The names of four children jutted out from my computer’s screen like daggers on the list of the dead by name as I refreshed it. Memories of children laughing while flying kites on a beach in Gaza flooded my mind. Are these the same Bakr children I knew, and are they now among the 211 dead in Gaza?
Of course it doesn’t matter if I heard the laughter of Ahed (10), Zakaria (10), Mohammed (11), and Ismail (9) when I spent time with the Bakr family known so well in Gaza’s fishing community. It matters that their parents and loved ones knew their laughter by heart, and will likely spend a lifetime trying to recall the innocent ring of it.
My work in development and policy has brought me around the world, and some of my most eye opening encounters have taken place with the Palestinians of Gaza such as the Bakrs. I have visited the coastal enclave several times over the past few years, many of those trips in my previous capacity as program coordinator at Grassroots International.
The most heart wrenching of those journeys took place in 2009 just weeks after more than 1,300 Palestinians – the overwhelming majority civilians – lost their lives in the Israeli military’s notorious Operation Cast Lead. Palestinian human rights activists and grassroots movement leaders were eager for outsiders to witness the damage and bring findings to their respective countries. The destruction was palpable, vivid.
I had trouble describing the scene until a year later when I visited Haiti in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake. Gaza looked as if an earthquake had hit it. Much like an earthquake, the military operation did not spare the vulnerable – we visited hospitals, schools, and entire apartment buildings that had been leveled.
This time around is no different.
“My mom told me that it feels and looks like a tsunami has hit the neighborhood,” wrote Safa' Abdel Rahman-Madi from Ramallah in an action alert for U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace. The Israeli government has continually denied Safa’ the permits necessary to visit her family in Gaza. She phones several times a day to hear her mother’s updates. “I thought if it was a tsunami, maybe the international community would have acted fast to save innocent lives,” Safa’ reflected.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, estimates that 76 per cent of Gaza’s dead in this current military operation are civilians. Its report also indicates that 12 per cent’s status is unknown, easily bringing the civilian death toll to more than 80 per cent.
Last week, a friend wrote on his Facebook page that six of his family members had been killed in an Israeli drone attack on their home, three of them women, and one of those women a grandmother. “And they are still bombing everywhere. I want to scream my heart out,” he posted just 30 minutes after finding out.
Earlier this week, the IDF targeted a center for the disabled – killing three patients and their nurse. These attacks, like the strike that killed the four Bakr children, continue despite the IDF’s insistence (and mainstream Western media complacency) that it strives to minimize harm to civilians. By all means, Hamas and other militant groups are not free of blame. An Israeli family is mourning a civilian who was hit by a rocket on Tuesday, the first casualty in Israel since the IDF launched Operation Protective Edge.
My experiences in Gaza, not to mention the eyewitness accounts my Palestinian friends and colleagues there update in real time have given me insights that I wish mainstream news outlets would better report. As a U.S. citizen living in the EU, both my present and more permanent homes are implicated each time an Israeli missile flies, whether through military funding or preferential trade agreements. Framing this current crisis as solely a ‘cycle of violence’ or ‘Israeli retaliation’ is unethical journalism with undesirable consequences for all involved.
The Palestinians I know in Gaza are tireless, even under these unthinkable circumstances. In between smart phone videos captured from living room windows of buildings mushrooming into fireballs, and countless funeral processions from the streets below, they offer glimmers of hope – of humanity.
“My mom wants to give blood to the wounded, and we wanted to ask you where to go,” someone recently posted to a young female doctor friend’s Facebook wall. She offered advice, careful to point out the times of day when passers-by are subject to shelling on the main road leading to the hospital. “Go in the morning, between 8:00 and 10:00,” she suggested.
An old colleague uploaded a photo where he was standing on the beach with his son, both beaming, with waves foaming in the background. “It’s a tough day in Gaza,” the caption read in Arabic, “but these days are not without moments of joy, pride, love, and family.”
I wish you could know these amazing individuals, too.