On my refrigerator door I keep a photo of an exceptional Palestinian woman who ran kindergartens in Gaza in the 1990s for the Philly-based American Friends Service Committee. Mary Khaas, who died more than a decade ago, would drag her teachers from their refugee-camp homes to visit her Jewish friends at a kibbutz just across the Gaza border. She believed in two states, and wanted each side to stop demonizing the other.
Attitudes have hardened in Gaza over the last decade, and I don’t know how Mary would feel now. But as U.S. efforts to produce a lasting cease-fire falter, and temporary cease-fires run down, the photo reminds me that many Americans can’t conceptualize the humanity of the civilians who are dying there. Unless the world starts paying more attention to the people behind the statistics, the battles between Israel and Hamas will never end.
Few Americans, except for aid workers, have ever visited Gaza, a 25-by-5-mile spit of sand crammed with 1.7 million Palestinians, many them descendants of refugees who fled Jaffa or the Beersheba area during Israel’s war of independence.
No one wants the Gaza Strip. The Israelis captured it in 1967 from Egypt and regard it with disdain. In Hebrew, “Go to Gaza” is the local variant of “Go to hell.”
The Egyptians feel the same way. They occupied the strip in 1948 during the Arab war with Israel, when Gaza was part of mandate Palestine. Given the high unemployment and sinking economy in Egypt, the last thing its rulers want is to take the strip back.
So Gaza’s men, women, and children remain locked up in a virtual prison. Since Hamas took control in 2007, Israel has kept the strip under a punishing economic blockade; the Israelis control its sea space, airspace, and borders, except for the Rafah crossing with Egypt. Gazans are rarely allowed to exit for medical treatment or to study.
Tens of thousands of Gazans who once worked as laborers inside Israel were locked out of Israeli jobs nearly two decades ago for security reasons. Unemployment is sky high, and local businesses, such as flower, fruit and juice exporters, have been crippled by the blockade, or by previous battles between Israel and Hamas. Gaza lives off the international dole.
One reason for the amazing extent of Hamas’ underground tunnel network — which Israel is trying to destroy — is that digging tunnels is one of the few new sources of jobs.
The awful realities of Gazans’ lives get lost in the blame game between Israel and Hamas over their deaths.
Israel portrays the civilian victims, including children, as “human shields” forced by Hamas to stay in harm’s way despite advance Israeli warnings. Hamas says the responsibility for their deaths lies totally with Israel. Each side accuses the other of war crimes.
Both narratives are simplistic.
Hamas has indeed exposed Gazans to peril — by firing rockets that indiscriminately target Israeli civilians; this fits the definition of a war crime. By firing from built-up areas, Hamas puts its own population at risk, since it knows Israel will try to eliminate the rocket threat.
So Hamas is culpable for Gazan casualties, but the story doesn’t end there. There is no evidence Hamas is forcibly preventing Gazans from seeking shelter. Some Gazans stay put to protect their modest homes — which represent their entire life savings — or because it is simply too difficult to flee with huge extended families, or because they believed they were safe as they ate their post-fast meal during Ramadan.
As for prior warning, anyone who has been to Gaza (I have been there many times, though not recently) knows the tiny strip is so densely populated that civilians are hard pressed to escape the shelling and bombing. One reason the bombing has gone on so long, and aroused a limited international outcry, is that Gazans are rarely seen as individuals, but as a lumpen mass that is to blame for its own troubles. That view is especially prevalent inside Israel. Amira Hass, a courageous Israeli journalist who covers Gaza and the West Bank for Haaretz, and whose moving book Drinking the Sea at Gaza details ordinary life inside the strip, is often excoriated. Israeli artists who have expressed sorrow over deaths on both sides have been pilloried on social networks.
Mary Khaas’ photo brings back many memories of Gazans I knew whose stories would surprise Americans. There were Hatem Abu Ghazaleh, an eminent Western-trained surgeon who returned home to help handicapped children, and Eyad El-Sarraj, a psychiatrist, who fought for Palestinian human rights.
There were the Fatah members I met in the 1990s who had spent years in Israeli prisons, learned Hebrew, and had come to believe the only way forward was two states. More recently, there was an impressive group of young academics and Ph.D. candidates I met in Philadelphia, who encouraged young Gazans to channel their anger into writing short stories, collected into a volume called Gaza Writes Back. And there is the majority of ordinary Gazans who just want to get on with living.
The bottom line: It’s time to stop playing the blame game for civilian deaths in Gaza, or citing statistics and focus on this: Too many innocent people are dying. The bombing can’t continue.
There is no way to eliminate Hamas’ tunnels and rockets by military means alone — unless Israel flattens Gaza and disregards the death toll and the damage to its reputation. Absent a negotiated solution that gives ordinary Gazans some hope for the future, this problem won’t end.