The first bomb lands while you’re writing your exam. You pause for a second, startled. But the occasional bomb has become commonplace these days, and you’ve studied too hard for this final, so you get back to work. Then there’s another explosion, and another. Your teacher tells you to finish the exam in the hallway, but the explosions don’t stop and you’re dismissed.
This is what happened to Sabah, a 19-year-old medical student at Gaza University. She rushed home, frantically trying to contact her family, all of whom survived. Nonetheless, the experience was an awakening for Sabah. “It was then that I realized that it was a big thing; it was not the ordinary bombing like on other days,” she said. “I am so afraid that I will lose my brothers or parents. I keep thinking about what would happen if they bombed the house.”
Freelance journalist and filmmaker Fida Qishta is also worried. She’s seen violence in her community for years, her family’s house was destroyed in 2004, but she says attacks from the Israeli army have gotten worse. According to Qishta, soldiers used to allow her and others to evacuate building before raids, but that is no longer the case. “You can’t even say anything to them. If you want to say something, you’re going to die.” She claims to have witnessed numerous acts of violence. “It’s really more violent,” she said. “Israel doesn’t [spare] anybody, not children, not civilians, not women.” She sees a double standard where the Israeli government cites self-defence while the Palestinian civilians hardly have a chance for the same.
Etai Gross has a different story. The New York native was a business and math double major at Binghamton University before coming to Israel two years ago. At 21 years old, he’s a member of the Israeli Defence Forces and supports the invasion. “The attack on Gaza will inevitably put an end to the rocket attacks, either because Hamas […] will have losses that cause them to realize a ceasefire is the only way to keep their people happy and to avoid total destruction of their organization, or because eventually the IDF will have destroyed most of the rocket launchers in Gaza,” he argues. Though from his experience as an Israeli civilian, Gross believes the current Israeli offensive will stop the Hamas attacks only temporarily.
“War is a means to achieve peace and safety for our citizens—we never attack for any other reasons, and try to minimize civilian casualties and maximize humanitarian aid. Can we fight a more fair war?” Gross asked. “Did the UN stop the United States in Iraq? Afghanistan? No. This situation is much more justified than either of those. This is terrorism in our own country, not abroad.”
York University grad student and U of T graduate Amir Gershon served in the Isreali Defence Forces for six years before retiring as a captain. “On one hand, I’ve never supported violence as a means to an end,” he said. “However, on the other hand, if an invasion is needed to block off the tunnels and to neutralize the threat of rockets into Israel—if that is the only solution, then that is what you have to do.”
With shells falling as little as 16 km from where his parents live in Israel, Gershon feels let down by the international community for having failed to stop the rocket attacks.
Amjad Mahmoud Hamad of the Secular Front for Students, and an English student at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University (which, he says, has been slightly damaged by shelling), says all he wants is an end to the siege and continue learning.
“The activism has stopped. We are at home nowadays. After this situation we are coming to participate in a march to tell the rest of the world that we are in a critical situation.
Our students hope to block the siege and continue our learning in university. We are as Palestinian people, out to block the siege.”
Professor David Shulman is an Israeli professor of Indology at Hebrew University, who is also involved with Ta’ayush, an Arab-Jewish partnership which works with Palestinian populations in South Hebron, who are often victim to violence from Israeli settlers. The IDF, he alleges, is complicit in settler terrorism.
“So long as this war is disconnected from a genuine attempt on the part of the Israeli government to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians then the war has little meaning beyond the default strategy of hitting, pounding, and controlling,” he said. Shulman has no sympathy for Hamas, but believes in a two-state solution along the 1967 border, backed by the Palestinian majority.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5: TERRORIST WHO?
On Jan. 4, day 8 of Israel’s invasion, eyewitnesses say an IDF tank pulled up in front of a five-floor building in Zeitun, Eastern Gaza City, and ordered the 110 family members belonging to the house to get in the low-rise, and stay inside. Twenty-four hours later, the IDF shelled the house, killing 30. While the IDF has denied the story, the UN is demanding an investigation. But very little has been spared in Israel’s attack—not hospitals, schools, mosques, and most recently, the UN headquarters in Gaza storing precious humanitarian supplies and sheltering 700.
Israel’s three-hour humanitarian corridor is “a joke,” says 30-year-old Canadian activist Eva Bartlett, speaking from Gaza City, “because it was a three-hour pause in the bombing of civilians. Even during those three hours, they were still shooting. For example, a medic I was with was shot in the leg. Three young girls I was with were killed in their house. So the ceasefire that Israel brags about really doesn’t exist.”
When an aid worker was killed by fire, the UN declared that it would cease sending essential supplies and assistance into Gaza. The Israeli camp apologized, and the UN resumed distributing aid, but civilian centres continue to be hit. A week later, two hospitals, the UN headquarters—and as this article is being written on Day 22 of the war, yet another UN school sheltering some 1,600—were shelled.
Israel is yielding its firepower blindfolded. Bartlett says it is difficult for Israeli troops to tell who is a resistance fighter, but among the ambulance crew, she can tell that most of those injured are civilians. “There are old men and women, there are children, people that already had an amputation. So there are people who you can tell immediately are civilians. Or people that you know where they were when they were bombed, and they are civilians.”
Israeli shells have destroyed several buildings in the Islamic University of Gaza. As is the case with the mosques, Israel explains that these buildings are suspected hubs for militants. But Palistinian students disagree. “We never allow the militants to use these centres and schools and universities[…]this is for civilian use,” said Muhammad Abdu Abu, who teaches English at the Marouf Al-Rasafi secondary school and is a recent university graduate. He points out that more than 15 mosques had been bombed, and says he doesn’t believe there were rockets or militants in any of them. On Friday, people congregated to pray where their mosques had been, with drones above and shelling in the distance.
“The resistance from Hamas can’t even be called resistance,” said Alaa Hasan, Muhammad’s friend teaching in an elementary school in Zaitun. “There are hardly any fighters. Only civilians who want to protect themselves and their families, their neighbours.”
SIEGE: HOW TO INFLICT COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT
While bombs fall within a kilometre of his house, Muhammad’s family was still alive and well. Hasan, however, was distraught.
“I was in my house for more than 10 days without food, water or electricity. Everything is catastrophe. We have nothing.”
The IDF onslaught has come after months of siege. Hasan says he and people around him survive on the bare minimum. Hasan is one of the lucky people who had work—most people in Gaza don’t have this luxury, and are dependent on aid.
“Following the siege, there was already a dire need for a great amount of humanitarian aid,” said Bartlett. “Israel had already devastated every aspect of Palestinian existence here.” She reported that 79 trucks of humanitarian aid were entering Gaza each day, whereas a year ago there would have been 600 trucks. Bartlett sums up the current aid situation: “All the resource and stocks already depleted. An atrocious amount of people injured or wounded. A people that is even more aid-dependent than ever. The aid is insignificant. It’s a slap in the face.”
“UNWA usually provides food for 800,000 people in the Gaza Strip, and that is almost two-thirds of the population,” says Al-Alsa University associate professor of cultural studies, Dr. Haider Eid. “The problem is that all of the six crossings separating Gaza from Israel have been closed for more than two years now. The only exit to the external world from Gaza is the Rafah crossing, which leads to Egypt, but Egypt has also closed the Rafah crossing for two years now. There is almost a famine in Gaza. I tell you people are really starving. One, because they cannot buy things, and two, because food is not available. I, for example, am boiling potatoes right now to eat.”
“There is a very high rate of malnutrition, you can see it in children. Children don’t eat, because there is no food. People survive on almost one meal a day, if it is available.”
The IDF is known for leaflets dropped from planes before aerial attacks. These are entirely ineffective as means of communication, says Dr. Eid. “They demand that people leave their houses, and not support the ‘terrorist organizations.’ So this is cheap propaganda. Children play with these papers and make fun of them, and set them on fire. That’s what happens here.”
Dr. Eid is a South African Palestinian also on the board for the Dameer Association for Human Rights, and the steering committee for the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Unlike most people, Dr. Eid advocates a single-state solution for Palestine.
On Jan. 13, Tuesday evening in Gaza City, Dr. Eid was groping around in the dark for a candle.
“They tried to attack the neighbourhood where I live. It was a terrible night. I didn’t sleep at all, actually. They started at 11 p.m. and then they continued ’til 6:30 or 7 in the morning. There was peace resistance, and so people rushed to the shelter. I stayed in my flat. It was very difficult. I had my doubts sometimes, because the shelling was so close: they came about one kilometre from where I live. We don’t know what they’ll do tonight, because they do what they do at night.”
A vague explosion crackled through the line. “Oh… they’re shelling right now. This time from the sea…”
From his tenth-floor apartment in Gaza, Eid can see through what used to be a window (he doesn’t have a window anymore because of shelling impacts) the white smoke of phosphorus bombs going off in the north of Gaza. “Having seen the injuries in the Sheva Hospital, the injuries are unprecedented, even the doctors haven’t seen them before.” When white phosphorus comes in contact with skin, it burns to the bone.
White phosphorus bombs are illegal for use against civilian populations, and are only permissible to use as smoke screens. But experts quoted on Al-Jazeera have testified that Israel is using white phosphorous bombs. The IDF claims that it has only used these bombs in a legal way, but the victims in a densely populated Gaza City are mostly civilians.
I want Dr. Eid to talk about the Palestinian boycott program against Israel, but he is distraught and cannot concentrate.
Jan. 2: In the West Bank, protest have intensified against the building of Israel’s wall to annex some 60 per cent of its settlements inside Palestine’s 1967 border. So too has the IDF response intensified.
“Four people have been killed in demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza so far. Two of them in Nil’in,” said Adam Taylor, spokesperson for the International Solidarity Movement in Ramallah.
“I would say that while the world’s eyes are on Gaza, the level of Israeli violence towards demonstrations has risen. They are testing new weapons right now. There’s a new gas canister which is extremely heavy and will at some point kill someone. And there is the use of a bullet with a very strange unknown liquid inside.”
Protesters in the West Bank have alleged that green liquid-filled bullets have been used for the first time in the Palestinian cities Bil’in and Nil’in near the wall this January. Photographs posted online from when these were first used in Nil’in on Jan. 2 show bullets with a diameter about the size of a dime causing profuse bleeding. There are also pictures of the gas canister.
“It is well-known that Israel is testing weapons in the West Bank. Its arms sale is a crucial part of their economy,” claims Taylor.
“The use of live ammunition is another reason why we attend these demonstrations. Israel has this very racist military law. The use of live ammunition is not permitted where Israelis are at demonstrations. Although I have to say they use live ammunition all the time anyway.”
Gershon remembers a different story from his IDF service in the West Bank. “Having actually served in the West Bank, I think I got a very clear picture of how the conflict is actually happening in Technicolor. Because I was there to live it. I was there to keep the peace on the borders, to see the conflict with my own eyes.” Gershon remembers being shot at more often than having to draw his gun.
Taylor says the Nil’in protests supported by the ISM were peaceful, and that the organization only supports peaceful resistance.
GET UP, STAND UP
Students have joined demonstrations all over the world to protest the Gaza invasion. One of the largest was the Jan. 3 protests in Tel Aviv. To Taylor, the size of these protests indicates that something is changing in the grassroots consciousness. Protesters themselves feel as though they have mobilized faster than before. The Tel Aviv protestors refuted the idea that the invasion was for their benefit. “No one can tell us that slaughtering the citizens of Gaza is meant to protect the citizens of Sderot and Ashkelon,” sutdent Matan Kaminer told Haaretz. There have also been small counter-protests. Israeli police arrested at least six protestors in Tel Aviv.
Shulman, however, points out that protests against the 1982 Lebanon War had been much bigger.
“We believe that the UN, the EU, the Arab League—the international community at large—have failed the Palestinian people,” said Dr. Eid. Israel has been acting with complete impunity, he feels, flouting the UN resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire.
Protests go a certain distance, says Eid. “But I think one of the things we expect from students in Canada, and the academic institutions in Canada is to boycott the academic institutions of Israel.”
The boycott, he said, is based along the lines of the international campaign against apartheid South Africa.
The Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) campaign, however, has been unpopular in Canada, including among scholars who have vocally protested the actions of Israel, such as Shulman. “I am against the idea of an academic boycott of Israeli universities, which will only punish that part of the Israeli public that is relatively moderate and eager to make peace, and which will certainly produce a boomerang effect overall,” he said.
However, Palestinian academics like Dr. Eid feel that BDS is the only way to create radical change in Israel.
“I’m very much in favour of Palestine having their own state, and their independence,” said Gershon. “I think that the autonomy right now is a step in the right direction. And they should be given the chance to govern their own nation. I’m very much in favour of this.”
But independence—whether it be for Palestine or any other place—is by its nature not something that can be granted by anyone. It is an inalienable right. It cannot be granted, only surrendered.