The death and destruction being inflicted on the Gaza Strip is impossible to describe. Sitting here in Gaza, it is hard to even understand what is happening.
Last week, we witnessed another attack on a United Nations compound where civilians were sheltering — 17 dead, 120 injured — and an attack on a market in Shujaiya during the hours of what was supposed to be a ceasefire — 18 dead, nearly 200 injured.
Today in Rafah, Israel shelled another school run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, where thousands were sheltering, killing ten. Even the US State Department issued a rare condemnation of Israel, calling the attack “appalling” and “disgraceful.”
This is a nightmare. But it is one we know we cannot wake up from.
Israel’s Gaza Doctrine of illegally targeting densely packed civilian areas and homes is inflicting untold horror.
Israel is deliberately punishing civilians in order to exert political pressure on Hamas. They are collectively punishing the 1.8 million citizens of the Gaza Strip. How else do you explain the statistics?
The most recent figures collected by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) indicate that 1,817 Palestinians have been killed. Of these, 1,545 — an incredible 85 percent — are civilians: the so-called “protected persons” of international humanitarian law.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. Ordered to flee, but with nowhere safe to go: UN shelters housing civilians have been repeatedly targeted. The Gaza Strip lies in ruins. The destruction of Shujaiya is difficult to comprehend. Even the power plant has been destroyed. How will our hospitals operate? How will the sewage treatment centers run? How will we access safe water?
In the middle of this we want an end to the violence. We want an end to this horror, to this suffering. Too many children have died. War crimes have become our daily reality.
But a ceasefire is not enough.
We demand justice. We demand accountability. We demand to be treated as human beings, to have our inherent human dignity recognized. We demand an end to the closure of the Gaza Strip.
For the last seven years, Israel has subjected the Gaza Strip to a strict closure. By shutting the borders, Israel has slowly suffocated Gaza, subjecting us to a process of deliberate de-development.
Before the current offensive, 65 percent of the population were unpaid or unemployed. Eight-five percent of the population depended on food aid distributed by international organizations. Patients requiring life-saving treatment unavailable in the Gaza Strip were denied permission to leave. They died.
Life under the closure is not life. We cannot go back to this reality. I cannot imagine another seven years. The closure signifies the absence of hope. It means that Gaza’s youth have no future. No jobs. No opportunity to leave. Even when the war comes, we cannot flee.
But the closure is only one half of the reality of the Gaza Strip. The other is the total absence of the rule of law. War crimes are committed with complete impunity. The closure itself is a war crime and it is official policy of the government of Israel.
Beside this there are the constant attacks and the frequent offensives. This is the third major offensive since the closure began. Literally thousands of civilians have been killed. Thousands more homes and livelihoods have been destroyed.
These war crimes are committed with complete impunity. After Operation Cast Lead — the 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009 offensive — PCHR submitted 490 criminal complaints on behalf of 1,046 victims. In the five years that followed, we received only 44 responses. The Israeli authorities decided that 446 cases didn’t even warrant a reply.
One soldier was convicted for the theft of a credit card and received a seven-month sentence.
Two soldiers were convicted for using a nine-year-old boy as a human shield. They each received a three-month suspended sentence.
One soldier was convicted for the “misuse of a firearm” in relation to the shooting of a group of civilians carrying white flags, which resulted in the deaths of two women. He was sentenced to 45 days imprisonment.
This is not justice. The impact of these constant war crimes, and the resultant impunity denies our very dignity, our worth as human beings. It says our lives are not sacred. That we don’t count.
Faced with this existence, our demands are not excessive. They are not unrealistic.
We want to be treated as equals. We want to have our rights respected and protected. We ask that international law be applied, equally, to Israel and Palestine, to Israelis and Palestinians. The rule of international law must be adhered to, and all those responsible for its violations must be held to account.
We ask that suspected war crimes be investigated and those responsible prosecuted. Is this unreasonable?
We want an end to the closure. The illegality of Israel’s closure policy is not in doubt. In a rare public statement the International Committee of the Red Cross explicitly stated that Israel’s closure policy constitutes collective punishment in violation of international law. The consequences of the policy are evident in the reality of the Gaza Strip.
We ask that the closure be lifted. We want the opportunity to live a life in dignity. Is this unreasonable?
These are not political demands. They are a demand to be treated as human.
A ceasefire is not enough. It will not end the suffering. It will only move us from the horror of death by bombardment to the horror of death by slow strangulation.
We cannot go back to being prisoners in a cage that Israel rattles when it chooses with brutal destructive offensives.
Raji Sourani is the director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.