I Could Not Save a Single Child in Gaza, Revisited

This article was originally written in 2009, but has been revised to encompass Israel’s 2024 assault on Gaza.

But the 2024 devastation of Gaza is almost complete, unlike that caused by Israel’s attacks in 2009. The numbers killed and wounded – nearly 30,000 by the third week in February 2024, with over 7000 buried under rubble, is nearly 1500 times greater than those – 1387, including 320 children – caused by the war Israel dubbed “Cast Lead.”

When I was a child my mother used to cry, “I couldn’t save a single Jewish child.”

Now I am my mother: I cannot save a single child in Gaza.

Not the ones wrapped in white cocoons lying row on row, surrounded by throngs of grieving men and women. I cannot comfort the fathers who jump up and down in agony, screaming as their children lie dead before them on the ground.

I cannot comfort the mother whose eyes, ravaged and blanked by terror, stare beyond me from the photograph, nor save the little one with bloodied, bruised face who stands beside her, nor the older brother, the only two who survived of six.

I cannot save the orphans for whom there is now an acronym: WCNSF – Wounded Child No Surviving Family. I cannot tell them, “Come, we have a big, comfortable home with beds for you, and a bath, and plenty of food. We will take you and shelter you.” I cannot welcome them to a house full of calm, of sunlight, with the warmth of potted plants, the refrigerator full of food, the showers waiting to receive them, the warm water streaming down to comfort their bruised and tired bodies.

I cannot save a single Gaza child.

Not the little boy, maybe 6 years old, burns scarring his face, his eyes blank with shock, nor the little girl who stands in the barren sand near Rafah, holding a Raggedy Ann doll up for the camera. I cannot comfort the little girl weeping before a video camera who says her father is in paradise, that she spends her days caring for her brother, that they search and search for bread. I cannot take her in my arms, dance with her in a sunny playground safe from starvation and disease, reassure her that now she is safe. I cannot help the dazed and sorrowing little boy trying to scoop a handful of flour from a bag, one of the few that got through the soldiers’ blockade of aid. I cannot save the little girl, 2, maybe 3, bloodied bandages covering her bloodied skull and face leaving me her bruised lips and part of one dull and hopeless eye, her helpless bigger sister, surely no more than 4, beside her.

I cannot take them, bring them back to normal life, hug them and sing to them, hold them up against my piano and ask them to listen to the strings as I run my fingers over them, watch while their faces light up with pleasure as they spot my cats, hold them, hold them, and hold them….

I could not save the little girl, maybe 5, who fifteen years ago said that the soldier stood and looked at her, then shot her hand and then, as she turned to run to her mother, her back: “One bullet went out my back and through my stomach.” Nor can I now help the doctors whose medicine and anesthesia, bandages and medical instruments have been blocked by Israel. I cannot comfort the one who broke down as he spoke of having to amputate all four limbs of a four-year-old child, nor can I restore to the thousands of children amputees the limbs they have lost together with their futures.

I cannot bring back to life the young man sent by the IDF in white COVID coveralls and a mocking yellow crown on his head to tell patients and staff in Nasser Hospital to flee and, when he returned outside, was executed by the soldiers who sent him in.

Will doctors in the few remaining remnants of hospitals, the others destroyed completely,  the partial hospitals where the floors are full of the wounded and stranded, the blood staining the floors around them — will the doctors working quickly, as expertly as they know within the chaos of the terrified families pouring in from the terrified streets of Gaza, of Khan Younis, of Rafah, will the doctors working as quickly as they know, be able to save any of the children?

I cannot restore to life the newborns suffocated when their respirators ceased giving oxygen, as Israel cut off Gaza’s electricity; I cannot save the babies born within the ground-shaking, ear-splitting terror of two-thousand-pound bombs falling from F16s, born into a life from hell where the smoke of exploding shells and bombs gags children, women, men fleeing before the behemoth crushing these “two-legged cockroaches,” these Palestinians of whom Golda Meir said, “There are no Palestinians,” and whom Hebron settlers cursed in savage scrawled grafitti: ARABS TO THE GAS CHAMBERS! Concerning whom Rabbi Yaacov Perrin said in 1994, “One Arab is not worth a million Jewish fingernails.” Concerning whom Israel’s Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, drop the atom bomb on them. Concerning whom Defense Minister Yoav Gallant says, “We will wipe them off the face of the earth.”

I cannot lift the dark-faced, dark-haired teenage girl from the stretcher, rock her in my arms and say, “Darling, Shhh, it will be all right,” because it could never be alright.

It will not be alright.

It will not be alright.

It will not be alright. I am my mother, and it is 1942 all over again, and this is the Warsaw Ghetto. When does “collateral damage” become a massacre? When does a massacre become a genocide? The Shoa Matan Vilnai wanted fifteen years ago and Yoav Gallant wants now has come to pass.

I cannot save a single child in Gaza. I am my mother, and we are weeping together.

Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.