Dr. Mona El-Farra on mass trauma and destruction in Gaza

Palestinian children look out of their damaged house a day after the ceasefire was declared on 26 August.

Ramadan El-Agha APA images

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Trauma and rebuilding after Israel’s onslaught in Gaza

Mona El-Farra: There is great destruction not far away from my place. Just 100 meters, there’s a big mosque that had been destroyed completely. And another further 200 meters, a big tower block that has been leveled to the ground, toppled to the ground with 58 housing units. It’s just a big heap of rubble. Shattered windows still on the street, people couldn’t have time to fix their windows because — this is my building, actually. My building and of course many buildings in Gaza.

Every 100 meters, 200 meters and every few blocks, you’ll find blocks of buildings destroyed. The situation is very sad not only because of the destruction, but you see people in the streets, especially youth, young kids like youth who are usually laughing and giggling — everybody has a big huge trauma on the faces of everybody. People don’t smile easy, and you can see the side of the effects of the 51 days — especially in the faces of the kids, the teenagers. They are just walking with lack of energy, lack of enthusiasm, and let alone the children — according to statistics, maybe 99 percent of us are traumatized in one way or another.

I talk about myself, but first, the children. One in two children have been subjected to real, real trauma. Myself, the first day after the attacks stopped, I was in a state of shock. Quiet. And the second day after, I would burst into tears, quite loudly, when I said hello to anybody, on the street or in my work. Quite loudly. And sometimes, I would laugh loudly, but without the good feeling of the laugh — it is an artificial laugh, it is an hysterical laugh. And I stayed like that for the first five days, but now I am back to … I’m slowly, slowly, getting my balance back, but without really the feeling of life. I feel that I have to do things, but I don’t enjoy doing things.

For example, I tried several times to watch TV, but I feel that I can’t watch any soap or any film. I can’t. Simply, I can’t. I switched off the TV. Actually, we don’t have enough electricity. Before the attack, it was a very dire situation, the siege, the problems with the water and electricity, et cetera, we used to find ways of coping with the situation. One ways of coping for me was walking, another way is listening to music or watching some TV when I have electricity. And now, I don’t find the comfort in walking, I don’t find comfort in watching TV or listening to music. Actually, I don’t listen to music now. It’s not because we are sitting in mourning, I don’t simply enjoy the music or the nice tracks I used to like by Arabic singers.

Maybe next month I’ll be back to normal but I don’t think so because the size of the catastrophe is great. I am surrounded by destruction either in my neighborhood, or in my work. I see it in the faces of the children and the teenagers, let alone the mothers of the displaced families who are trying hard to go on with their lives, or the babies who lost their homes, or the people who lost their loved ones, or the injured children, the injured adults.

Two thousand of the injured are children, 465 [dead] — I’m not sure of the number, but it is nearly the number of children — and I don’t see it like that, the children who have died. It is not just numbers, Nora. It is a story beyond this loss. It is the stories beyond those kids who have been injured, and many who have lost one arm or one leg, because of the severity of the attacks.

A little analysis — it’s not just getting safety or security for the Israeli citizens. It’s not like that at all. Because the resistance here is resistance, it’s not an army, and they are facing one of the strongest armies in the world.

So I cannot absorb or understand or get on with what happened to us during the 51 days. It was beyond words. It was not just war crimes — there was a systematic way of genocide. They were trying to get rid of us all. And of course I’m glad and relieved of the ceasefire, because if it didn’t start, there would have been more destruction than what we saw in Gaza. So I’m relieved it happened.

In the last three days before the ceasefire, and this is my personal story, I wrote on Facebook that we were watching stories of people, and I was afraid that I’d be one of the stories one day. It happened when my relatives were killed, and you covered that, Nora. But later, in the last three or four days, when they started attacking the big towers, the big buildings, and I live in one of those buildings, they started warning the building next to my building and another building. They’re not just buildings — they’re fourteen stories. So I felt that I was on the roll, my building was on the roll, and I had a feeling that I couldn’t go to my flat because I was living in another place, on and off. So these feelings — sadness and surrender that this was going to happen to me, that I was going to lose my home. And it was dangerous, my area. I couldn’t reach my home to collect anything, it was under shelling and very dangerous. So at 9 o’clock, when the shelling stopped, I decided to go to my flat, have you been to my flat, Nora?

NBF: Yes, I remember I stayed there, for about a week in 2008.

ME: Yes, it’s on the seaside. Yes. I went to my flat, with determination to fill two suitcases with some of my children’s photos, of my late mother, of my late father, other photos. And just a few items to keep me going if the whole house was demolished. It was not easy for me to fill these two suitcases of my belongings. Because while I did this and when I slammed the door, I was in tears and I said bye-bye. Then a few hours later, a ceasefire started, so I was happy that it did not happen to me and I survived the attack. This is the summary.

NBF: Can you talk a little bit more about what children have been telling you, you work with children and with women, in terms of those who have no homes to go back to, or who have lost family members, or who will be dealing with psychological trauma or physical disabilities, what will their life be like — as you said, even though the bombs have stopped falling, that’s obviously not the end of the story here in Gaza.

ME: No, it’s not the end of the story, because we are facing an increasing number of children, as I mentioned earlier on, who will need serious intervention because they were subject to trauma from losing their home, or losing family members, or a friend or neighbor. And we need to work hard to try to relieve the effects of the trauma in these children. MECA started — the Middle East Children’s Alliance — has started this project which we call “Let Them Play and Heal,” it started after the first assault a few years ago. It proved to be very helpful for children, and our team discovered many cases that need to be referred to mental health centers.

The project was a mixture between entertaining and professionally dealing with traumatized children. And we are going to start this again soon. So I’m appealing to everybody to help MECA to start helping the Palestinian children who were subjected to trauma during the latest attack against Gaza.

Actually, not only who were subjected to direct trauma — because there is indirect trauma, which is the whole [population of] children of the Gaza Strip have been subjected to the darkness, to the sound of the shelling, listening to the rubble on top of their homes, maybe it did not hurt them directly physically, but they were living in such atmosphere for 51 days, surely it affected most of the children of the Gaza Strip. There are two parts of the trauma in children — direct effects, those who lost their homes and family, and those who were indirectly affected because of the sounds and shelling, insecurity, being terrified most of the time, including the sound of the airplanes, the sound of the shelling. It affected all of us. But when it comes to children, it’s even harder.

End transcript.

Report from Kufr Birim

Patrick O. Strickland: That’s 12 year-old Yousef singing “Ali al-Kuffiyeh,” a popular song by acclaimed Palestinian musician Mohammad Assaf. And this is how the last night of a week-long youth camp kicked off in the destroyed Palestinian village of Kufr Birim.

A night of traditional songs, dance and laughter was in order. After all, the more than seventy kids present had spent a week maintaining homes, learning about Palestinian history, and doing artistic activities. The camp is designed to build awareness of their ancestral connections to Kufr Birim and its tragic history. The village was one of hundreds like it that were depopulated during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine that led to Israel’s establishment.

Unlike most of those villages, the refugees were promised they’d be allowed to return when the fighting ended. Yet years passed and it became clear that Israel’s occupation military was not going to make good on its promises. Despite a court order ruling that refugees could return to their homes in Kufr Birim, the Israeli air force showered the village with bombs in 1953. Homes, schools and businesses were all destroyed. Only a historical church and a graveyard were left intact.

Most refugees became internally displaced persons scattered across Palestinian communities in what became Israel. Today the surviving refugees and their ancestors are part of the estimated 1.7 million Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship. According to the Haifa-based legal center Adalah, they face dozens of discriminatory laws that limit their access to state resources and limit their political expression. For decades, the refugees and their ancestors tried to reach an agreement with the Israeli government. But their nominal citizenship and previous court rulings in their favor did little to further their case. It was clear that Israel was not interested in allowing them to return to their lands.

That is, until August 2013, when a group of activists with ancestral ties to Kufr Birim decided to take matters into their own hands. Understanding that Israeli courts rarely if ever deliver justice to Palestinians, they set up camp in Kufr Birim and refused to leave.

The Electronic Intifada met with some of them during the 25th annual youth camp of return. This year is special, they explained, because it also marks the one-year anniversary of the return to Kufr Birim.

George Ghantous is an organizer and member of Al-Awda, the group that organized the return to Kufr Birim. He is also one of the supervisors at this year’s youth camp. He spoke to The Electronic Intifada about the harassment that activists campaigning for return have faced over the years.

Ghantous said: “Sometimes we build things … they come, they destroy it. And then they don’t want to make it a big mess, so they go away. Our bathroom there was also destroyed. This part here,” he said, pointing to a wall, “we built a wall to make it safe for the children but they came and tore it down. We’ve been playing this game for thirty years with summer work camps and summer camps, but we started even before with many ways to reclaim our lost land.”

Ghantous also explained that the roots of the Al-Awda activist movement is based on a progressive and left-wing ideology. But the focus of the youth camp is on teaching the kids how Kufr Birim is part of the broader Palestinian cause. Ghantous said: “The children, they absorb it very easy because, I think, they enjoy [it]. At the same time, they have very good activities and relations. They get to know each other. They are living in different places – different cities, different villages, around Haifa, Akka, Maker, Jaysh, Nazareth and Jerusalem.”

George’s cousin, Waad, is a 23-year-old activist who lives in Haifa. Also a member of Al-Awda, she is one of the counselors at this year’s youth camp as well. She explained her family’s history in Kufr Birim as she stood in front of the partially standing remains of her grandfather’s home.

Waad Ghantous: This is my grandfather’s house. The one next to it, it’s my father’s uncle’s house. He got killed in ‘48 near his house because he came back to the house. They lived in the mountains around Birim in ‘48 waiting to come back. Then after two weeks, they tried to come back to the village again. They told them the war is not over, so you need to leave the village again. They kept trying to come back to the village. Then they had enough of this and went to al-Jaysh, it’s a village near Birim.

PS: Although Waad said she used to visit Kufr Birim several times a year while growing up, she now says she comes back several times a month. Since the August 2013 return, she has joined the group of activists sleeping in the village to keep watch.

On the last night of the camp, participants performed plays and sang songs. Three campers wrote a song about Kufr Birim’s youth returning to the village and rebuilding it. The camp ended on a positive note. Yet on 11 August, just days later, Israeli occupation authorities arrived in the village and hassled a group of activists on site. Officers took photographs of their identification cards and warned them to cut off the electricity, water and gas to the camp site, which the authorities claim is not legal. And yet another two weeks later, Israeli land authorities showed up again.

Accompanied by police, they arrived in Kufr Birim around 8am on Wednesday, 27 August. For more than an hour, they looted the village and confiscated camping supplies. They loaded mattresses, camping tents, lights, and other items into a large container and hauled it off. They also cut the water, electricity and gas. Despite the harassment and threats from authorities, activists say there are going to stay in Kufr Birim for as long as they can.

Reporting for The Electronic Intifada, this is Patrick O. Strickland in Kufr Birim.

End transcript.

Yafa Jarrar on her mother’s “internal deportation”

Note: This interview was originally produced and posted here by CKUT Radio in Canada.

CKUT Radio: I’m here at the People’s Social Forum in Ottawa with Yafa Jarrar, who is a Palestinian Palestine solidarity activist. We’re going to be speaking about a number of issues, but first, Yafa, an issue that touches really close to home is something that’s happened to your mother lately — Khalida Jarrar, who is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, also a longtime activist with the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

She was just ordered an internal expulsion order by Israeli occupation forces on [20 August], that sounds like a bit of a Kafka-esque thing, an internal expulsion order — but can you tell us what exactly that is and tell us what’s happening with your mother, Khalida Jarrar, right now?

Yafa Jarrar: Thanks for having me. Yes — as you mentioned, my mother … about fifty Israeli soldiers raided our house on Tuesday in Ramallah, in the West Bank, in so-called Area A, which is technically or supposedly … Area A under the Oslo agreement, must be under the Palestinian Authority’s control.

Now, of course, with the so-called security collaboration and cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli forces, Israeli forces invade and raid very freely, and in this very example, they handed my mother a military court order to be deported from the city where she lives, which is Ramallah, to another Area A city, which is Jericho. This is something that hasn’t happened since the ’80s — it’s quite unique. And all we can say, how she sees it, how we see it, is that this is just a form of punishment. It’s just one way of Israeli authorities and the Israeli apartheid state practicing some of their apartheid policy continuously with impunity.

So this is just one form of it. We’re also very puzzled by it. On one hand, my mother is an activist like most Palestinians, we live under occupation, we live under an apartheid regime, on the other, she’s an elected member of parliament. And in her case, so far the Palestinian Authority has not, in any way, said anything about this decision or court order.

Now, just in terms of quick updates, my mother refused to comply with the order. She remains in Ramallah. They gave her a 24-hour period to remove herself from the city of Ramallah to the city of Jericho, and they handed her a map of the limits of the city of Jericho where she’s not allowed to leave. She announced that she refuses to comply with this arbitrary order, and she emphasized that we are people under continuous occupation — these kinds of acts are only some of the outrageous acts that are committed by the Israeli apartheid state such as murdering people, such as continuing the siege on Gaza, bombing civilians, arresting people, expelling, deporting, theft of land, et cetera.

So she just moved now to a protest tent. She’s tenting at the Legislative Council until the decision is revoked.

CR: Now, this isn’t actually a unique measure that the Israeli occupation forces have done. There have been other examples of deporting Palestinians from their own land, which is already occupied. Can you tell us a little bit more about this wider practice of internal expulsion?

YJ: In terms of internal expulsion, which I mentioned, in terms of Israeli military court order, it hasn’t been issued since the 1980s. Now, in terms of systematic deportation and expulsion of Palestinian people, it’s been happening continuously since 1948. And this takes place in many different shapes and forms. Some Palestinians who are now refugees have been expelled from their homes in ‘48 areas to the West Bank, some have been expelled outside of Palestine to refugee camps in Jordan and Syria and Lebanon, et cetera, and others are in exile elsewhere, all over the world.

But to issue — and again, this is why I mention that this situation is kind of unique, and there is nothing … it’s not news that Israel would commit such a thing, or issue such a decision that doesn’t make sense — of course this particular decision violates Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, that states of protecting civilians under situation of war or occupation. In which case they’ve violated not just this article, but so many international laws —

CR: It also mentions, because you brought up the Geneva Convention, there’s a condition around prohibiting assigned residence. Maybe I got that wrong. But specifically around this, how does the Geneva Convention relate to that?

YJ: Right. One of the main things that they’re in violation of is transferring civilians from one area to another in occupied territories. This is a clear violation of international law, and particularly the Geneva Convention. So, by doing so, Israel — and again I just want to go back to the point before about why this is a unique situation — is because as we know, after the signing of the Oslo agreement, which we still suffer from today, supposedly they created areas of different control for the Palestinian Authority — some were shared, some are under Israeli military control. And in this case, they are removing a person from one area that is supposedly under Palestinian Authority control to another area that is supposedly under Palestinian Authority control.

We don’t see anything in this except for it’s a form of humiliation and punishment. And if she doesn’t comply, she’s under the threat of being arrested by Israeli authorities. Meanwhile, it also shows the failure of our own Palestinian Authority and so-called leadership in protecting their own people and the Palestinians, let alone their elected legislators.

It’s just a complete shame. It’s humiliating, it’s embarrassing, and again, it’s just one form of Israel practicing its continuous oppression and apartheid policies with impunity.

CR: I want to turn our attention to Ottawa and the unseated Algonquin territory that we’re on right now. We’ve been focusing on anti-colonial issues throughout the People’s Social Forum. And I’m wondering, what are some of the over-arching currents and similarities and ties you can see between the indigenous struggle in Palestine and the indigenous struggles here on Turtle Island?

YJ: Yes, of course. And we always have to recognize — and for me, as a settler on this land — we always have to recognize in our work, in organizing, but also in our learning and mind and teaching, and all of it. Consciousness that we cannot — and I’m speaking as a Palestinian and as a Palestine solidarity activist — we cannot meaningfully talk about the liberation of Palestine in this context here, in unseated Algonquin territory or any other territory, we cannot talk about the liberation of Palestinians and Palestine meaningfully without being in solidarity with the indigenous people everywhere. And in this case, particularly the people of this land and of this territory.

Being in solidarity includes being a part of their campaigns, being in continuous communication with them, because this is what makes us stronger. One of the things that unites us — as Palestinians and as indigenous people here on Turtle Island — is that we’re both subject to colonial projects. Now, these colonial projects differ, but they have a lot of striking similarities that we see. History repeats itself. Greed repeats itself and manifests itself in different ways. And we see a lot of similarities in terms of the actual apartheid policies that exist, let’s say, in Palestine by the Israeli apartheid regime and the policies that the indigenous people have been subject to here on Turtle Island and particularly here in Canada.

Residential schools, different forms of projects that led slowly to what is called or used as ethnic cleansing of certain people. Legal separation. We see it here with the reserve system. Residential schools — people still suffer from it today. And the same in Palestine – we see these kinds of legal separations and slow genocide, and ethnic cleansing. In many ways it’s slow, but we’ve seen it happening quicker with the situation in Gaza recently.

So, again, the one thing that I have learned growing up in Palestine as an indigenous Palestinian person who lived under apartheid, under occupation, under colonization, and now I am a settler on this colonized land, is that I have always learned, not just from the teaching of my parents, but also from my own experience, that we must always be in solidarity — in meaningful communication with all oppressed peoples around the world, all colonized people around the world.

Because there would be no liberation of one people as long as there is other people who are still colonized and not liberated.

End transcript.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).