We die a hundred times a day, whilst sitting in the darkness.
The Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Hamas, won a majority of the mandate in the parliamentary election in January 2006. Hamas then formed a government itself since other political groups, especially the Fatah party, who had governed the Palestinian Authority since it was founded in May 1994, refused to work with Hamas.
Soon afterwards, both Israel’s and the USA’s governments and most Western and Arab countries boycotted the Hamas-led government and laid down conditions for resuming contact and support. The conditions were that Hamas in the first place must recognize the state of Israel, secondly, recognize earlier agreements between PLO and Israel, and thirdly it must condemn violence. Hamas rejected these conditions which led to the UN also boycotting the Hamas government.
In June 2007 Hamas took power with violence over the whole of the Gaza Strip after a bloody confrontation with the Palestine National Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, whose jurisdiction was thereafter limited to the West Bank. In June 2007 the Israeli government began a political and economic blockade which prevented thousands of goods from being transported into the Gaza Strip and limited the possibilities of transporting export articles out of Gaza.
When the Gaza Strip came completely under the control of Hamas it was declared to be enemy territory by the Israeli government, since Israel and most Western countries regarded and still regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation. In order to avoid the Israeli blockade Hamas has dug hundreds of tunnels under the border between Gaza and Sinai and these tunnels have been used for smuggling goods, people and weapons. The tunnels were the main source of income for the Hamas movement and government. Despite the fact that Israel’s blockade is against international law and regarded by the Red Cross as illegal, and the fact that it is a kind of collective punishment of the whole of the population in the Gaza Strip (1.6 million) the Israeli government continues to maintain the blockade, with occasional relaxation on the number and quantity of goods which can go in and out of Gaza.
Israel’s army has waged two wars against Hamas – the first from 27 December 2008 until 17 January 2009, and the other from 14 to 22 November 2012.
The declared goals of these two wars were to destroy the tunnels under the border between Gaza and Egypt used for smuggling weapons, and the tunnel under the border between Gaza and Israel suspected by Israel of being used by Hamas and other military groups in Gaza for either getting into Israel or taking out kidnapped Israeli soldiers.
The two wars, followed by two truce agreements between Israel and Hamas after Egyptian mediation, succeeded neither in destroying the tunnels nor stopping the firing of home-made missiles from Gaza to towns in southern Israel.
On 8 July 2014, after firing and missiles from both sides, the Israeli army launched ”Protective Edge”, a full-scale military operation against Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza strip, an operation that is still going on. The Israeli armed forces dropped an estimated 10,000 tons of explosives during the first 25 days of the new war. According to international, reliable reports from the International Red Cross, the UN relief organisation for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), and the UN, Israel’s present escalation has overstepped the limits for and broken the rules of international law by targetting civilians, hospitals, mosques, churches, UN offices, UN vehicles and UN schools, as well as many other places full of civilians and innocent people, among others children, women and the elderly who have not had anything to do with the resistance movement or any militant groupings.
Up to the present this Israeli escalation, where all types of weapons from the air, sea, and land have been used, has resulted in over 1,400 deaths of which over 1,000 are innocent and civilian, and 300 under nine years old. In addition 7,000 wounded, 7,000 homes completely destroyed and 30,000 partly destroyed. Three schools and five hospitals were direct targets. Grenade firing led to many children, women and other innocent people being killed, since they had been forced to live in UNRWA schools after their homes had been destroyed.
The context for the present escalation differs considerably from the context of the two earlier wars. Both Hamas and Israel have their own reasons for escalating the conflict.
On the part of Hamas, the organisation has found itself in a very deep political and economic crisis since 3 July 2013, when Egyptian president Muhammed Mursi was deposed. Mursi was regarded as one of Hamas’ foremost allies, while the new regime in Cairo started a campaign against Hamas and destroyed all the tunnels under the Gaza-Sinai border. This meant that Hamas lost its most important economic resources. During the last 5 months Hamas has not been able to pay its 50,000 employees their wages. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority signed a reconciliation agreement on 23 April, which meant that Hamas gave up its rule over the Gaza strip to the coalition government which was formed in accordance with the agreement. Hamas hoped that this would help them out of the economic crisis and reinstall relations with the new Cairo regime, which would lead to the reopening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. The Rafah crossing is the only way out for members of Hamas.
On the part of Israel the situation is that the Israeli government immediately rejected the reconciliation treaty between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and clearly declared that they did not intend to have anything to do with the coalition government in Palestine. Despite the truce agreement between Israel and Hamas signed, in December 2012 after mediation by President Mursi, and despite the coalition government formed after the reconciliation treaty, the home-made missiles have continued to be sent from Gaza to Israel. Israel claims that Hamas is still ruling in Gaza. Therefore Israel justifies its present attack on Gaza with its goal of destroying all the tunnels and Hamas’ missile capacity. The Israeli army says that this is included in Israel’s right to defend itself.
But both Israel and Hamas have other hidden motives. Israel has taken into account that Hamas is in a deep economic crisis and has very limited means of rebuilding its military capacity since the tunnels under the Gaza-Sinai border have been destroyed. Also Israel’s intention is to annihilate the reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. This means that the split between these two will remain, which serves Israel’s goals and interests.
On the other hand, Hamas insists that it was Israel who started the escalation, but that they calaculated with Hamas being forced to respond to the escalation on account of their frustation over the prospects of the coalition government. They have neither paid the wages of the civil servants nor opened the Rafah crossing to Egypt. Under these unfavourable circumstances Hamas has been forced to utilize its chief competence – namely, to destabilize the situation. This has a three-fold purpose: to prove that Hamas is still a central figure in the region, to renew its earlier agreement on a truce with Egypt’s new president, Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi, and to increase Hamas’ popularity in Palestine and in Europe by showing that they are still the resistance movement.
The present escalation has had disastrous effects for the 1.6 million people in Gaza. In addition to all the killed and wounded and all those whose homes have been destroyed , 400,000 people have abandoned their homes because of the destruction or because they are near the border regions. Gaza’s only electric power station doesn’t function any more, meaning that Gaza has been completely blacked out the last 8 days. Also not functioning are water pumps and sewage purifying systems as a result of lack of fuel and electricity.
People have been forced to stay inside their homes for 25 days. There are no safe places in the Gaza strip and it is very dangerous to go outside. Israel’s airforce shoots anyone who leaves home after 9 pm. People no longer have any cash and can’t go to the bank because they will be shot at or since the banks don’t function. Vegetables and other basic foods have become 3 to 4 times more expenseive on account of shortage. Even more tragic is when the Israeli army with the help of a little warning bomb warn a Palestinian family that their block will be destroyed by a very big bomb and they only have 50-100 seconds to leave their home with all their documents, papers, and family members. One problem is that there are those who live on the 5th or 6th floor and since there is no electricity they can’t use the lift to go down and escape from the building. Instead they have to run down the stairs but don’t get down in time. The truth is that 70 Palestinian families have so far been found under the debris of their home when they have tried to escape.
We die hundreds of times a day while we sit at home in the dark, listening to the noise from the bombs and grenades when we weren’t the target. When the firing becomes more aggressive at night, time passes very slowly. We are going mad, they shoot at everything from the sea, land and air at the same time. After every missile and grenade you feel your head and your body to check that you are still alive. You don’t know who was the target and who will be the next. It’s terrible to stand there powerless in front of your family. You are NOTHING. You can’t do a thing. All your thoughts and energy are steered towards who will die first, yourself, your son, your wife and then realize it would be best if you all die together, because you love them and don’t want them to suffer when you are gone and you yourself don’t want to live when they are gone.
For a few moments you try to be practical when you discuss with your wife and son.”OK, now we have to be realistic, we must be practical. I have a little cash in my office. Listen, this is a real war. No one is immune and there are no safe places. Please be strong until we have gone through this day as a whole family or with fewer of us.
I am 52, married and have two wonderful sons, Salam, who is 22, and Nour, 16, and I have spent 30 years of my life working for peace and tolerance in the community and region. I think I have the right to ask this big question: three wars in seven years have not solved anything. When can they for once try the other alternative?
Omar Shaban is an Economist and founder of the thinktank, Pal-Think for Strategic Studies.