The Heartbreaking Tale of Life Inside Gaza
In a CairoScene exclusive, Conor Sheils speaks to two young Palestinians, as they tell the harrowing first-hand tales of bombings, raids and utter fear as the brutal Israeli offensive continues to rock the strip.
While many Egyptians were glued to last night's World Cup semi-final, people in Gaza were glued to their TV screens for a far more sinister reason. Three days ago Israel launched a massive aerial bombardment on the besieged Gaza Strip. The Zionist state claims it was forced to take up the massive bombing campaign in retaliation for rocket attacks from Palestinian militant group Hamas.
However the innocent civilians, trapped inside Gaza, tell a very different tale. At the time of writing, aid agencies claim that at least 81 - including scores of children under 16 - have died in less than three days with hundreds more injured following countless Israeli Air Force bombs.
Ahmed AlSaqqa, 28, has lived all of his life in Gaza City. Speaking at his home, overlooking Gaza's seaport, tells the harrowing tale of daily life since the attacks began. "Since the escalation began, Israeli airstrikes have hit almost everywhere. No place is safe."
"We are staying at home and minimising our movement for our own safety. We are worried all the time and glued to the TV and radio following the developments. It's all we can do right now - we are helpless. We are also extremely worried about our relatives in Khan Younis."
In the hours before I spoke with Ahmed, Khan Younis - a city on the southern end of the Gaza strip - was hit by a barrage of Israeli warplane bombs targetting civilian homes and a packed cafe. In the heart of Gaza City, Ahmed paints a distressing picture when describing the eerie silence in between the inevitable deadly Israeli Air Force strikes. "All life in Gaza has stopped right now. My brother works for a school, while my father works for a job creation programme, but now there's nothing. Nobody can go to work, life has just completely stopped."
As explosions echo in the background, Ahmed speaks candidly when he tells of the fear of not knowing what the immediate future holds for his family. "I've witnessed two previous Israeli offensives. But it's actually more terrifying this time because we don't know what to expect. There are the same sounds, the same smells... but we don't know what's going to happen next."
When Israel attacked the Gaza Strip in 2006, more than 1000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed. That figure already looks set to be eclipsed within days unless the crisis ends. Despite the constant shelling, Ahmed explains that the mood among younger Gazans, however, is not always shrouded in despair, as ordinary Palestinians swallow a mixture of macabre war humour and outright terror in an effort to survive the nightly onslaught.
During peak times the rate of attacks has reached a rate of one attack every three minutes. "It's really hard to explain the mood here. Sometimes we laugh like crazy at silly jokes, then a moment later a massive explosion rocks the building. We're frightened but we laugh again about each other’s reactions."
"Sometimes we get scared to the point of being hysterical. But at other times we just get bored of counting endless airstrikes and the heartbreaking toll of civilian casualties. But we try our best support one another. It's all we can do right now."
Azzam - who volunteers with well-known aid organisation- claims he feels powerless thanks to the fact that he is unable to leave his home to help others caught up in the now daily struggle. "It kills me inside to see people being killed in Gaza and I am staying at home feeling helpless. So I decided to keep counting the raids and keep posting about it on social media to spread the word. It makes me feel a little bit better to know that at least I am doing something.”
Ahmed's views mirror those of many other young men forced to spend their lives under siege. But it wasn't always this way. "There is a big difference in how people of my age perceive the situation compared to earlier generations,” he explains. "My generation has grown up in Gaza. Since 2000, Israel has stopped issuing permits for labourers to work in Israel and constructed the separation wall. So basically the only contact that people of my age have had with Israelis is with soldiers at checkpoints before they pulled out from Gaza and therefore my generation has no tolerance when it comes to talking about Israel.” On the other hand, Ahmed recalls that "in the past, our parents and grandparents had a lot of opportunities to travel, to go to West bank and Jerusalem and speak with Israelis. When I hear the word 'Israeli' the first thing that comes to my mind is soldiers, air forces, and people armed to the teeth. I have never seen any other picture of Israelis."
Israel has operated a crippling blockade along the Gaza Strip since the Hamas government was elected in 2007. The results have been catastrophic for average Gazans with many struggling to survive, while trapped amid the harsh, unforgiving realities of everyday life there.
For Ahmed today, the waiting continues. "The airstrikes are traumatising and bring back horrifying memories from the past. Now we have nothing but to try and keep hope alive." Ahmed's views are echoed by fellow Gazan Sameh Habeeb, the founder and editor of the Palestine Telegraph; the only English-language newspaper published from the Gaza strip.
He sees first-hand the devastation caused by the current conflict escalation. "My family is like others in Gaza. Houses are being hit while its residents are inside. Life in Gaza is same as in Israel; life is paralysed. There is no work right now, there is nothing." Indeed, the latest figures suggest that the rate of unemployment inside the strip tops 40%.
Habeeb is scathing in his criticism of the Israeli government despite displaying empathy with ordinary Israeli citizens. "No one in the world accept killing or wounding a civilian. The pain of humans is alike but the Israeli government dosen't care for its people and this is clear in their political line. This is a radical government, run by people who don't believe in peace."
Speaking about the situation on the ground in Gaza, the 29-year- old displays a hopeless sense of familiarity with the bitter realities of war. "I never had good childhood nor teenage years; every stage of my life has been accompanied by wars or violence."
"For example, in my life I've seen the first Intifada, Oslo Accord, the Tunnel Intifada in 1996, the Second Intifada in 2001, the Israeli invasions, and the 2009 wars. The same is for the entire population in Gaza, they go from one war to another. People in Gaza are accustomed with these warsIt has become part of their life."
Worryingly, Habeeb predicts that daily life for besieged people will only get worse as the bombardment continues from above. "Based on our past experiences of wars and siege, food will get scarce soon and other basics will be in short.”
But now he sees only one way out. "Death is closer to everyone these days. But I want peace and peace can easily come if Israel recognise our pain and give us our rights. A truce can be broken any moment. A lasting and just peace is needed. It is our only hope."