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Ordinary Gazans live in a warzone, but are never treated as its victims

  • CJ Werleman
  • 19 Nov 2019

So how do Gazans cope with the constant threat and violence of Israeli aggression?

A barefoot Palestinian boy and others look into a crater made in overnight Israeli missile strikes that destroyed a house and killed eight members of the Abu Malhous family, in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza. ( AP )

Israel followed up its assassination of a senior Islamic Jihad commander with a series of airstrikes that killed 34 Palestinians in Gaza, including 16 civilians, within 48 hours last week.

Among the dead were a pair of 7-year-old boys and two toddlers, according to human rights investigators.

The attacks represent the most severe escalation of violence in months, returning the besieged Palestinian territory into the collective consciousness of the international community once more,

The headlines are as always fixated on the actions of the belligerents – Israel, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. Lost again in the global news coverage are the Palestinian people – relegated to bit-part actors in a conflict where, objectively, they are the victims of a decades-long Israeli occupation, blockade and siege.

When Israel exerts its “right to defend itself,” the international news media seldom asks “but from what or whom?” - and at the same time ignores the fact that Israel is the illegal occupier of the Palestinian territories. The Israelis keep Gaza’s two million residents securely locked in an open-air prison.

More importantly, the media never asks what should be the most self-evidently obvious question of all: what’s it like to be an unarmed civilian locked permanently in a steel cage with nowhere to seek shelter as Israeli warplanes fly overhead?

“This latest round of escalation is just one of so many frequent episodes we go through. It’s been like this forever, or at least since my childhood, but now I’m a parent, so it’s a completely different situation. The past seventy-two hours have been really stressful,” Najla Shawa, a Gaza resident, humanitarian worker and mother of two young daughters, told me on Thursday.

Shawa’s daughters are aged two and five, respectively.

“Whenever there is any kind of military activity, it’s really difficult to cope with. The noises of bombing and expectations of the next airstrike make life really difficult. I’m still not at the stage of explaining this to my daughters, so I tell them that this [airstrikes] is thunder or fireworks,” said Shawa.

Shawa said that when she heard an Israeli airstrike had assassinated the Islamic Jihad commander on Tuesday, she and her husband knew to expect bombings.

“The first thing that comes to mind is how to have my energy charged enough to be patient and also keep my stress as reasonable as possible to deal with these hours while they [daughters] are awake, so I try to do things as normal as possible, having our meals together, doing all the little things that they like, playing with them, doing some drawing and colouring, getting their favourite toys, so that they’re busy and engaged, and not engaged with the background noise,” said Shawa.

“Whenever a missile hits [nearby], I try to hide how I feel from them, but doing so is difficult…strikes by F-16 hits just 100 meters away from you is not an easy experience,” she said.

Omar Ghraieb, a Palestinian journalist in Gaza, says, “It’s striking how we easily adapt to explosions and live normally through them. It scares me. We've been through this so many times that it feels so normal. We don't even flinch.”

Meditation is how Ghraieb stays calm and preserves his “sanity” during periods of sustained Israeli bombing campaigns. “I need to stay balanced and centered in the face of all the loud craziness happening around,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

Dr Basem Naim, a former Minister of Health in Gaza, explained how “belief in the justice of our cause” helps Palestinians cope with the misery and suffering that’s perpetually dealt them by the Israeli military, adding “social cohesion is also crucial in supporting each other and emotionally containing each other, while a culture of heroism fuels our patience and steadfastness.”

When I visited Gaza several years ago, several Palestinian parents explained how their children had become so traumatised by Israeli airstrikes that they would urinate involuntarily when a surveillance drone flew overhead, a claim also made by Shawa, who told me her friends are “always talking about that.”

“Once during a previous [military] escalation, we were sitting with friends, and their son was about eight years old. I was telling them ‘did you hear the news, it seems we are going to have a tough night tonight,’ but his father said to me, ‘Please be quiet. Don’t say that in front of him, as will react in really strange ways, won’t sleep and will have nightmares,” she said.

Gaza’s mental health crisis has been described as the Palestinian enclaves “invisible bullet wound,” with a recently published study finding that a “staggering” 81 percent of Palestinian schoolchildren struggle academically because of conflict-related stress.

When Ghaliah Gharabli, a 35-year-old mother of four in Gaza, lost her 15-year-old son to an Israeli sniper during protests against the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem in 2018, her daughter began displaying symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder whenever she hears the sound of airstrikes and rocket fire.

“She stopped speaking properly. If I asked her why she was silent, she would cry,” Ms Gharabli told The Independent. “She started screaming in her sleep and having these night terrors of soldiers entering the house to kill her. I didn’t recognize my little girl.”

These are the people erased from any discussion regarding confrontations between Israel, the region’s most powerful military, and the lightly armed but encaged Palestinian militants.

The Palestinian people are neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad. More importantly, the Palestinian people are human beings, no different to either you or I, who have no choice other than to tend to childcare, self-care and daily routines even as Israeli missiles and bombs fall just meters away.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

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