Shell-Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault by Mohammed Omer (OR Books)
“The whole of Gaza is in the crosshairs,” writes the Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer in his powerful new book Shell-Shocked. Consisting of an introduction and the almost daily dispatches Omer filed as a reporter living in Gaza during Israel’s 51-day attack in July and August 2014, Shell-Shocked succeeds in conveying what it’s like to be the target of a high-tech massacre.
The reader gets an almost visceral sense of the assault. A bomb explodes in a town near Khan Younis, “a boom followed by a flash of light. Everyone screamed. The ground shook, the air seemed to implode, sucking the breath from lungs,” he writes. Or, “the smell in Shifa hospital is of burned human flesh.” Or, “The scenes at the school in northern Gaza are horrific. The peaceful light-blue walls … are still splattered with blood.”
After Palestinian resistance fighters emerged from tunnels to kill four Israeli soldiers near the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, Israel unleashed a barrage of artillery and tank shells that destroyed the area. Omer interviews an eyewitness who describes how one family was hit with tank shells “over and over again.”
The witness recalls the mother “holding her children by their hands. But I saw them disappear when the Israeli tank shell hit.”
There is plenty of pathos in these pages. “Look, she was just at the age of blooming roses,” says a relative of Walaa Abu Musallam, an adolescent girl killed by an artillery shell that struck her family’s apartment in the al-Nada residential tower on the first day of Israel’s ground invasion. “What threat was she? What did she do to Israel to deserve this?”
Or there is the story of 21-year-old Narjes al-Qayed searching for her 12-year-old brother, Ahmed, to whom she had promised an Eid gift. She eventually finds his body in a morgue and cries out, “Ahmed, I love you. Wake up. I brought your Eid gift, darling.”
The accounts of death and destruction are unremitting. Soon there is no room left in the morgues in Rafah — a city beside Gaza’s border with Egypt. The dead cannot be buried for fear of attack, in this case the onslaught that followed the apparent capture of an Israeli soldier.
Instead of burial, bodies are stored in vegetable refrigerators, the bodies of infants in ice cream coolers. For many, this was the ultimate humiliation.
Omer’s reporting leaves no doubt that the Israeli military deliberately attacked civilians, killing them in their homes, pursuing the wounded at hospitals and clinics, attacking sewage treatment and power plants, bombing mosques and even cemeteries. Ambulance drivers were not immune and neither were journalists, 17 of whom were killed.
Israel openly admitted that it targeted media workers for news outlets linked to Hamas — a confession to a war crime. That death toll makes it courageous for any reporter to cover a war, but especially if the reporter is Palestinian.
Omer holds Dutch citizenship and had the opportunity to leave with his family but chose to stay “in Palestine, my beloved home, with my wife, son, mother, father and siblings. I am not willing to let Israel or Zionism exterminate me.”
If the Israeli government believed its attacks would lead to the isolation of Hamas, the party which won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, it calculated wrong. Omer’s dispatches make it clear that most people in Gaza rallied around Hamas and the resistance struggle it waged.
“Israel failed [Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud] Abbas in negotiations,” a taxi driver tells Omer, and in doing so “empowered Hamas by making people like me see them as the only option for changing a grim reality.”
If the Israeli government’s purpose was to disrupt the unity government that Hamas and its rival Fatah had recently agreed to form, this aim also was an apparent miscalculation. All the political factions in Gaza participated in the armed resistance, Omer reports, and in the aftermath of the attack, a number of political figures remarked on the degree to which Palestinian unity was strengthened.
A Fatah leader in Gaza, Fayez Abuetta, tells Omer, “We forgot our internal squabbling and focused on what unites us all. Palestinian blood is most important to us all.”
Omer quotes various people living in Gaza as to what they believed Israel’s aims were. Some said they thought it related to upcoming Israeli elections in which the various Zionist factions compete to see who can appear strongest in supporting the Zionist enterprise.
Blood is the price of votes
The Gaza-based political analyst Hani Habeeb, for example, says that “Palestinian blood is the ‘price’ for Israeli votes. The more Palestinian blood is promised, the more Israeli votes are won.”
Omer’s own view is that Israel is determined “to drive us from our homes for good.”
Reading these war reports, one is struck by the impunity which Israel has been granted by some of the world’s most powerful governments.
After Israel shelled a United Nations school, killing 10 people, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement calling the attack “a moral outrage and a criminal act.” Again and again, Omer quotes figures from human rights organizations citing Israel’s use of collective punishment and disproportionate force.
Yet as the dispatches continue, all of these statements appear utterly inconsequential, exposing how international law can be simply ignored. If there is no political will by the major powers to enforce it, international law is just an empty shell.
Appeals to morality and law may resonate with the majority of the world’s people but not to those who hold power.
“Shell-shocked” is a term that was used commonly to describe veterans of the First World War suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the term more commonly used today. One year after the onslaught, the whole of Gaza remains in the cross-hairs, the whole of Gaza remains an open-air prison, and this account leaves little doubt that the whole of Gaza must inevitably be shell-shocked.
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.