid of football killing him,” Nemra gasped with irony. Maha Kuhail, Loai's mother, was quick to gently take her hand.
On that heinous day, Amir and Loai had lunch and decided to take a few selfies atop one of Gaza's higher buildings. As soon as they snapped a few pictures, an Israeli drone ‘took control' of the scene. An explosion swiftly followed, its shrapnels instantly annihilating both of the boys. The Israeli authorities later ventured it had been a mistake – just like when they recently killed eight members of a Palestinian family during a bombing raid.
“I was at home when I heard screaming from the street. I immediately sensed something was very badly wrong. Since I knew Amir was out there, I was very alarmed. I heard people shouting Amir was dead. I first couldn't and then wouldn't believe it,” the grieving mother recalled. “Somebody told me he was still alive. I ran over to the hospital, where they directed me straight to the morgue. There was blood everywhere. The only thing left was to give him a hug. Why did they have to kill him? Who gave them the right? All he wanted was to play football. He was a huge Real Madrid fan, and Loai loved Barcelona… They were both such good, innocent boys.”
Tears, twitches, back-to-the-wall stutters and a lot of bitten-back words; looking at the poor woman going through her ordeal again, it was as if no time had passed at all.
“Sixteen months later, and we still haven't received any sort of apology, let alone any attempt at compensation,” Maha Kuhail interjected. “Amir and Loai were simply a mistake. We did take legal action against the Israeli army – with the help of B'tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation… But what good can that do? We have been ruined, all of us that remain.”
Maha, Loai's mother, is 35 and works as a primary school teacher. Ever since she lost her son, she finds it increasingly difficult to focus. Each day presents a new battle to find sufficient purpose to carry on. She devotes all her energy to her three remaining sons and her pupils.
“We have nothing to do with politics. All we want is to live, to survive. There is nothing resembling a normal life in Gaza, there are no prospects for young people. I was hoping Loai might become a successful footballer, a professional. I was thinking he might get to play abroad. All our dreams have been shattered in a split second,” Maha went on. She told me that each and every chair and table in her school reminded her of her son.
“I am a strong woman, but I had to visit a psychologist for almost half a year. I was unable to teach for a whole month. Now I am haunted at every step by the fear of further loss. I have become a rather panicky character. I am anxious about my three remaining boys. It's a dreadful feeling, and it is with me pretty much all the time. Ever since the tragedy, we've been sleeping in the same room. We are huddling together. We so want to leave this place – we are surrounded by nothing but death and misery,” the words poured out of the visibly traumatised woman.
During the grieving process, she and Nemra Maysoon – Amir's mother – have formed a close attachment, a sort of a pain-based alliance. It has fallen to the two mothers to continue the friendship of their murdered sons. Without each other, they were both quick to profess, they would be unable to keep going.
Yet their pain is not only enduring, it seems to be increasing. The fear of further loss is omnipresent – all the more so for being based on an all too real probability distribution. Every time they hear the sound of Israeli planes above or the inhuman screech of the killer drones, their children are thrown into a panic. And they are mostly unable to help.
The final nail in the coffin
This new escalation of terror in Gaza is really anything but new. It has been in effect ever since last year. That was when many of Gaza's inhabitants decided to marking the 70th anniversary of the Nakba with the so-called ‘Great March of Return'.
A year and a half ago, Gazans – as many as 80% of whom are now wholly reliant on international humanitarian help, with more than a half of them unemployed – began heading for the long concrete wall strewn with watchtowers and sniper nests which separates the Gaza Strip from the rest of humanity.
Even though the marchers were unarmed, the protests were soon washed in blood. Israeli army snipers began picking away at the protesters that dared venture closest to the frontier. Many of them had, indeed, been sent out there by Hamas, the militant Islamic movement which had taken over control of Gaza by force in 2007 and went on to significantly contribute to the tragedy of its 2 million residents.
But the Israeli fire was not limited solely to the protesters who dared get closest to the border.
According to Médecins sans frontières (MSF) data, the 18 months of the ‘Great March of Return' saw the killing of more than 200 Palestinians, with around 8,000 wounded. MSF staff have provided treatment to more than 5,500 of them, I was told by Dr Fayez el-Barawi at the MSF clinic in the centre of Gaza.
The vast majority of the ones treated were suffering from gunshot wounds below the knees. Many of them will never be able to walk or work again, merely for daring to express an opinion. Or even just for trying to help the wounded.
Such was the case of Mohamed Masavabi, aged 26. “I was working as a taxi driver,” he remembered after completing the day's physiotherapy session at the MSF clinic. “That Friday, some friends asked me to take them close to the border for the protests. When we got to within 3km of the border, chaos already reigned. The traffic had ground to a halt. We could hear shots being fired. People were screaming everywhere. Then, right in front of my car, a small boy was knocked down by a teargas canister. I grabbed a plastic water bottle and jumped out to help him. I can't imagine how I could have posed a threat to anybody. A few moments later, I was hit by a bullet punching through both of my legs. It felt as if I was being electrocuted. I tumbled to the ground. I lost consciousness for four hours.”
Today, Mohamed is able to walk, though just barely, and with the help of crutches and special leg stabilisers. He is not fit enough for any kind of work. He relies on the help of his extended family, which had lost 26 members during the various Israeli military operations in Gaza since 2009.
“This is war – it just never stops,” Mohamed went on. He added that his vision for Gaza had long been robbed of hope.
“That is why the young people here are protesting with such vehemence. The only thing we have to lose are our lives, pitiful as they are. We have also seen a lot of suicides. We are completely on our own. The Arab world is happy to exploit us for their own political purposes, though they really don't care about us at all,” Mohamed concluded, leaving for the day the clinic filled with men and boys tottering on severely mutilated legs.
In spite of his horrendous injuries, Mohamed has since begun taking active part in the protests.
His friend Maisara seemed to be much of the same mind. Maisara, 29, was gravely wounded as far back as the first protest in eastern Gaza last year in March. The protest was against Donald Trump's decision to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This represented a huge, and not merely symbolic, blow to the Palestinians, as well as the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.
When the Americans decided to legitimise the Jewish settlements on the (occupied) West Bank, the Palestinian question was simply struck off the menus of international diplomacy.
An epidemic of antibiotic resistance
“One of the bullets went through both my legs. I collapsed. All I can remember is unbelievable pain and a lot of screaming… Many of the people around me had been wounded as well. Some of them didn't make it,” recalled Maisara, as the flies buzzed along the open wounds below his knees.
Maisara, a father of five, was now eking out a subsistence as an electrician. His legs were mending very poorly, infection followed infection. And his case was far from an isolated one. Médecins sans Frontières staff have long recorded a highly elevated, all but epidemic resistance to antibiotics in Gaza and some other parts of the Middle East.
The development has been linked with the rampant overuse of antibiotics in these parts, where they are seen as something of a panacea.
This would certainly explain the baffling way most of those wounded during the protests failed to recover even after eighteen months of therapy. The condition of many of them has actually deteriorated. Their doctors believe this could be down to either the environment, especially robust strains of bacteria, the deliberate use of dirty weapons or a combination of the two.
“Ninety percent of the patients in our care have similar gunshot wounds. It would be hard to deny a distinct pattern,” Amira Karim said candidly, talking to us in her modest office located right across from the therapy gym. Karim serves as a psychological counsellor at one of the four MSF clinics in the Gaza area.
Around these parts, the issue of mental health is still largely taboo, each instance carrying with it a heavy burden of social stigma. In her daily dealings with hundreds and hundreds of casualties, Karim has started noticing steeply increasing levels of depression. And no wonder, given the prevailing long-term trauma of hopelessness, exhaustion and utter abandonment. In Karim's words, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also rampant among the population. A staggering 20 percent of her patients are seriously considering suicide.
“With these types of gunshot wounds, the pain is constant, chronic. Severe depression is mingled with physical suffering, and the combination is often unbearable. The medicine we give them clearly doesn't work. And then you have the overwhelming pressure of the environment – I mean, the sheer all-devouring economic catastrophe of it all,” Karim added.
“The men are expected to take care of their families,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “Yet their injuries prevent them from doing so. I have to say, my patients are not committed to this life. They are simply in too much pain. They are also often completely isolated in their suffering. And the authorities have opted to ignore their plight.”
Living in a nightmare
In the space of a dozen years, the Israeli blockade has managed to transform Gaza into a vast prison camp, where the children are nurtured on pure hate. This in itself is a guarantee against any imaginable normal future.
Every time the skies above Gaza are ripped asunder by an Israeli war plane, the trauma, both personal and collective, widens in scope. Every time rockets are fired towards Israel, the deployers are sending the message that they are prepared to keep sacrificing the fate of the civilian population in the name of their political goals.
Compounding the problem is the distinct split in the Palestinian electorate. What is more, Hamas is actually operating in perfect symbiosis with the Israeli authorities. To stay in control, it needs (and helps maintain) a spectacular human tragedy, which is also furthered by the active passivity of pretty much the entire international community, including much of the Arab world, which has for decades exploited the Palestinian question as an alibi for its own political and military machinations.
“There is no such thing as a political horizon in Gaza. There is no such thing as hope. Twenty years ago, we believed in ‘the political process'. We used to have a dream. But now we are living in a nightmare,” the president of the Palestinian NGO Network Amjad al Shava told us a day before the latest bombings. “The blockade has cut us off from the world.
“And worst of all are the divisions within the Palestinian community itself. An entire generation has never left this gigantic prison. Our children have pushed through three different wars. We used to be exporters of food, and now we are starving… The world seems to have forgotten us,” he laments.
This humanitarian and activist was quick to assure us that his support was reserved only for a political solution, a peaceful one. But such an outcome now seems almost impossible to imagine.
Fish and sitting ducks
As Gaza was being ravaged by falling bombs while launching outdated and ineffectual rockets back toward Israel, the dusty streets of the Palestinian enclave were empty. The people here have developed their own specific defence mechanisms, which long ago hardened into second nature.
The schools were closed down and only a few shops were open. The mosques were awash with political speeches. On some of the narrow streets of the former refugee camps, which had long become bustling popular quarters, children were chasing each other among heaps of refuse. An old man was having his tea while contemplating a sky riddled with rocket traces. The detonations frightened flocks of screeching birds to take flight. An emaciated white dog was playing with a pair of young cats next to mostly deserted fishing shacks by the stench-ridden shore. An unusually strong autumn sun was reflected from the surface of the sea, where a few fishing boats floated like sitting ducks in spite of the bombing.
Bombs or no bombs, one still had to make a living. “I used to have a profound love for the sea. But now I hate it,” said Khadir Saidi, 31, talking to us in the modest seaside dwelling he shares with 14 other members of his family.
Khadir was a fisherman, or more to the point: a former fisherman.
On 20 February 2019, he and his cousin took their small fishing vessel out. Khadir had been doing so ever since he was 13. They cast their nets some nine nautical miles from the shore. Back then, Israel had limited the fishing area to within 12 miles. According to the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian fishermen were allowed to fish up to 20 miles from the shore, but the Israeli authorities have taken to setting the current limit as they went along, depending on ‘the situation'. At times, they had been known to set the number to a mere three miles.
Around nine in the evening, Khadir hoisted the first set of nets from the sea. It looked like the day's outing would be a successful one. But only for a moment. Some Israeli patrol boats were fast approaching. Khadir had been here before: once, he had been arrested and spent 18 months in Israeli jails denied any kind of a judicial process, only to end up losing his ship and fishing nets. And so he, perhaps not unreasonably, decided to flee. He and his cousin had barely started turning the boat when Khadir was shot.
“The Israelis opened fire with rubber bullets. Two of them hit me in the eyes – one bullet in one eye each. I immediately went blind. The pain was unbearable,” recalled Khadir, whose blindness now prevented him from leaving his apartment, let alone setting out to sea.
The doctors in Israel and Egypt had informed him they were unable to help. “Maybe I could regain some sight if I had a lot of money. Enough to afford an operation at the special clinic in Germany. Or Russia,” Khadir mused quietly.
Khadir and his cousin were not the only crew arrested at sea that fateful day. All the Palestinian fishermen were accused of fishing out of bounds, something the fishermen fervently deny to this day . Yet in a system of apartheid such as this, their words are of little consequence.
“Look,” Khadir's father, Marwan, splurted angrily, showing us the rubber bullets that had taken his son's sight and his ability to support his large family.
The family has now found itself in a very difficult situation. “They are trying to make life hell for Gaza's fishermen,” Khadir went on in a steady, resigned voice. “They are taking away our boats, so we flee as soon as we see them. Around here, fishing is an old tradition. It used to be that a large number of people used to live off the sea. Now it is only a few hundred. The rest have had to sell their fishing boats just to survive. And even the ones who remain are struggling. Not only on account of the Israeli blockade, but also because there is less fish. And the sea becomes more polluted each year.”
In 2017, the Israeli Navy wounded Khadir Saidi in the leg. Then, they put him in prison. He is now reliant on assistance from a Qatari humanitarian foundation. The $100 per months he receives is his only source of income. After being released, Khadir revved up his boat to join the protests against the Israelis. But only because Hamas, the protests' ‘sponsor', gave him some money to buy the oil to power his vessel.
Soon after, the real tragedy struck.
“The Israelis are doing it because they can. It is part of the occupation, part of the war,” Khadir's father raged. His fury was all the more understandable because he now has to fend for the entire family. Although he has been a fisherman for 45 years, he believes things have never been worse for the fishing sector in Gaza.
With bittersweet nostalgia, he recalls the days before the Second Intifada (which began in September 2000), the blowback from which decidedly worsened the fishermen's condition. After the withdrawal of the Israeli settlers in the summer of 2005 and after Hamas took over two years later, the blockade was imposed. It has caused widespread decline and decrepitude.
In addition to Gaza being the world's largest open-air hospice, as I observed earlier, it may also be one of the world's largest ongoing experiments to test the limits of human endurance.