Eyewitness in Gaza: Yesterday and Tomorrow

 

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15:21 01/24/2009
Eyewitness in Gaza: Yesterday and Tomorrow
‘Whatever they do to us, we are still here and we will still be here.’ (UNRWA/AFP)
By Ewa Jasiewicz – Gaza

We’re like trees, we have our roots and they allow us to grow, little by little, we grow up and then they cut us down. But, whatever they throw at us, whatever they do to us, we are still here and we will still be here – Om Bassim, Jabaliya Camp, January 2009.

‘Our Home’

At the beginning of this war, when the bombs first started falling intensively, I remember lying on a mattress, late at night, I don’t remember where, maybe in Beit Hanoun hospital, maybe in Beit Lahiya. As I slipped into sleep, I could hear explosions, thuds, one after the other, some near, some distant, some to our east, to our west, again and again. In my semi-consciousness I felt they were all going off in my house, in my home, that the bombs were exploding in different rooms, upstairs, downstairs, next door, under me, over me. I didn’t feel fear, I felt a closeness, a holding together. Maybe it was a consequence of Gaza being an incarcerated space, a walled camp, so small and close-knit, a prison, but also, a house, a home, with families in every part, every corner, every room, a community of relatives from north to south, every explosion and massacre felt acutely, felt intimately as if it had happened to ones own family, in the home, this home.

The war was felt and heard in every home, it invaded some homes, soldiers occupied and destroyed peoples homes, tank shells, burning white phosphorous and bulldozers smashed homes, some people were buried under their homes, some are still entombed in their homes. Where is this home now? 50,000 people are homless according to the UN. Living in tents, classrooms, crowded rooms in the homes of relatives, under tarpaulin stretched over roofless rooms on family land, still standing. If the bombing resumes, and the attacks resume, this will still be a home to the people of Gaza, each bomb, and each hit, acutely felt, shuddered and shouldered by each community and family. My friend Om Bassem, mother of nine, living in Jabaliya explained calmly yesterday, ‘They besiege us and take away our electricity, ok, we carry it, they take away our gas, our flour, our food, ok, take it, we can take it, they take away our drinking water, take it. And our children, a mother grows her son until adulthood, focusing on nothing but bringing up her children, and then he is taken away, and we take it. We spend our whole lives working, saving, building, our homes for us and our children and our children’s children, and then they destroy it, bomb it to the ground, and we take it. We’re like trees, we have our roots and they allow us to grow, little by little, we grow up and then they cut us down. But, whatever they throw at us, whatever they do to us, we are still here and we will still be here, we can take anything they do to us. God is big, God is bigger. And thanks be to God for all of this. We are steadfast’. And she smiles.

To the Dead Zone

We got the call early Sunday morning. We finally had ‘co-ordination’ to get into the closed military zones that Israeli forces had been occupying for the past three weeks. These were the ‘closed military zones’ in which ambulance staff, the Red Cross and UN had been fired upon and rescuers killed trying to enter.

These ‘closed areas’, these blind spots and dead zones, are Towam, Zaiytoun, Atatra, Ezbit Abed Rubbu, Toffah. These are communities, neighbourhoods, with schools and shops and homes that people would sit out in front of, on plastic chairs drinking tea, fingering prayer beads, staring at the sparkling blue sea, communities with farmland, orange orchards and strawberry fields. All locked down. The medics from the Red Crescent would come back by turns stunned and weary eyed. An old man with a gunshot wound to his head clasping a white flag from Atatra, bodies trameled by tanks – unidentifiable – and the girl, the famous, red, half eaten girl, Shahed Abu Halim, aged one and a half according to paramedics, left to die and half eaten by dogs, her body a beacon of horror for everyone who saw her being brought in to Kamal Odwan hospital in Jabaliya.

So many times, our ambulances skimmed the edges of these dead zones, where families were imprisoned, snipers holding them effectively hostage, the dead lying in the street unclaimed, witnessed daily by neighbours and loved ones. On occasion we managed to grab bodies on the periphery, mangled by missiles shot from surveillance drones. With the Ministry of Health ambulances, we rode to Karama – Dignity – where two men were reportedly found dead by rescue workers having bled to an undignified death from treatable injuries. Unreachable.

These were the areas that civilians had been shot dead trying to exit, some gunned down whilst holding white flags such as Ibtisam Ahmad Kanoon, 40, from Atatrah, who lay dying from 11.30am until 2pm the next day until relatives could carry her out. Her husband, son and mother all walking with her – her son Mohammad Bassam Mohammad al Kanoora, 23, injured by shrapnel to the head and Zahiye Mohammad Ahmad al Kanoora, 60, injured in the back.

Like the family of Musbah Ayoub, 64, from Izbet Abed Rubbu, who bled to death from shrapnel injuries to his legs, as relatives frantically called the Red Crescent and Red Cross for three days.

Like Wael Yusef Abu Jerahd, 21, from Zeitoun who was hit by tank shell shrapnel as he went to get a drink of water in his home. He lay dying for four hours, his family calling for help and appealing to Israeli occupation soldiers to enable his evacuation. Instead Israeli forces killed two paramedics traveling in a Libyan Red Crescent jeep attempting to get to him, and occupied the family’s home, imprisoning the family, 12 people, in a small kitchen along with their dead son, for three days. When the family were finally allowed to leave, they had two members to carry for over a kilometer over broken ground and trashed industrial sites; their son Wael, and his 64-year old mother, who couldn’t walk because of her diabetic condition and fresh nervous break-down over the killing of her son and her days and nights by his dead side, as Israeli occupation soldiers shot from her house.

The stories of those who bled to death because Israeli forces would not allow ambulance access to collect them, and the families who had to witness their demise and live with their bodies, run the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip. When ambulances could finally enter some areas, they were stoned by desperate and abandoned relatives. It is a war crime, under the Geneva Conventions, to prevent the passage of or target emergency staff who are trying to collect the injured.

The Walking Living

We made out at the break of dawn, red lights rotating into action, speeding towards Towam, close to Atatrah. Drizzle mixed with a haze of white phosphoric smoke, like a thin grey gauze over our eyes. Above us, surprisingly, and awesomely, soared a rainbow, high, wide and perfect, arching over the grey broken streets of Jabaliya and the freshly bombed Taha mosque with its’ insides spilled over the road, the knocked down houses like knocked out teeth, downed power lines, blown out and blackened apartment blocks, grey all around us, but if we looked up, a beautiful technicolour arch.

The first body was that of a young man, face down and crumpled outside the doors of the Noor Al Hooda mosque, his navy jumper singed from shrapnel injuries.

Behind us was a wasteland. Where houses had been, just days earlier, there were jagged edges of crushed walls, mangled with clothes, glass, books, furniture; houses turned into a lumpy sea of lost belongings, bombed and bulldozed into the ground. Amidst all this, was the crumpled body of Miriam Abdul Rahman Shaker Abu Daher, aged 87. It was her arm that we saw first, sticking out of a dusty blanket, trapped under rubble. We managed to hoist her onto a stretcher, paramedics took her away and I was left standing next to a man. ‘That was my mother’ he said to me. He explained what happened: ‘We left three days ago (15th January) with our children and we came back for her, but we couldn’t get to her, we called the Red Cross, they couldn’t help. They bulldozed everything here, maybe more than 20 houses. We thought we could return, we didn’t think they would do all this We couldn’t come back for three days so we don’t know how she died, maybe she died of the cold? After a few hours we had come back and planes were shooting at us, we were just meters away from our house, but the shooting was too much. We thought if the soldiers came they wouldn’t harm her because she’s so old, we thought maybe they would give her food or look after her. We didn’t expect them to bulldoze the whole area’, explained Awad Abdullah Mustapha Abu Daher, 45 years old. We took four dead into our ambulance. The Red Crescent would take another 32 before the day was over.

A column of people was walking slowly, some with donkey carts, some rumbling over the clod ground on motorbikes. All making their way home, for the first time, to Atatrah. Atatrah, with its new blasted out school, holes big enough to drive through, a crippled mosque, and burnt houses smoked above us, sloped up on a hill, with rolling strawberry fields and palm trees and the beach behind it, such a beautiful place to live, lush and alive and green. Now, according to locals, its almost unidentifiable, residents  are disorientated by the missing houses, confused between the lost streets and new ‘streets’ – tracts bulldozed between houses, gaping holes in half buildings and land churned into sand. I followed the column. Walking behind it was reminiscent of so many funeral processions that have trod the streets of Gaza and Palestine as a whole. A slow column, a long walk, an intergenerational walk, a thousand backs in front of us, for the dead, for the living, for the jailed, a return after eviction, a return after each invasion, The Walk, after being released from every imprisonment in every temporary prison by Israeli soldiers, the Beit Lahiya High School, a neighbour’s home, The Walk back all the time and through time, to overcome grief, dispossession, humiliation, a collective walk. I wanted to accompany that walk.

Climbing up the main road, pulverized and impassable by car, a group of 10 men come walking towards us carrying their heavy dead wrapped in blankets, struggling to find their footing on their descent. We spend the rest of the day searching for the dead, along with everybody else, another collective walk, a collective search, ‘Where are the martyrs? Are there martyrs here?’ and to everyone, the Arabic Islamic expressions of condolences and goodwill, ‘Thanks be to God for your peace’, ‘God will give’, ‘God protect you’. We are following the scent of rotting corpses, the scent sometimes of already decayed flesh, or decaying animals – a donkey, a goat, dogs, a horse. One man we bring from Toam, Moayan Abu Hussain, 37, is brought to us by donkey cart, his badly decomposed and bloated body wrapped in two blankets. He fills the white zip up heavy plastic body bag.

The following day, again, in the morning, bodies are being brought out of the ground, from crushed homes, and from tunnels. At the top of Ezbet Abed-Rubbu, early in the morning, we ride to retrieve three bodies, three men, fighters, from the Sobuh family. Locals say they were trapped in their tunnel when collaborators told the Israeli army they were there and the tunnel was collapsed from both ends, starving them of oxygen and entombing them in a slow death. What does resistance mean when sea, air and land are controlled by the occupier? Going underground is literal. The walk now is becoming a crawl. F16s soar low above our heads, and continue to in the intervening days, a reminder of who dominates here. As local men dig up their dead, the stench overwhelming, spitting out death as they work, digging, the men finally surface, to be wrapped immediately in blankets, in front of an audience, the perpetual witnesses here to every crime, every death, every aftermath.

The crowd of perhaps one hundred, strives to pack into the ambulance along with their loved ones, crying, keening, clamoring at the white plastic bags. A boy of maybe 8, with a face etched older with trauma, shouts in a voice of a man, ‘Hasby Allah wa Naeme al Wakee!” – ‘God will judge them!’ But who will judge the Israeli occupation forces and their leaders, political and military, who have perpetrated war crime after war crime here in Gaza? It has to be us. We need to take up our consciences and humanity and translate judgment into action.

Yesterday was a fast-forward blur of destruction, mass pain, broken bodies, lifeless beings, terror on the streets, in homes, in mosques, in ambulances, in hospitals. Yesterday, people were being physically dismembered and today remain so, many still recovering on intensive care units in France, Egypt, Israel. The same states that stayed silent and complicit in this massacre, now take the broken into their bellies and return them patched up, back into a killing zone, a prison where the guards can shoot back in, plough back in and break them all over again at any given moment.

Torture and Relief

Under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, people were tortured underneath hospitals, burnt, fractured, torn up, and then taken upstairs to be repaired, in the full knowledge, that one they were whole again, skin growing back together again, the same awaited them, they would be taken back down, to be tortured again, the healing a mocking, a thwarted, negated process in itself because of the looming knowledge that it was only to be followed by a repetition of the breaking. This type of collective torture is being practiced here and the complicit are those who allow it to happen, and that do not create the conditions to stop this cycle of devastation. People keep being recycled through this trauma, generation after generation, through fresh weapons, new chemicals, new prisons and new ways of the international community maintaining silence, complicity and support for Israeli occupation.

Families are familiar now with the trawling delegations and caseworkers, notebooks in hand, I include myself in this walk, the walk of the hundreds of journalists, human rights workers, Red Crescent, Red Cross, United Nations workers, asking the same questions, noting the same details, preparing families for temporary shelters, giving out plastic sheeting for broken windows and replacement doors, blankets, emergency food packages, tents, cooking stoves, everyone expects them and expects us; the same donor agencies and charities, rolling up their sleaves to issue fresh appeals and re-build the same community centers, police stations, hospitals, that were rebuilt after the last annihilation; a rewound and fast-forwarded cycle of destruction and reconstruction, yesterday and tomorrow being blurred together into a circle of a collectively expected return to ruins and a slow rebuilding, again and again. It is no wonder that ‘human rights’ workers and the notes and testimonies frantically taken down with shock and condolence, time after time, year after year are met with replies of ‘Its all empty, write it down but what will it change? It’s all empty’. There is no post-traumatic stress disorder here because there is no real ‘post’ to the traumatic stress. Traumatic events keep on happening again and again, relief un-processed, grief unprocessed, as people watch and wait and brace themselves for the next attack.

Pieces

People are left with snippets, fragments, of their loved ones, literally and in memory. Nuggets of film shot on mobile phones pass through multiple hands, of the last of their loved ones, wrapped in white sheets, with hands and tears pouring over them, screaming and screaming, to be shown and shared with fresh tears in real time, again. Like the five from the Abu Sultan, Abbas and Soosa families, demolished by a tank shell shot into their home as they were drinking morning tea on their doorstep in Shaimaa, Beit Lahiya. Paramedics could not reach them for half an hour as they lay bleeding in pieces outside their home. Asma Abu Sultan, 22, watched her father, brother and uncle bleed to death, ‘It was 10.30am and we were drinking tea together in our home when we heard this gigantic bang, I saw my uncle at the door, injured, we went inside, I saw they had no chests, no hand, one was still breathing, I said ‘get up my brother’ I was telling him please, get up, please don’t die, he started to bear witness to God, then he said your father has died. He was draining of life, the blood draining from his face, but he was still alive, and then we couldn’t get an ambulance because they kept getting bombed, we kept asking everyone to help us, after half an hour he died from shrapnel wounds to the heart’.

Pieces. One afternoon, in the yesterdays of this war, we were called out to respond to a car bombing in Gaza City. We arrived on the scene, in bright light, to Palestine square, close to the Ahly al Arabi Hospital. Two injured had already been taken away. The car was a mangled sliced heap. Somehow there was no burning. We picked up a large, headless, man, still bleeding. Nobody wanted to touch him, they were terrified of him. Before we left the scene, someone put a small plastic ID card in my hand, Arabic script and his head, his face, bearded, in his late 30s, taken alive, he looked strong. I couldn’t let go of it, as the ambulance bounced along the broken streets, he behind us, handless, legs torn open, on a rickety stretcher, I held it in both hands, and couldn’t let go of it, keeping it in my hand wrapped round one end of the stretcher, pressed together, trying to keep it together somehow, close to his body.

A few nights ago, I sat by candlelight with my friend and his 9-year-old son Abed, in Beit Lahiya. I had bought him stickers depicting the human body, the brain, illustrated piece by piece, the human intestinal system, muscular network, the insides of the human eye, the heart, its valves and arteries. Abed fingered them, spread out over the kitchen table in the candlelight, these pieces, pieces Id seen outside bodies, spilled onto the streets of Gaza. Here they were in his hands, on the table in front of us, in one dimensional colour. He began to sing, ‘We’re steadfast, steadfast we remain, during this siege, and we remain steadfast’. He sang the words over and over again, fingering the stickers flickering in the candlelight until he sang himself into drowsiness. ‘Get up and go to sleep’, his father said and we kissed him and he left.

Everyone is trying to pick up the pieces of their invaded lives here, yesterday’s attacks and the severing of families from one another, will take years to reconnect, and rebuild, bring together again.

Yesterday can happen again. People expect a tomorrow when Israel will escalate its attacks and go further, casting more lead. Some believe this was a rehearsal for a deeper war, a litmus test that Israel won, because in 21 days of attacks, the international community kept shining a green light for Israel to continue to bomb and kill without restraint. The endgame being a pacified, acquiescent Gaza, with a weak Palestinian Authority, under the control of Israel or, if unrealized, an evicted Gaza, realized through provocations from Israel, extra judicial killings and surprise incursions, eventually responded to with rocket fire from the resistance and then a massive attack and push southward of the population into the Sinai and an Egyptian protectorate, new camps, and a new redrawing of a map already redrawn so many times through exile and empire.

Yesterday can happen again, a tomorrow that people here have been struggling for over sixty years, still dim, still distant, still carried but harder to imagine in the midst of the grief endured under siege here. The difference we can make is to seize today. The difference between yesterday and the horror, and dispossession and shock all here are still reeling from, and the tomorrow that could bring more of the same, reproducing, re-cycling, the same terrorization and cutting down of people as they pray, walk, sit, stand, heal, fight, the difference between yesterday and tomorrow is our today.

Today

I told many people, friends, taxi drivers, doctors, policemen, about the peoples’ strike on EDO-MBM Technologies in Brighton, UK this month. EDO manufactures the bomb release mechanism for F16s. Activists filmed themselves explaining to camera that they were decommissioning the facility in protest at the company’s complicity in the war on the Palestinian people, and specifically the killing of the people of Gaza. Over a quarter of a million pounds worth of damage was caused as activists threw computers out of windows and smashed equipment. They had taken their resistance out of the powerful but symbolic realm of the streets and into the offices of those responsible for arming Israel, physically imobilising their business. Three remain on remand in prison.

When I recounted this action to people, I saw an expression come over their faces that I hadn’t encountered before when talking about international solidarity. It was a kind of respect, a dawning smile, a sense of surprised pride, a tiny move towards a leveling between the blood sacrifices and living hell of so many here, and sacrifices made by people on comparative comfort zones on the other side of the world – for them. What would the parents of the children blown up by F16s here do if they could? What would we do if our children were being cut down by war planes and we knew where these weapons were being manufactured and we could confront these arms dealers and stop them arming those responsible for killing our children? Would we not stop them, would we not make the move from the streets to the factories, offices and facilities where these deaths, tomorrow’s deaths are in the making, and disarm them, save lives at the physical root of the production of the means of killing? Save lives there so that exhausted and besieged doctors here do not have to try to, under appalling conditions and against all odds; enforce international law outside ourselves, because noone else will do it for us. People here are expecting solidarity activism to go further, and needing it to go much much further.

A friend here, a well-respected intellectual and activist, run ragged through the war participating in interview after interview, writing piece after piece, pieces of resistance writing, expressed his sense of failure last night, that he didn’t do enough. That the resistance was dying for all of us, sacrificing for all of us, paying the ultimate price, and what was he doing? Sitting in his comfort zone, his writing a relief, for himself, to himself, making him feel better and stronger but where were his words going? What was the relationship between the words he was writing and speaking and stopping the death, stopping the invading occupation forces? Look at the completeness of Che Guevara, a doctor, a writer, a fighter, a complete man, and what was he, a writer, an academic, activist, but unable to pick up a gun or a body? Crucially, what was ‘enough’ and when have we done ‘enough’?

Our Lines and ‘Enough’

‘Enough’ is relative, and ‘enough’ is subjective and incredibly personal, but, a tentative attempt to unpick the crushing pressure of guilt – guilt on all our backs, all over the world, of an impotence and a sense of failure to influence, and a struggle build the means and the movements, to influence change – I think a tentative definition of enough could be, to transgress, to cross our own lines of possibility.

Our own lines of what we believe we can and cannot do have been authored by others and adopted by ourselves. Lines drawn by authorities, re-inscribed with violence and drawn thick with the threat of detention, imprisonment, the denial of everything that makes life worth living; contact with loved ones, freedom of movement, a natural stimulation of our senses through interaction with our natural environment, our sense of identity, all radically curtailed and undermined through incarceration. And death, the final line, the full stop imposed by absolute power onto the living bodies of those daring to resist, armed or unarmed, lives slammed shut by surveillance plane missiles zapped them into the ground. F16s exploding houses full of people. Ended. All ended. A line drawn under their lives. But where are our lines? ‘Enough’ will be an ever extending horizon, the edge always ahead of us, but we will never get close to where we need to be as a critical mass to effect change unless we cross our own lines of fear.

‘Enough’ is when you know you can do more, and you know you can take a step forward into a space of activism that you have never entered before and you do it. ‘Enough’ is when you know, you have pushed yourself, when you took risks and made sacrifices that you knew would be painful, knew could weigh heavy, could change your life forever, but you did it. When you knew the potential consequences of your actions but you confronted your fears and took the step forward, stepping over your own line. From stepping out into the streets for the first time to demonstrate, to picking up a chair and barricading yourself into your university, to telling the world you’re going to decommission an arms factory or war plane or settlement produce facility and doing it, we need to cross our own lines of fear, hesitation, and apprehension. We can push our movements forward, person by person, group by group, party by party, network by network, by crossing our lines and making sacrifices, small compared to the intensive blood letting, loss and devastation here.

Direct action, strike action, popular occupations, tactics used by Palestinians in the first intifada, and smashed by Israeli counter-tactics of siege, intensified occupation and massive military onslaught, all legitimized by our international governments. The counter-onslaught shows no signs of abatement.

We need to redraw our own battle lines and go further, to do the ‘enough’ we want to do and be the ‘enough’ we want to be. Our consciences and history demands this. It’s not enough and it will be too late for a new history, authored by others, to judge us, we have to make our own. It is not God that will judge us, it will be our brothers and sisters here in Palestine and in our international community, the widows, the orphans, the childless parents, the living left behind after the dead.

We can’t afford yesterday to repeat itself. We cannot wait until tomorrow happens to us. Between yesterday and tomorrow is today and we need to build our intifada today. Our intifada of solidarity needs to grow beyond demonstrations, and to put Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) politics into practice through direct action. The BDS campaign was initiated and called for by over 135 Palestinian grassroots organizations in 2005, a call that needs to be amplified and spread internationally, targeting the corporations and institutions enabling Israel to keep violating international law and destroying peoples lives. Through direct action, popular disarmament of Israel, and a real grassroots democracy movement, we can collectively come into our ‘enough’. We can affect that which hasn’t happened yet, we can change what happens tomorrow. This is our intifada, this is our today.

– Ewa Jasiewicz is an experienced journalist, community and union organizer, and solidarity worker. She is currently Gaza Project Co-coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement (www.FreeGaza.org).

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