Today I have been speaking with families in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. The town sits on the northern tip of the Gaza Strip, just kilometres from Israel’s Apartheid Wall. The 8m high wall, controlled by the Israeli military, encircles Gaza, creating what United Nations under secretary general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes calls “a large open-air prison.”
This is not the first time Beit Hanoun has found itself destroyed by Israeli ordinance.
In Israel’s 2012 large scale offensive ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’ (yes, Pillar of Cloud), 171 Palestinians were killed, including 20 elderly people, 35 children, and 648 were wounded. Not only were homes in Beit Hanoun attacked by ordinance, but on 8th November “Israeli Forces at the border fence in the east of Beit Hanoun opened fire at a group of Palestinian civilians and farmers near the area.“
Israel’s infamous ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in 2008/9, was described by Amnesty International as “22 days of death and destruction”, and prompted Malaysia to hold a unilateral war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur which formally charged Israel with crimes against humanity. The judgement read:
“The perpetrators [State of Israel] had committed acts against the Palestinians, with intent to kill, cause serious bodily or mental harms and deliberately inflict conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the Palestinians as a whole or in part.”
“The Tribunal recommends to the War Crimes Commission to give the widest international publicity to this conviction and grant of reparations, as these are universal crimes for which there is a responsibility upon nations to institute prosecutions.
“The Tribunal deplores the failure of international institutions to punish the State of Israel for its crimes and its total lack of respect of International Law and the institutions of the United Nations.”
More than 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed during Cast Lead. Israel declared a 3km ‘buffer zone’ inside Gaza, which saw many Beit Hanoun residents lose their homes, and farmers lose their land.
Israel’s ‘Operation Autumn Clouds’ in 2006, saw the IDF commit a massacre on Beit Hanoun, after it had announced the operation as complete. As Electronic Intifada reported:
The series of incidents began at 6 a.m., when eyewitness said that dozens of tank shells and missiles landed simultaneously in a small and limited area in Beit Hanoun. Ambulances found it difficult to evacuate the wounded. According to Palestinian sources, some of the shells landed on a house, killing 11 members of one family called Al-A’athamein, including a nine-year-old child and a 73-year-old woman. Israeli sources confirmed that artillery shells were fired Wednesday morning. Incredibly, they said it was not yet known whether the matter was a technical error or a human one.
So the beleaguered residents of Beit Hanoun have time and again seen their houses, business and farms destroyed or confiscated. Each time they rebuild, only to see them destroyed all over again. Beit Hanoun lives a Ground Hog day of obliteration, reconstruction, and obliteration once more.
They have no option but to endure, and rebuild.
Now in 2014, they are flattened once more. It is difficult to comprehend the scale of destruction here. Whole streets are reduced to rubble. Hundreds of bodies remain trapped under the rubble – at times the acrid smell of human decay creeps into your nostrils.
We speak to families that now live in makeshift tents, pulled together from sheets and blankets they have pulled from the wreckage of their homes. The UN schools are now so full that disease is beginning to spread amongst the over crowded refugees. So these families bear the heat and the elements, hoping each day to survive long enough to see the arrival of aid to help them rebuild.
As we are driving through one area, a man calls to us to have coffee with him and his family. From the outside, their home seems relatively untouched – inside, it was a different story.
His wife was heavily pregnant when the shell struck. In the panic, she began to bleed. She miscarried, laying in the rubble.
In typical Gaza-style hospitality they insist on making us coffee. They want to be filmed for the documentary I am making and we speak for a long while about their lives. When I ask what they hope for the future, like so many others I have spoken to here, they cannot see past the next day.
“We hope to survive. This is all we can focus on right now, just to live.”
Everyone here lives in the present, moment-by-moment, getting food, water, and laughter wherever they can. They do not know whether each minute will be their last. They have seen so many friends, and members of their family die that they do not know who will be next – but someone will. There is no end in sight, only brief pauses before the next wave of death and destruction. So, why would they look ahead?
We also travel to the al-Nada towers in nearby Beit Lahiya. These were previously the homes of wealthier Gazans, many had holiday apartments here to spend the summer by the beach. Today, they look post-apocalyptic – torn to shreds by F-16 missiles.
Locals tell me that it started at 2am one night in July. First, they were gassed. Israel dropped gas on the area and the residents found themselves choking, and passing into unconsciousness. This went on for an hour or more, and then came the F-16s.
It is pushing towards 40 degrees celsius, and it is hard to comprehend how on earth these people are making do. In almost any other place on earth, if such devastation had occurred, a humanitarian aid operation would already be on the ground. Here, they are at the mercy of diplomats wrangling in distant hotel rooms over whether they eat, or drink, or if their homes are rebuilt.
There is an arabic word for the fortitude shown by Palestinians – ‘samoud’. Surrounded by horror, they stand firm, committed to survival, refusing to cower in the face of their appalling circumstances. Their wish? Only for the world to recognise their humanity, and finally let them live their lives in peace.
This educated, articulate, innovative, energetic people need us only to help lift the boot from their throat – they’re ready and capable of creating a phoenix from the ashes themselves.
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