Hundreds of Palestinians killed in Mediterranean were trying to escape hopelessness in Gaza

Palestinian schoolchildren walk past houses that were destroyed by the Israeli attacks, 14 September.

Ashraf Amra APA images

The day after it was reported that several hundred Palestinians escaping Gaza by boat had been murdered by smugglers in the Mediterranean, a prominent human rights advocate in Gaza said that these kinds of tragedies are a symptom of the seven-year-long Israeli-Egyptian blockade and the continuing systemic violence meted out by Israel in Gaza.

Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Al Dameer Association for Human Rights, told The Electronic Intifada on 16 September that the hundreds of Palestinians killed at sea were trying to “escape from the situation, the reality they live in Gaza. Seven years of blockade, three wars in six years and no hope.”

Along with a coalition of Gaza and West Bank-based human rights groups, the Al Dameer Association for Human Rights is collecting data across Gaza, assessing the humanitarian, health, environmental and psychological impacts of Israel’s latest attacks. They are also establishing a legal file that could be used to pursue Israeli war crimes suspects in an international court.

Abu Shammala told The Electronic Intifada that they hope to deliver the data and reports to a fact-finding delegation of the UN Human Rights Council, which is due to visit Gaza in early October. 

Listen to the full interview with Khalil Abu Shammala via the player, or read the full transcript below.

Khalil Abu Shammala: Al Dameer started from the first day of the war to work jointly with the other main human rights organizations. And leading the human rights sector in the Palestinian territories, we are the four leading the human rights organizations — the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, Al Dameer in Gaza, and Al-Haq center in Ramallah. And we took a decision to continue working in one team. We have a hundred field workers who have started their field work, a day after the ceasefire, and we are in the process to document the results, the impact of the war, the violations — not just for documentation. These documents will be submitted to the special committee of the fact-finding mission delegated by the Human Rights Council who can come in and visit Gaza in the first half of October.

With the data that we will have after the process, we will start to establish the legal file in order to follow the Israeli war criminals before the international court, and we work very hard to pressure [Palestinian Authority] president Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to join the Rome [Statute] for the ICC, and also the documents of the war will be used for different reports concerning the impact. Not just for the numbers who were killed or injured — besides this, we will prepare or establish reports concerning the impact on the environment, the psychological dimension of the people, children, et cetera. And different types to cover the life of the Palestinians in Gaza during and after the war as a result of the war and the Israeli crimes of 51 days of war.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: As you look around your own neighborhood, or the neighborhood where Al Dameer Association for Human Rights is located, how can you assess the immediate needs — what people need the most right now — in the weeks following Israel’s attacks?

KAS: We cannot talk about just one need. In fact, we are talking, for example, about 56,000 refugees who are distributed into one or two UNRWA [the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees] schools, whose homes have been destroyed completely — not partially — by the Israeli bombs whether during the ground offense or by the warplanes. Mainly these people are from east of Khan Younis, Khuzaa, and east of Gaza City, in Shujaiya and north of Beit Hanoun.

And imagine how these people suffer during their stay — they depend mainly on the services provided by the UN and the international relief NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], and the ministry of social affairs. The second need — people are waiting for the beginning of the reconstruction, the wide destruction in Gaza is very terrible. You can talk about every hundred meters in Gaza, you will find several or specific types of destruction as a result of Israel’s bombs.

In addition to this, the school semester started two days ago. And all of the schools, either governmental or UN schools, they started from the first day and they will continue for the first week to [provide] psychotherapy for the students and pupils at schools. But those who make these psychotherapy exercises, they need themselves psychotherapy, because they are affected by the war. It seems — you can see that the Gazans, all of the population in Gaza, need psychotherapy and should be done by external experts to enable these people to continue, and to look forward for a better future.

One of the most dangerous impacts of the war is the huge number of people who fled from Gaza during and right now — through the tunnels. They paid money for immigration through the Mediterranean in Alexandria [in Egypt]. And just last night, we received [news] that one of the boats containing 400-450 immigrants, mostly from Gaza, died in the middle of the Mediterranean. People started to receive this news since last night. Today, Gaza — all of the homes, every citizen in Gaza — is talking about this catastrophe. And this is the first time we’ve seen such [an] immigration campaign. It’s an illegal campaign but they escaped from the situation, the reality they live in Gaza. Seven years of a blockade, three wars in six years, and no hope, no reconstruction, no real political impact on the ground, high average of poverty, high average of unemployment — imagine most of the young people who are thirty years old and they don’t have any opportunity for jobs, and they cannot think of building or establishing a family.

So it’s not food, it’s not money — it is the needs of any human being. Because the Gazans are not looking for a specific type of life. They are looking for life itself, and they don’t have the option to choose any type of life.

NBF: That’s such horrible news. Khalil. What has it been like for you, personally, as a human rights worker, but also as a father, as a husband, to have lived through this kind of onslaught over and over and over again? And to see these kinds of desperate acts that people in Gaza are forced to take just to be able to live a normal life with basic rights?

KAS: Do you know what, I’m talking while my wife is here, listening and looking at me, my two kids are watching [a] Real Madrid match, but they are listening to what I’m talking about. The last night of the war — just to give you a real life example — before the ceasefire, all of the people who live in our building left their apartments because they were worrying about Israel destroying our building, after Israel started a campaign against the towers. They destroyed four towers, and because the rockets were thrown a couple of meters beside our building, all of the people left their apartments. I came late, in the afternoon that day, and I looked at my family’s eyes. The youngest daughter, Nisma, she said to me, “Look, Dad, we don’t want to leave our apartment. Because if we will die, we’ll die anywhere. So there is no reason or justification, and no secure place to go here or there.” So I decided to stay with them that night. They slept, but I continued to be up until six in the morning, following and monitoring, and waiting and expecting the worst. As a husband, as a father, I had the same feeling of any father in Gaza.

My friend Issam Younis, he’s the director of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, this morning he was talking [about] the immigration — and he was talking about what kind of future we can preserve for our family, our sons. We paid the price, but we don’t need our sons and family to continue paying the price without doing anything for their better life. It’s very terrible.

And we are [facing] a big dilemma — we are on our land, we are under occupation, under political strife, no hope. And you live in a very unique place, you cannot plan for two days. So you cannot completely and totally talk about any strategy in your life, whether in the personal dimension or in the family dimension. So you can imagine. Gaza is a big prison, everything is paralyzed, no government, and the political conflicts between Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and Hamas is continuing, even after this bloody war and the tragic impacts of this war.


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).