In Gaza, love is the strongest weapon

Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 18 January 2009. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)


18 January 2009

Late last night, a text message notified us that the Israeli government was very close to declaring that they would stop attacking Gaza for one day. Shortly before midnight, we heard huge explosions, four in a row. Till now, that was the last attack. Israeli drones flew overhead all night long, but residents of Rafah were finally able to get eight hours of sleep uninterrupted by F-16s and Apache helicopters attacking them.

Audrey Stewart, a human rights worker, and I stayed with Abu Yusif and his family, all of whom had fled their home closer to the border and were staying in a home loaned by Abu Yusif’s brother-in-law, who is out of the country.

The family arose this morning after a comparatively restful slumber.

For the first time in three weeks, they weren’t attacked by bombs throughout the night. This morning, while his wife Umm Yusif prepared breakfast, Abu Yusif and the children nestled together, on a mat, lining the wall. Abu Yusif had a son under each arm, while the youngest son playfully circled his siblings and then fell into his father’s lap. Umm Yusif prepared a mixture of date preserves and pine nuts, served with warm bread, cheese and spices. Her daughter smiled in contentment, while her nephew, her husband and a close family friend talked about the news.

The family isn’t confident that Israel’s attacks will end, nor can they know what Hamas will choose to do, but today residents of Rafah were able to at least begin assessing the damage. Abu Yusif and his son took us to their home very close to the border. The house is still standing; he’ll need to repair broken windows and doors, but he is better off than many of his neighbors whose houses are now piles of rubble.

Very near his home are the remnants of tunnels that are now unusable. A few dozen people picked through the rubble, salvaging wood for fuel.

Young boys carried pieces of wood in remnants of plastic formerly used to cover tomato plants. An older man told me he is afraid to carry even a piece of wood. Pointing upward, he explained that the unmanned surveillance planes circle the skies all day. If it appeared that he was carrying a rocket instead of a piece of wood, he might be targeted for assassination.

Sitting around an ash can fire, those who had maintained the tunnels tell us that they dream of freedom: freedom of movement and basic human rights. Every person can dream, but human beings in Palestine can’t dream of anything else but freedom, to sleep without bombing and to live without suffering from extreme stress. Fida, who translates for us, tells me she has a terrible headache very day, from the stress. She feels worse at night. Her little sister is so terrified that she can’t walk a step without help from her mother and sister.

She says that if Israel opens the border there won’t be any need for the tunnels. If borders don’t open, people will rebuild the tunnels.

Hussein tells us about a doctor who worked in an Israeli hospital. The doctor is a Palestinian who lived in Rafah. The Israeli hospital where he works is about 100 meters from where we sat. Last week, the Israelis destroyed his home and killed his children. He lost his children and his home, but he still works in the Israeli hospital.

One man, a teacher, says he hasn’t had one day without sorrow. He listens to the children he teaches tell many stories about how their homes were destroyed. He hopes his own child and other children like him can live like other children in the world. He hopes his son, his only child, will have a better life.

“Show the world we are friendly and we don’t love war,” he tells us. “Israel forces us to live under these forces. The war is not only against Palestinians in Gaza. It is against all Palestinians. They want us to leave this land, but we can’t leave it. They don’t want us to wake up safe.”

All of the men speaking with us had to leave their homes and find other places to live.

The drones still fly overhead, promising the possibility of further attack. If Hamas is accused of breaking the ceasefire, the people will pay. Many of these residents who live near the border also fear that if they do anything, even carry a stick, the drones overhead will spot them and mistake them for someone carrying a rocket and they will be attacked again.

Abu Yusif examines the damage done to his house. He tries to fix a broken water heater. His sons collect a bag of clothing so that everyone in the family can change clothes for the first time in three weeks. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll have another night of sleep. And, an even more distant dream, perhaps they’ll return to their homes in peace.

19 January 2009

Dr. Atallah, a physician in Gaza, invited us to meet him in his home in Gaza City, just a few blocks away from al-Shifa Hospital.

Early this morning, he and his family returned to their home after having fled five days earlier when the bombing attacks on Gaza City had become so fierce that they feared for their lives. “Believe me, when I would drive from the hospital to the place where my family was staying, I prayed all the way,” said Dr. Atallah, “because the Israelis would shoot anyone on the roads at night.”

Dr. Atallah has been practicing medicine as a general surgeon all of his adult life. Now, at age 61, he says he has never seen such terrible and ugly wounds as he saw during the past three weeks when he and a surgical team tried to help numerous patients with broken limbs, shrapnel wounds and severe burns. Neurosurgeons, vascular surgeons, orthopedic and general surgeons worked together on patients, as a team, trying to save them, but there were many whose lives they couldn’t save. He described patients with shrapnel wounds in their eyes, faces, chests and abdomens, patients whose legs were amputated above the lower limbs. Most, he said, were civilians.

“These are strange ways of destroying the human body,” said Dr. Atallah. “Please, come tomorrow to the burn unit, and you will see patients suffering from the use of white phosphorous.”

Dr. Atallah said that he began to understand the extent of the trauma and danger by listening to the stories of wounded and injured patients.

“Some were sitting in their houses when a tank bomb hit them. They didn’t know what happened to them,” said Dr. Atallah. “Survivors would reach the hospital after many of their relatives had been killed.”

Patients from Beit Lahia told him that an extended family of 25 persons had been attacked while inside their home. When relatives came to help them, Israeli snipers shot eight of them. Many of the wounded were left to die. Ambulances and Red Cross relief workers weren’t allowed to enter the area.

At one point, Israel announced a lull in the fighting, but then bombed the Palestine Square, near the municipal offices. Four people came to the hospital, severely injured. “We couldn’t save them,” said Dr. Atallah. “Seven others were injured, and they survived.”

“In Gaza City, all of the important buildings necessary for maintaining a city have been bombed,” said Dr. Atallah. “From ministries to civilian police stations, all have been destroyed. Some were Hamas buildings, but not all.”

We had just walked through the area where the buildings housing ministries of justice, education and culture were completely destroyed. Driving into Gaza City we saw mosques, factories, houses and schools reduced to rubble. We asked Dr. Atallah to tell us why, in his opinion, the Israelis had attacked Gaza so fiercely.

He believes that the attacks are essentially irrational but that a main cause for the timing and the magnitude of these attacks is that certain Israeli candidates for upcoming elections want to assure the Israeli public that they are willing to use military force to ensure security for Israelis.

“Palestinians all the time pay the taxes in blood,” said Dr. Atallah.

“One of the worst aspects of this war,” says Dr. Atallah, “is the lack of respect for the United Nations. Three UNRWA [the UN agency for Palestine refugees] schools were bombed. In Jabaliya, more than 45 people were killed at a UN school; F-16s bombed UNRWA supplies and stores.”

“In al-Shifa Hospital, we saw plumes of smoke for day and night. All Gaza, every day, was covered with smoke and chemicals. We don’t know how it affects the health.”

“Yes, ‘rocklets’ did go out,” says Dr. Atallah, referring to Hamas rockets fired into Israeli towns, “and we felt sympathy for any Israelis hurt by the rocklets. But, if someone hurts you with a pin, you don’t cut off his head. You ask why the person tried to prick you with a pin. Consider that people here are trapped in a prison and there is a shortage of everything. No one can repair anything. People wanted borders opened so that goods could come and go. After six months of closed borders, people are frustrated. Now, one side declares a ceasefire, they say nothing about opening the borders, nothing about withdrawal, and yet they want NATO to help tighten the siege.”

“I hope [US] President Obama will be much better than George Bush concerning these things,” said Dr. Atallah. “Human beings that have such a strong army should be civilized and not behave like a terrorist group. Fanatics can be expected to use terror, but a democratic state shouldn’t use fallacious statements as an excuse for massive killing. A state which does this should be brought before an International Court of Justice.”

“And yet,” he said, “we must experiment with ways of love. We are trying, with Jewish people … by feelings and actions. We need to succeed. We need to live together. We are trying to be in good relations with all the partners, all the views.”

“The strongest weapon all over the world is love,” says Dr. Atallah, adding that he has always believed this and has said this to his colleagues, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, throughout his career. He recalled declaring this same belief at the Eretz border crossing, shortly after the Israelis launched “Operation Cast Lead” on 27 December 2008. He had been among the 200 Christians in Gaza who were chosen (800 had applied) to cross the border and celebrate the Orthodox Christmas holiday with family members in the West Bank. When the attacks began, he ended his holiday and hurried to the border, knowing he must return to his work and his family. At the border crossing, he greeted soldiers, “Merry Christmas.” Soldiers answered, “Do you have weapons?” “Yes,” Dr. Atallah replied, “I have the strongest weapon of all, the weapon of love.”

Kathy Kelly co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence and can be reached at kathy A T vcnv D O T org.

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