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The intensity of the bombings on Saturday, which left over 230 people dead and 800 wounded, many seriously, was what struck one witness, R., who claimed never to have heard so many explosions so close together and for such an uninterrupted period of time inside the Gaza Strip. One after another, the explosions sounded, most of them near heavily populated areas; and in one case only 30 meters away from his daughter’s elementary school.
The bombings were timed to cause the maximum number of “enemy” casualties. They occurred at approximately 11:20am on a bustling Saturday morning, just as schools were changing shifts and many children were either leaving for home or coming to afternoon classes; when offices were filled with their employees, and streets busy with the late morning crowds out getting lunch or on quick errands of one sort or another. The day before, Israel had opened some of the crossings into Gaza to let in another trickle of humanitarian aid. ‘See how generous we are to our enemy!’ they exclaim with straight faces to the international media. Each time Gaza reaches the brink of starvation and ruin, they let in just enough food and supplies to silence potential critics. Then the next round begins. It is hardly surprising. After all, this policy was outlined publicly by Dov Weisglass not so long ago when he promised that Israel would put Gaza on a punishing “starvation diet” until it saw reason and evicted its democratically elected government. Many people, including members of the Hamas government, believed that reopening the crossings to international aid signaled another brief lull in military activity, as it usually had, while the IDF General staff prepared its next offensive. In this way were the people and government of Gaza unprepared for the next day’s slaughter
The deliberate ploy to strike at midday when the collective population of Gaza had let down its guard for a few short hours had its intended effect. One of the deadliest massacres in the history of Israel’s occupation of Palestine followed as F-16 fighter jets, helicopter gun ships, tanks, armored vehicles and pilot-less drones closed in on the Gaza Strip. By Monday morning over 300 people were dead and 1000 injured. Hospitals were overflowing with the seriously wounded; the morgues with the dead for whom they had insufficient refrigeration. Insufficient medical personnel, equipment, supplies and services raised the likelihood of many more dying in their overused beds waiting for the help and attention they would never get. The taxi driver R. hailed to get him to his daughter’s school as quickly as possible after those first strikes had begun initially refused, staring in shock as columns of smoke rose from brand new layers of debris.
The sound of F-16s flying overhead dropping bombs is not a sound one ever forgets. In other words, 750,000 children –or half the population of Gaza—have it ingrained in their memories for the rest of their lives. Another equally unacceptable percentage of this group will have had images burned into their minds’ eyes of the devastation and death wrought by these sounds as well, a factor that partially explains why more than 50 per cent of Gaza’s three-quarters of a million children suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: it isn’t easy to see piles of the dead or their blown apart body parts without some kind of reaction. Violent, action-packed Hollywood war and terror films may provide us with virtual reality, but when the severed jaw of a woman is lying at your feet only a few inches away from her bloody and disfigured head, or when the bare leg of a man is lying by itself in a room, the rest of the body blown outside the house, the illusory atmosphere of the virtual world is quickly replaced by the raw, heavy emotions that accompany real world sequences. This is when paralyzing fright grips you so firmly that your legs forget how to move; how to flee the gruesome nightmare scenarios. You can’t run away.
In the course of a few short hours American-made, Israeli-flown fighter jets had successfully blotted out the lives of more than 230 people and by the end of the weekend over 300, the rough equivalence of two fully packed IMAX theaters. At least 70 of the victims were civilians, a number of them young children. A mother in Rafah bent over the corpses of her three dead children screaming, unable to stop, horrified eye witness T., who wrote up the day’s events as if the formal documentation of an overpowering human event could serve as a form of catharsis.
Most of the dead were young men training to become police officers, or newly on the job, because it is one of the only ways left to acquire paid work today in the Gaza Strip. With the siege of Gaza and the subsequent withering of its civil society and infrastructure, its industries, shops and restaurants, banks and social services, came the skyrocketing unemployment figures and the controlled collapse of an economy kept ‘alive’ by the slow drip of international humanitarian aid allowed in on that generous whim of the occupation officer: perhaps one more time so that the wasting body of Gaza can take in another breath. Just the right place to build a Dubai on the Mediterranean, an American journalist once put it, just as the ‘disengagement’ phase of the siege kicked in.
That same journalist and his buddies in the overseas Western press offices will have been the first to confirm for you in today’s ‘respectable’ news Israel’s interpretation of the events, mentioning as if in a footnote to the weekend’s activities, Israel’s recently announced Public Relations’ push intended to make any major military offensive into Gaza palatable to the outside world by sucking the humanity out of the 230+ bodies before they were even dead: the strikes on Gaza were taken as necessary ‘security measures’ after repeated attempts to maintain a ‘ceasefire’ had failed when ‘Hamas operatives’ fired rockets into ‘civilian areas’ in Israel. This myth will be left unchallenged because there is too much power behind it to jeopardize whole careers; and because it is much easier to accept the fact that your government just backed the pre-meditated murder of over 200 terrorists –and a few wannabes—than it is to realize that the overwhelming number of dead were completely innocent; that they had died for wanting a job, a paycheck and a sliver of dignity.
“HAMAS”… the word that, in this case, renders any action taken by the other side, no matter how barbaric or sadistic, legitimate. Couple any noun with the preceding adjective “Hamas” and it will be immediately quarantined as if tainted by some infectious bacteria. This is how to dehumanize a million and a half people overnight; how to render them different from us and dangerous to us. While it is true that a poll showing what the average American knows about Hamas might be cause for concern; a poll showing what the average elite-educated American knows about Hamas would reveal immediately how effective voluntary indoctrination in democratic societies has become and why those with the power to stop crimes against humanity overnight refuse to do so even after they understand that what they’re doing is wrong.
From the 7th floor of his high-rise apartment building looking out over Gaza City on Saturday night, S. describes the view as “a sea of blackness”. The familiar twinkling of lights that defines the contours of a city after dark is missing, as if the place itself had been erased from the earth. Without electricity, without cooking gas or automobile fuel; without heat to warm the winter-chilled flats across this stretch of land, or generators to back up the hospitals and clinics; without supplies for schools and universities, for personal and collective health and hygiene, or for repairing any part of this broken down hovel of a strip; without water to drink or cook with or bathe in, without reading lamps and, lately, without the candles or other substitutes used for light, people are making haste to adjust yet again to the latest set of conditions imposed upon them as the US-backed siege of Gaza closes in on another dying December day.
Their resilience is inspirational but painful. Tomorrow S. will head down to Rafah, to the border city, where kerosene is still available albeit for quadruple the normal price –or more: A system of nearly 800 smuggling tunnels running from Rafah, Gaza to Rafah, Egypt, controlled by a few savvy black-marketeer families and up to now tacitly supported by Israel, appears to be nearing collapse as well as everything else. Rumors of an Israeli Air Force strike that would doom the last remaining big business venture in the Strip have helped shut them down, even the ones licensed by the Hamas government, which got its share of goods for the best prices as the once-illegal smuggling industry turned for a brief period of time into Gaza’s only reliable all-purpose supply-line. On Sunday the rumors caved in on the tunnels as bulldozers and bomber jets blasted them flat. Now the supply line has been cut, the siege persists, the US condemns Hamas, refusing to ask for Israeli restraint. In Rafah, the demise of the tunnels – like the recently re-fortified border closure on the Egyptian side of the Crossing—has an ominous finality about it that should give us pause before we turn our faces away.
Major General Yoav Galant of the Israeli Southern Command declared Saturday that an attack on the Hamas regime must ‘send Gaza decades into the past’ militarily and must cause the “maximum number of enemy casualties” (Haaretz, 12/28/08; by Uri Blau, By “enemy” he means “Palestinian” as the evidence overwhelmingly shows; and if Galant is to be taken seriously according to his own perceptions of the “enemy” and of the time frame within which an operation of this sort is possible, we have reached a milestone in the history of the Palestinian National Movement and in the life of Gaza that bodes ill for the dream of Palestine while sharpening the regional fault lines that have crystallized beneath the Rafah sands.
JENNIFER LOEWENSTEIN is Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org