As Amnesty International's latest report accuses Israel of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law, referring to last year's onslaught on Gaza, Valentina Primo speaks to four Palestinian professionals about life in the Strip.
“In Gaza, streets are so narrow that when people relocate, they move the furniture through the rooftops. In the tiny Strip, whose 12 kilometres’ width can be walked from side to side, houses are so close together that you can hear your neighbours making love. Actually, it has also become a parental strategy to save their children from war trauma: when bombs fall, they make love.”
As Sami Haven tells the tales he recalls of his beloved Gaza, his eyes fill with years. The British-Jordanian photographer seems infatuated with the world’s most tortured strip of land, just as most of those who visit it.
This is the Gaza everybody falls in love with; a strip of land that has always lived tortured by occupation but is now is at the brink of desperation, as 2,251 Palestinian lives were lost, 11,231 people were maimed or injured, 18,000 homes were destroyed, and hospitals and ambulances were attacked during the 50-day Operation Protective Edge carried out by Israeli forces on July 8th 2014.
On July 29th 2015, one year after the conflict, Amnesty International released a report presenting “strong evidence” that Israeli forces carried out war crimes against the Palestinian population in retaliation for the capture of an Israeli soldier. In its report, entitled Black Friday: Carnage in Rafah During 2014 Israel/Gaza Conflict, the human rights organisation affirms that Israel committed “serious violations of international humanitarian law,” including war crimes.
However, internationally academic writer Norman Finkelstein criticised the report for using sources such as the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs while ignoring respected Gaza-based human rights organisations.
“Israel destroyed or made uninhabitable 18,000 homes. In ‘Families Under the Rubble,’ Amnesty suggests that in each and every case, Israel was actually targeting militants but used "disproportionate force." That is the perfect alibi for Israel. Everyone familiar with international humanitarian law (laws of war) knows that it is impossible to prove disproportionality. It's a meaningless concept,” the author said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
Beyond the dreary figures the conflict left behind, a look into Gaza’s human landscape shows the scars of a traumatised society whose resilience is, nevertheless, never curtailed. “After a year, hope became more scarce, but we came to appreciate life more than ever, we feel like we need to thank life for everything,” says Asem, an industrial engineer whose online job is hardened as he only counts six hours of electricity per day due to the power cuts the city endures systematically. “What do I do for the rest of the day? I try to make life more acceptable by going out, playing sports, or reading in candle light."
“Gaza looks like the largest prison on the planet,” says business specialist Amal Shanty. “Travel became a dream for us, as the Rafah and the Israeli borders are closed in all cases, even the most desperate cases of sickness. Unemployment has reached more than 60% among university graduates since the war, despite us having some of the highest rates of education in the world,” explains the young professional, an MBA graduate and a mother of two who struggles to protect her children from the sequels of war.
“My son Adam is less than two years old and he still now, one year after the war, runs to me screaming every time he hears the sound of airplanes in the sky. Many children and adults suffer different psychosocial traumas, which hinder their mental and life development,” she says.
According to a report released by Save the Children, children living in the hardest-hit areas of Gaza during last year’s conflict are still showing signs of severe emotional distress: estimates indicate that seven out of 10 children suffer regular nightmares, while 75% of them experience unusual bedwetting regularly. The report indicates that 551 children were killed during the conflict and 3,436 were injured, while an estimated 1,500 were left orphaned.
“The fundamental problem facing the people of Gaza at the moment is that the taste of life in Gaza has changed,” says Tawifk Gebreel, an architect and lecturer at the University of Palestine.
In 2014, Gebreel rose to social media fame as his sketches, drawn over photographs of Israeli bombs falling over the city, depicted symbols of unity and strength amid a terrifying landscape. On the third day Gaza was hit by air strikes, the young architect took a photo of the smoke and began to draw sketches on it, continuing every day, turning images of the shelling pouring over the strip into powerful symbols of peaceful resistance.
An electricity cut interrupts the interview he holds with CairoScene. “It happens every day. We only have six hours of electricity,” he says. “No electricity, no water, no social life… life is very hard here from every perspective.”
Due to the delay in beginning the reconstruction process after the war, all houses that were destroyed are left as they are, forcing their dwellers into homelessness or pushing them to live in metal or wooden caravans, where the temperature rises to over 40 degrees in the summer. “The most unbearable problem is the electricity cut off, which leads to the death of children or elderly people who are healing using medical equipment which need electricity,” she emphasises.
“Some people are still living in their destroyed houses, with no roof or walls. Some live in tents, as they have no other option because they cannot afford a lease,” Asem adds.
“Everybody who lives in Gaza has suffered damage and material losses. My home was not impacted, but windows have fallen anyway due to the explosions," says Gebreel, as he explains that materials needed for the reconstruction of houses cannot enter the strip, due to the siege imposed by Israel.
Supported by Islamic Relief, Gebreel was given the opportunity to exhibit his work in the USA, but due to the closure of the Rafah crossing, the artist could not leave his country. “I wish to travel and work for more exhibitions, but I need the support of institutions to stand with me because we cannot cross the borders. Crossings are breathing space for us; but now we cannot travel in or out,” he says.
Main Image courtesy of Boris Niehaus, Creative Commons.