I fear for Gaza’s children

Childhood in Gaza is a very real nightmare involving poisoned water, hunger, fear and endless air attacks.

Palestine children Gaza
A Palestinian child crawls as other children look out of their family house in Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City September 25, 2019 [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

In the last few days, as Israel intensified its military operation on Gaza, all I could think of was my one-year-old niece Ela’a, who is living with other members of my family in a refugee camp there. 

Although she is just a toddler, she has already learned to hurry and hide behind a chair or under a table whenever she hears an explosion caused by an Israeli air raid. 

She, like other children in Gaza, starts her childhood at a time and in a place where Israel regularly commits war crimes with brazen impunity.

At the end of this last military assault on Gaza, the Israeli government declared triumphantly that it had carried out “surgical strikes” in Gaza and had killed “terrorists”. Once again, its leadership declared that the Zionist state did so because it has the “right to defend itself” and the world nodded.

But let us take a closer look at Israel’s actions.

The so-called “target killing” of Islamic Jihad Commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata and his wife, Asmaa, was followed by the bombardment of several other areas around the Gaza Strip. In other words, the “assassination” of Abu al-Ata and Asmaa, as we call it in Palestine, was just the beginning. As of Friday morning, Israel’s “surgical strikes” have killed a total of 34 Palestinians, almost half of them civilians, including eight children and three women.

Surely there is nothing “surgical” about bombings that kill not only accused militants – without a judge, jury and trial – but also their wives, children and various bystanders. A surgeon does not kill en masse, a war criminal does.

And yet, the so-called “international community” refused once again to condemn what effectively was a series of extrajudicial killings and the reckless use of deadly bombs in densely populated civilian areas. 

Avi Berkowitz, Deputy Assistant to US President Donald Trump and the latest leading member of his so-called “Middle East Peace Team” tweeted: “The US fully supports our partner & ally Israel in their fight against terrorism and the terrorist group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

The European Union, meanwhile, focused its outrageon the rockets that were fired from the Gaza Strip on Israel in response to Abu al-Ata’s assassination and effectively remained silent on the killing of Palestinian civilians.

“This morning, Israel conducted an operation inside Gaza targeting a senior leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In response, rockets were fired from Gaza on southern and central Israel,” a statement from the EU foreign service said. “The firing of rockets on civilian populations is totally unacceptable and must immediately stop.”

I wish I could say I found these reactions shocking. But we, the people of Gaza, are used to the world’s silence in the face of Israel’s brutal assaults on us. For the past 20 years, even the most sympathetic statements coming from Europe only expressed worry about so-called “escalations” and completely ignored the ongoing collective punishment, repression and silencing of the Palestinians. And the “post-colonial” governments across the world proved that they learned nothing from their own history by remaining silent about the injustices Palestinians are facing at the hands of the Israeli settler colony.  

I grew up in Gaza’s Jabalia Refugee Camp. I was a stateless refugee child, living with my parents, my four uncles, their wives and children, and grandparents in a total of five rooms. 

I lived through the first intifada. I lived through the constant fear of soldiers raiding our home and arresting my father and uncles because of their political activities. I lived through a shooting near my kindergarten. I lived through my primary school being shot at. I lived through my prep school being bombarded with illegal white phosphorus munitions. Then I experienced the brutality of Israel’s response to the second intifada. As I grew into a teenager and then an adult, I lived through countless other assaults, invasions and massacres. 

Then I became a journalist, humanitarian aid worker and human rights defender. 

I did so because I wanted to help my people and document Israel’s horrific war crimes for the world to see. In January 2014, as I was organising protests close to the buffer zone in the east of Gaza with other youth groups, I was shot in the leg with a live bullet. At the time of the attack we were only peacefully planting lemon and olive trees. I always pushed for peaceful popular resistance in Gaza. Unfortunately, Israel rarely allows the situation to remain “peaceful” on the strip, as we have been witnessing on a weekly basis since the start of the Great March of Return in March 2018.

I was lucky to survive and get an opportunity to leave Gaza in the following months. I was traumatised because of what I happened to me, but I did not have the time to focus on how I felt. With the start of Operation Protective Edge, my people, my family came under attack once again. I had to report, tell stories and campaign while spending every second of every day worrying about my family. I embarked on a speaking tour across Europe, telling people of the plight of Gazans to the best of my ability. Soon I started an MPhil (Master of Philosophy) in peace studies and conflict transformation in Norway. I am now settled in Berlin.

I may now be safe in Europe, but thousands of children including my niece Ela’a, are trying to survive the same abominable conditions I once did back home in Gaza. I fear that Ela’a is going to have a miserable childhood like the one I had, if not worse. If things do not change, and change fast, she is going to spend most of her childhood hiding from Israeli bombs behind chairs and under tables. And even during the times of “peace” she will have to endure horrendous conditions in a place characterised as “uninhabitable” by the United Nations.

The water in Gaza by now is undrinkable. Contaminated and scarce, owing to Israel’s brutal siege and bombing of infrastructure, it is causing death and disease.

Gazans also get just six to eight hours of electricity most days, sometimes not getting any for a full 24 hours. The food insecurity is also high in the Gaza Strip. Farmers are not allowed to grow food on lands in or adjacent to the so-called “buffer zone” along the fence that the Israelis have established for “security” reasons. Approximately 30 percent of Gaza’s agricultural land cannot be worked without severe personal risk, causing the loss of livelihood according to PCHR. Fishermen are also unable to throw their nets freely, as the Israeli sea blockade does not allow them to fully use Gaza’s territorial waters. My family’s house in Gaza is 1.5km away from the sea and we regularly hear Israeli gunships shooting at Palestinian fishermen. 

Debris dominates the landscape in Gaza. The siege the Israeli siege prevents construction materials from entering the strip, so after every Israeli assault, damaged and destroyed buildings do not get rebuild.

The blockade not only prevents goods from entering the strip, but also prevents people from leaving this open-air prison. Hospitals are lacking medicine and equipment and yet patients have to wait for permits from the Israeli authorities to leave for treatment elsewhere; many have died waiting.

Students who want to study abroad, explore the world and learn are also unable to leave. I was one of the few lucky ones. Back in 2013/2014, the Rafah border crossing was open only for three days every four months and even on those days, getting the necessary documents to be allowed to leave was not easy. After more than a year of trying, struggling and waiting, I managed to get out. Many others were not as lucky.

So what future does my niece – and other children in Gaza like her – really have? Drinking poisoned water, eating inedible food, dodging bombs and praying that one day she may obtain a piece of paper from her tormentors so she can leave the prison she was born into? Becoming yet another statistic in a UN report telling the world for the nth time what a human catastrophe Gaza is and how criminal Israel’s decade-long siege and regular massacres are? 

And yet, the international community continues to act as if the people of Gaza are to blame for their own suffering. As if the 365 square kilometres of land Gazans are trying to survive on is an actual country, with an army, navy, iron dome, warplanes, shelters, the latest military technology funded by the US and European countries. As if the two million people squeezed into this strip are fighting a war on equal terms with the Israelis, and are not poor refugees occupied, violated, and dispossessed for decades. 

Abu al-Ata was a “terrorist” for picking up arms against the oppression of his people, so he was “surgically” eliminated (his family being “collateral damage”) without due process and that is OK – so the international community reasons.

Unarmed Palestinians were a security “threat” for protesting near the Israeli fence, so 213 of them were killed, including 46 children, two women, nine persons with disabilities, four paramedics and two journalists, while a whopping 14,115 were wounded and that is OK, too. 

Two million Palestinians living in Gaza are a major demographic menace for Israel, so they are kept in subhuman conditions and bombed occasionally – and that is OK as well.

For this so-called international community all and any crimes committed against the Palestinians seem perfectly excusable.

It is in this world, under the watchful eyes of this “international community”, that my little niece Ela’a will be growing up, as a Palestinian girl from Gaza. One day, we will remember those humans who cared and supported our struggle, and we will hold to account others who chose to be complicit in Israel’s war crimes with their silence.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.