During prayers for the dead outside a Gaza hospital, a young boy holds the shrouded body of his infant sibling killed in an Israeli air strike

During prayers for the dead, a young boy holds the body of his infant sibling.

Photo by APA Images

Dancing With Broken Hearts: Are Our Toys Still Alive?

To be clear, we welcome the modest mercies in Gaza: the "pause" in slaughter, release of hostages, freeing of Palestinian prisoners, most stone-throwing teenagers who've been warned they'll be re-arrested if their families show "joy." But as a handful of innocents get swapped, Palestinian children, victims of a racist hierarchy of victimhood, still suffer and die. Asks Abu al-Walid, who lost his son, daughter, seven nieces and nephews, his whole beloved "gang," "How will I live (when) these children are gone?"

Gaza officials estimate Israel has now killed over 16,000 civilians, almost half children, and injured at least 34,000; another 6,000 Palestinians are believed dead, trapped under rubble. With a health system all but collapsed, many more will likely continue to die of untreated wounds, spreading disease, winter rains and cold, lack of food, water, medical supplies. Along with wiping out hundreds of families, Israel's deliberate targeting of civilian homes has left over 1.7 million people homeless; most are crammed into U.N. facilities in the south without adequate food, water, toilets or care. Monday's news of a two-day extension of the "pause" was welcomed on all sides, as was the UN's first delivery of drinking water and other humanitarian aid, but rights groups said it "barely registers" in light of the massive need, "breathtaking" death toll, and vast destruction wrought by the Israeli equivalent of two nuclear bombs. During this relative calm, scarred, stunned Gazans have emergedto try and recover relatives' bodies under the debris, stand in lines for flour, water, fuel, take their kids to the beach, travel north to see what's left of their ravaged homes after a brutal, US-backed Israeli campaign of collective punishment that rights advocates widely deem "a stain upon our souls."

In the face of that devastation, UN experts have urged investigations into war crimes by both Israel and Hamas; Jordan has joined much of the world in declaring Israel's assault within "the legal definition of genocide"; the EU's Josep Borrell has demanded a permanent ceasefire - “It makes no sense to give food to somebody that will be killed the day after" - and the UN warns "the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is getting worse by the day." None of that has stopped ongoing Israeli aggression: IDF forces have fired at people returning to inspect homes, killed over 200 Palestinians in the West Bank, including children, and arrested 3,200, "seized" $1.3 million from "Hamas homes" amidst Gazan stories of stolen jewelry and other items, and have escalated the rampant abuse of Palestinian political prisoners. This week, Israel's far-right Finance Minister proposed a budget with billions for the war and hundreds of millions to expand illegal settlements and arm settlers in the name of "empowerment and readiness," even as a monomaniacal Netanyahu vowed to "continue the war in full force until we achieve all our goals," however genocidal, refuting all that Biden malarkey about "freedom and dignity" to swear he's "the only one" who can erase a Palestinian state.

Still, the ever-corrupt Netanyahu has said he's open to extending the truce, one day for every 10 additional hostages, because he's "moved to the depths of my heart" by seeing families reunited, and definitely not because he's hungry for good press that could save his own political skin. With the four-day pause due to end Tuesday now extended two days, the media has largely obliged, offering up a flood of empathic coverage about Hamas' release of what are now 69 captives, most Israeli women and children. Strikingly, doctors have found the hostages in "satisfactory" health, at least physically; the trauma they likely endured remains an open question. "They don’t have any serious sickness, but you can see they're not in the best condition," said a doctor, adding they're monitoring the hostages' "sodium balance" as they reintroduce "routine eating." Many hostages lost their homes, they added, "so they've nowhere to return to, and that's also hard to accept." To date, none of the extensive coverage has noted that the same or worse hardships - sodium imbalances (with no water), no foreseeable chance to return to "routine eating" (no food), and no homes to return to (with dead relatives trapped under them) - afflict hundreds of thousands of Gazans.

Meanwhile, mainstream Israeli media have barely covered the release of up to 300 Palestinian prisoners, all women and minors; most recently, Monday saw 30 teens and three women freed from Ofer prison in the West Bank and a prison in Jerusalem. "It would never occur to them, even for a moment, to tarnish the Jews’ feelings of happiness with the happiness of Arabs," writes Haaretz's Odeh Bisharat, quoting Psalms: "He that keepeth Israel doth neither slumber nor sleep." As proof "there’s no prouder form of nationalism than making 'the other' miserable," police "worked (for) hours to tamp down the joy" of female Palestinian prisoners," including enforcing a ban - the fine is $18,700 - on giving candy to well-wishers by confiscating it from the home of prisoner Amani al-Hashim in Beit Hanina. Days before the release, right-wing National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir had urged his "fine boys" in the Israeli Police to use "an iron fist" to ensure Palestinian unhappiness. “My instructions are clear - there are to be no expressions of joy," he said. "Expressions of joy are equivalent to backing terrorism. Victory celebrations give backing to those human scum, those Nazis." Deuteronomy 32:35: "Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip."

On Sunday, Israel published a list of Palestinian prisoners being freed and their alleged "crimes," mostly stone-throwing, that reveals a flagrant "stratification of victimhood” wherein one captive Israeli child gets more public attention than thousands of Palestinian children imprisoned for trifling acts, along with thousands killed in bombings and even more thousands captive to an occupying force that routinely terrorizes, ghettoizes, and arrests them in the middle of the night. The list is also "a dizzying testament to just how central detention and imprisonment are to Israel’s occupation and control over Palestinians," and how inequitably that control is wielded. Each year, up to 700 Palestinian children as young as 12 are detained as "security prisoners"; by far most of those being freed - 287 - are 18 or under, and of 146 who are 18, most came of age in prison. So far Israel has freed 150 prisoners, 117 children and 33 women; over the same four days, they arrested at least 133, and 3,160 since Oct. 7. Still, despite the no-joy edict, crowds have gathered in the West Bank to collectively celebrate the releases, united by both grief for their losses and determination to embrace resilience and happiness as part of their resistance. Said one celebrant, "We are dancing with broken hearts."

“The cries of Palestinian and Israeli children sound no different to me," said Rep. Rashiba Tlaib, calling for a ceasefire. "What I don’t understand is why the cries of Palestinians sound different to you all." But they do, here and in Israel, where a Knesset member once quoted an Israeli writer who called Palestinian children "little snakes." Most of the teenagers being freed, who were often held in isolation under indefinite "administrative detention," haven't been convicted or even tried, which in Israel, alone among "developed" countries, would occur in not a civil but military court that boasts a nearly 100% conviction rate. Yet under the Israeli government's hierarchy, they can be arrested based solely on "intention" to do...something. A 17-year-old served two years for throwing stones at an Israeli police car in Jerusalem, where Jewish settlers regularly riot, attack Palestinians and storm mosques without constraint, never mind arrest. One 18-year-old was arrested for “incitement on Instagram," another for declaring, "Allahu Akbar," God is great - this in an Israelwhere soldiers enforcing apartheid are deemed innocents, and calls for genocide "a legitimate way to raise national morale." Thus are "the roles of occupier and occupied, predator and prey, abuser and victim," reversed.

In all this, writes Jonathan Cook, "History is repeating itself." He cites Israel's genocidal consistency - and Western complicity - since 1948's Nakba, when up to 900,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their land, farms, olive groves by Israelis who then blithely claimed they were "making the desert bloom." What followed was decades of a carefully crafted, deeply fraudulent narrative - Palestinians never belonged there, weren't massacred, chose to leave - and a steadfast rejection of all non-violent Palestinian resistance to it. When Gazans gathered at the fence marking their seige, they were shot; when they hurled flaming balloons in a plea for visibility, it was called terrorism; when a movement to boycott Israel for its crimes took root, it was dubbed anti-Semitism. Even chants - “From the river to the sea" - were deemed an existential threat to Israel, though it was a critique of apartheid, not Judaism, and Likud's own charter declares of Jews' "eternal and indisputable" right to Israel, "Between the Sea and the Jordan, there will only be Israeli sovereignty." The problem, says Cook, isn't a slogan. It's "settler colonialism's mission" - as always, to replace a native population - and the "collective and wilful refusal" of observers of Israel's establishment "to join the dots in Gaza."

Echoing him is British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu-Sittah, who argues Gaza represents "the continuation of the Nakba." Its aim: "An uninhabitable Gaza Strip (and) the destruction of all the components of modern life," with a now-razed health system "the main military objective." In London after six weeks shuttling between Gaza's al-Ahli and al-Shifa hospitals and seeing "a massacre unfold," he dismissed multiple Israeli claims to justify their slaughter: That Hamas used Al-Shifa as a base of operations - he saw no evidence; that tunnels, some of which Israel built in the 1980s, proved their case; that civilians weren't targeted: "It appears the numbers tell a different story." So did his experience. Having spent 30 years in war zones in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Gaza, he described "medieval" conditions: Surgery without anaesthetic, soap or vinegar to clean wounds, patients screaming "in agony," children, again - 7 or 8,000 wounded, with up to 900, at times 12 a day, undergoing "very tough" amputations from being hit by fragmentary missiles. He also began to see burns from white phosphorus bombs; Israel denies using them, but Abu-Sittah plans to give war crime testimony to Scotland Yard. "If we live in a world where it’s okay to do this," he says, "that world is a dangerous place.”

Because that world is also infused with the message that Palestinian lives are of lesser value, last month a group of Gazan children held a "press conference" outside al-Shifah to plead for their existence. "We came to shout as children, urging you all to protect us," said a boy acting as spokesperson. "Stop the death. We want life." One can only hope they never saw the now-deleted video titled "Love Sanctified By Blood," created by warmonger and “crisis-communication expert" Ofer Rosenbaum, featuring a chorus of wide-eyed Israeli children singing, "Look the IDF is crossing the line/to annihilate the swastika-bearers/In another year there will be nothing there/And we will safely return to our homes/We will show the world/How today we destroy our enemy." "The bitter reality for us in Gaza," says Haidar Eid, a professor at Al-Aqsa University, "is that we are alone, beleaguered, under siege, and seen as undesirables even by some of those who are supposed to be our brethren." He denounces "the cowardice and hypocrisy" of Arab states, as well as the UN and EU, who have declined to help end a 17-year siege, and now genocide, evidently, incomprehensibly, because "thousands of corpses of women and children have failed to convince them of the need to act."

Photographer Majd Arandas, 29, felt the same isolation, declaring, "We are for Gaza, and Gaza has no one but us." Yet he chose to document the richness of Palestinian life, its land and sky and pockets of joy, "so the world knows there are people in Gaza who love life and beauty." Self-taught, Arandas often shot his images wide and in motion; said a mentor, "You got the sense he was trying to fit as much of the world into each frame as possible." "I am the living dead," Arandas wrote in 2016, but he held out the hope "our voice and cause reach the largest number of people." He was killed Nov. 1 by an Israeli airstrike near his home in Deir al-Balah. There are too many wrenching losses to count, and too many kids. The mother of Waseem Abedrabou, 8, wouldn't "let him sleep a meter away from her." But one night Waseem said he wanted to see his grandma, and she let him and his father Husam go stay with Husam's mother in Nuseirat. An airstrike killed them both; an uncle pulled his body from the rubble to return him to his mother; his aunt recalled a bright kid who'd won chess and engineering contests, and worried about losing his trophies if the home they'd left in Gaza City was bombed. "I don’t want him to be a number," she said. "Waseem’s eyes were full of dreams."

Abu 'Raed' al-Walid, a cheerful swimmer, volleyball player, Barcelona fan and muezzin "aged quickly" when his mother was killed, then his sister, children, nieces and nephews. "They took away Asma, my dear daughter and love of my soul," Raed laments. "My son Walid. My brother Ahmad’s four children. My sister Ilham’s daughter Najwa. My sister Reem’s children Yamen and Rawan." He made his "gang" kites from colored paper and flour-and-water glue, took them to the beach, built them a water-tank pool: "I die a hundred times a day as I remember how they died, how I couldn’t protect any of them." But in one small victory, award-winning poet Mosab Abu Toha, 32, has been released by the IDF after they detained and beat him as he tried to leave Gaza with his wife and three kids. He's been writing about fraught life in Gaza - "I am being killed every day with my people" - and, often, about kids. He was 8 when he first saw a rocket; his son Yazzan, 8, just asked him, "Are our toys still alive?" "Upon birth, mask up your children and leave them unnamed /so/ the angel of death won't find them," he writes. When bombed, "Turn off the lights in every room.../ have a bottle of water nearby/big enough to cool down/children’s fear." In 5th grade he saw a poster at the library claiming, "If you read books, you live more than one life." Now, "Whenever i look at faces/ around me...I read, 'If you live in Gaza, you die several times.'"

"Death was born here. It never left our neighborhoods." - Mosab Abu Toha

Boys leap in the air at the beach, part of photographer Majd Arandas' mission to show the "joy and beauty of Gaza." Seeking to celebrate what was once "the joy and beauty of Gaza," Majd Arandas caught boys leaping in the air at the beach. Photo by Majd Arandas

Palestinian prisoner Khalil Zama'ra hugs  his mother after being released from an Israeli jail at his home in Halhul village.Palestinian prisoner Khalil Zama’ra hugs his mother after being released from an Israeli jail.Photo by Mamoun Wazwaz/APA Images

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