Current Affairs

Hani al-Shaer for Safa Press Agency

Dreams and Despair in Gaza

After the 11-day assault by Israeli forces ended in an uneasy truce, a Gazan writer reflects on the horror of what happened, and what may continue to happen if nothing changes.

Over a month has passed since a ceasefire put an end to the recent Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip. An onslaught which, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, took the lives of 254 Palestinians—including 66 children, 39 women, and 17 elderly—and wounded 1,948. 

A month has passed since the end of an onslaught that did not differentiate between young and old, men and women, residential apartments and media centers. Children lost their fathers, women lost their husbands, and parents lost their kids. Many thousands will live with the pain for the rest of their lives, except perhaps the nine Gazan families which were wiped from the civil registry completely and no longer exist in this world. The Israeli government left no one behind to mourn them.

Yes, a month has passed. The Gaza we knew before the most recent act of Israeli aggression is not the same Gaza now. Most apartments, schools, and health centers remain in the same rubble in which they fell. So too the smiles that used to be on the faces of the Gazans remain ruined by so much pain and anguish. When you walk in the streets of Gaza, you smell death everywhere. When you meet someone you know, you see how much their features have changed, and if you look a little longer, you might think that they have grown years in a glance. Gazans are tired of being strong. The scenes of Israeli bombings are still eating them alive. Some of my fellow Gazans have told me that they wish what they went through was just a nightmare, but it was not, nor did it last for only one night. It was a reality lived for 11 days. Gaza knows that what is lost will never come back, that all that remains are just memories. 

For those of us that survived, especially those now homeless and living in the ruins, the toughest moments are the attempts to return to normal life. Like all human beings, Gazans should have time to mourn, to feel their sadness in all its meanings, but there is no time for that—there is no time to grieve in Gaza. However, if you must grieve for Gaza, grieve in the night, and in the morning hide all your sorrows in your heart and keep all your tears in your eyes, and rise to live, and to resist. Life, one way or another, and for some reason, must continue. 

The continuation of life is in itself a kind of resistance to the occupation that is doing its best to eliminate the most densely populated territory in the world—a​ 140 square mile strip that is home to more than two million people, 70 percent of whom were already refugees before the latest Israeli bombardment. Though a month has passed, it seems as if it all happened just yesterday. No one forgets and no one ever will. Neither the old nor the children who will hold the horrible memories as long as they live, as long as they have their cause in their heart and defend their land, proving to the whole world that they do exist as human beings, and defying the Israeli founder David Ben-Gurion who, when visiting Palestine in 1906, “remarked only on the buildings, ruins, and scenery,” and “gave no thought to the Palestinian Arabs, their problems, their social conditions, or their cultural life.”

A Lost Childhood

Amira al-Shaer, a 12-year-old child living in Rafah city in the southern Gaza Strip, is proof of this. Over a meal in a restaurant that escaped Israeli bombs, she recalls what she went through. “From the moment the aggression started on May 10, my mama told us that we would all sleep in one place, so that if we died, we died together. Mama, papa, my five sisters, one brother, and I slept in one room. Whenever we heard the rockets, my parents hugged us, telling us that everything would be all right and that it would end soon. They said to remember that when we die, we’ll go to paradise where there is no bombing or fear at all.”

Believing that the world needs to hear her story, Amira continued, “We fell asleep early in the morning because the Israeli warplanes intensified the bombings during the nights and it was hard to sleep. But on the night in which our home was bombed, my siblings and I fell asleep early. I did not know what time it was when I woke up scared, hearing my father screaming loudly on the phone, but in a steady voice, ‘Why are you doing this? All the homes you are targeting are civilian! We will not leave!’ I knew that it was an Israeli officer on the telephone telling my father that we only had 10 minutes to leave. Leaving your home for criminals is the silliest thing one can hear.” 

The name Amira means “princess”; however, the kingdom this little princess inherited is a besieged strip of land, subject to Israeli incursions and escalations at any time. Amira felt that she and her family were lucky enough to be informed they had 10 minutes to leave, as the Israeli Occupation Forces are inconsistent both about informing families they are being targeted as well as how much time they have, counter to the mainstream defense that they always give courteous, 10-minute warnings. Ten minutes and your home is gone. Ten minutes and you will never make another memory there. 

“I was born here,” said Amira. “My mind could not accept the idea that everything would be rubble in a few minutes. First my father said that we would not leave, but then he thought about us—about his children, that they deserved to live. I saw mama waking my siblings up. Papa ran trying to take what he could carry, and all he managed were small pieces of clothing. Mama shouted at me to help her wake my siblings. It was a shout to save our lives.”

In many ways, Amira seems older than she is. She’s aware of this, adding, “Children my age are supposed to play with their toys, but I am facing all of this because I am a Palestinian. I am just 12, but I am aware of what is happening and why the occupation is doing this.”

Nevertheless, the Israeli occupation cannot frustrate the determination of Gazan children. Amira’s struggle to save her doll is unforgettable. “I did not know how many minutes were left when I remembered Sofi, my little doll in another room. Sofi meant a lot to me, because she was a birthday gift from my dad. I ran to take her and, just a few meters away, my papa grabbed me and ran in the opposite direction. We were out. A strong sound. A shock. Only the black smoke separated us and our ‘seconds-ago’ home. We survived. However, I wished I could have stopped the timer so I could at least save my Sofi.”

Resistance by Art

Even as they mourn their losses, most Gazans I know still dream of a better reality and a prosperous future. Yet, the future is vague in their eyes, and stands in the face of their hopes. They have to struggle to stay alive. But while they struggle, they create creativity from the suffering itself.

The Gazan plastic artist Saja Mousa, also from the city of Rafah, is searching amid the rubble of her partially damaged house for the pieces that she can turn into paintings, which she uses as a way to express her feelings of pain and sadness caused by the onslaught.

“During the aggression,” Mousa told me, “the home of our neighbors was bombed and completely damaged. The bombing affected our home, causing massive destruction. After the aggression ended, a mix of feelings of anger and sadness occupied me, but at the same time, I felt I had to do something. I did not want my home to be a number counted among those destroyed. The idea of ​​painting on the pieces of the rubble popped into my mind. So, with my two-year-old son, I started collecting pieces of different shapes and sizes, from the broken glass, shrapnel, asbestos, and stones, and began painting everything that crossed my mind.” The 26-year-old Mousa then launched her art gallery inside her destroyed room.

Believing that she has a duty toward her “just cause,” she added, “Each one of us has their own way of resistance. The fighters resist by weapon, the writers resist by pen, and we, artists, resist by painting. We have in each painting a different message to show to the world. Other artists can show how life is beautiful and how they enjoy their days, but Palestinian artists have to paint how barbaric the occupation is. It is a duty.”

From the midst of the rubble of her home, Mousa hopes that the aggression will not return and that security, stability, and peace will prevail. “I wish that Palestinian people would enjoy security and safety on their land and that what had been destroyed by the occupation, in every street and neighborhood, would be reconstructed, to have our beautiful Gaza again.”

photo courtesy Saja Mousa

Will Anything Change?

Just a few weeks after the ceasefire announcement, a new Israeli government was formed, and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was finally forced out of office after 12 years. However his successor, Naftali Bennett, is a right-wing nationalist who, according to witnesses, once said during a cabinet meeting, “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life—and there is no problem with that.” Hours after Bennett assumed the reins of state, he approved an Israeli settlers’ flag march through Jerusalem’s Old City, allowing them to hurl offensive slogans towards Palestinians, including “Death to the Arabs,” “The second Nakba is coming soon,” and “Palestine is dead.” Moreover, the new government okayed breaking the ceasefire and launched an airstrike on the strip, proving that Bennett will likely continue Netanyahu’s journey in ‘removing’ what Netanyahu once implied was an  “existential threat to Israel.” No matter what the government is, it seems that nothing will change.

A future that’s occupation-free and siege-free under the homeland sky: a simple wish for Gazans. But it is likely that this dream will never come true. Recently, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres left the Israeli occupation off the blacklist of parties violating the rights of children, ‘urging Israel to review and strengthen measures to prevent any excessive use of force and ensure that force is used only when necessary.’ Such announcements by high-level officials give the occupation the green light to continue its crimes, massacres, and genocides against the Palestinian people, and guarantee impunity for more killing. 

Is this a world that cares about Palestinian children, Palestinian artists, and their dreams?

Meanwhile, as tensions might boil over at any time, attempts have been made to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and deliver humanitarian assistance to the besieged strip. The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, has stated that the fuel deliveries for the Gaza power plant will resume under the UN framework, adding that “[the] UN will continue to work with all concerned parties and partners to solidify a ceasefire and help the people of Gaza.” However, Mr. Wennesland must know that what Gazans strongly need is not a temporary ceasefire and assistance. What they need is to live in dignity with their internationally guaranteed rights, and to live in lasting peace in their homeland, where they can live out their dreams without being terrified of being murdered or driven out of their homes by Israeli bombs. 

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