Gaza’s new and terrifying reality

Israel is subjecting Rafah to airstrikes. 

Abed Rahim Khatib DPA via ZUMA Press

There’s a common joke in Gaza these days. It suggests that the most humane Israeli is the minister who effectively called for a nuclear bomb to be dropped on us during the early stages of the current war.

This joke – if joke is the right word – did not come out of thin air.

The scale of Israel’s horrific destruction – removing entire neighborhoods and radically altering cities and towns – is the equivalent of several nuclear bombs.

Amichai Eliyahu, Israel’s heritage minister, made the infamous comments about nuking Gaza in November. One advantage of the option he tried to put on the table is that a nuclear bomb kills its victims quickly.

That is in stark contrast with Israel’s genocidal war, which has now entered its seventh consecutive month.

I recently visited the southern city of Khan Younis for the first time since a ground invasion which lasted for nearly five months.

The scene was shocking and terrifying. I walked for many miles in the bulldozed streets without finding a means of transportation as the roads were no longer suitable for cars or other vehicles.

The city was completely deserted. Most of its residents had been forced – under the pressure of Israel’s massacres – to flee towards Rafah further south.

The rubble of destroyed houses seemed endless. Among the vast numbers of completely destroyed buildings, the occasional house would appear with some rooms or columns still intact.

In this terrifying reality, I found myself envying the owners of those houses.

“These people are lucky,” I said to myself. “When the war ends, they will be able to live in one or two rooms of their badly damaged houses.”

As I continued my journey among the ruins, I would sometimes notice things that Israeli soldiers had written in Hebrew on the rubble of houses.

I do not understand Hebrew but I found something written in Arabic. It seemed to have been a message left by an Israeli soldier who knew Arabic.

It contained an insult. So I expect that the Hebrew messages contained insults, too.

There was every indication that Israel’s military was acting with feelings of extreme hatred and malice.

After a long, tiring walk, I reached one of the main streets. It is called al-Satar al-Gharbi street.

I remember its features well. But for a moment I thought I was lost.

All the shops and other buildings were destroyed on both sides of the street.

I asked a man standing nearby to confirm that I was on the right street.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Strange,” I said. “I didn’t recognize it.”

“Neither did I, even though I’m from the area,” he said.

We both said a prayer that God would wreak revenge on the oppressors.

Memories in the rubble

I headed to the northwest corner of Khan Younis, where my apartment was located.

Buying my apartment seven years ago – paying for it in installments – was the realization of a dream. Before then, I had spent nine years moving between rented accommodation.

I loved my apartment very much because it was situated in a peaceful area, surrounded by parks.

My children were brought up in this apartment. They included my eldest son Abdullah, who was killed by Israel during this current war.

The last time I visited my apartment, I gathered all of Abdullah’s clothes and belongings. I put them in a corner and said that they would remain there in Abdullah’s memory after the war.

Then the Israeli army invaded Hamad City – where my apartment was located – and destroyed dozens of residential towers. They included the building in which my apartment could be found.

I heard this terrible news in March. But I didn’t pay a visit to the area.

I was trying to avoid confronting the shock of seeing my dream and the place containing my child’s memories turned into rubble.

Eventually, I plucked up the courage to go and see the site.

There were 22 apartments in the building where I lived. The dreams of 22 families have now been destroyed.

I tried to look through the rubble. But I could not see any of our belongings – apart from Abdullah’s bicycle.

It was shattered and obscured by layers of rubble.

This apartment had offered the last hope that my extended family – my father, my four brothers and their families – could have somewhere to live.

On 24 October last, Israel bombed my family’s home in Rafah with its US-manufactured warplanes.

Six members of my family were killed, including my son Abdullah. Others were injured, including me and the rest of my children.

My father’s house had four apartments. Now my father and my brothers suddenly found themselves homeless.

I told my father, “When the war ends, I will travel. You can live in my apartment until Gaza is rebuilt.”

This hope meant we felt there was still something in our lives. The hope was extinguished on the first day of Ramadan, when we got the news about the apartment’s destruction.

Lost for words

I was lost for words when I heard that news.

So I remained silent.

My father remained silent.

Everyone remained silent.

Israel is telling the world that it is fighting Hamas and it will not stop until Hamas is eliminated. But a quick review of the statistics published by any reliable human rights group exposes how Israeli propaganda is based on lies.

What Israel has been doing since the beginning of this war is to destroy Gaza systematically. Israel is turning Gaza into a place that is uninhabitable and pushing its residents to leave.

Most of the victims are women and children, not combatants.

Israel has destroyed all the universities, most hospitals and farmland that was a food basket for the population. It has destroyed mosques, bulldozed roads, prevented the reconnection of electricity, wrecked hundreds of archeological sites, some of which are thousands of years old.

It has forced more than 1.5 million people to leave their homes. It has subsequently refused to allow them return to the rubble of their homes.

The real goal of this genocidal war is to end the Palestinian presence in the Gaza Strip.

After seeing the ruins of Khan Younis and the ruins of my apartment, I went back to Rafah.

Rafah is different to Khan Younis. Whereas Khan Younis has been emptied of people and is now quiet like a cemetery, Rafah is crowded and noisy.

But these two images reflect the same reality.

The congestion in Rafah – a small city where the population has quintupled since the war began – has been caused by how Israel forced people to evacuate the northern part of Gaza.

Rafah is a poor city that lacks the necessary services for its residents – less than 300,000 people before the war began. So how could it cope with a population that has been multiplied by five?

There are only four medical centers in the city, though people call them “hospitals.”

There is no housing, so people sleep on the streets and on the seashore.

People suffer from a lack of everything: no food, money or shelter. And then death and fear are added to all of that.

Despite claiming that Rafah was a safe place, Israel has not spared it from its constant airstrikes.

Nowhere has been excluded from airstrikes.

Not residential buildings.

Not mosques.

Not even the shelters and the tents of displaced people.

Governments of the world have warned Israel that it must not undertake a major offensive against Rafah.

But Israel is using the threat of such an offensive as a distraction. Something to capture the world’s attention while Israel continues carrying out massacres.

Every day, Israel destroys more homes, more infrastructure, more farmland in all parts of the Strip.

Israel is carving up Gaza into different zones. Such efforts are clearly aimed at ending Gaza’s geographical unity.

That will complicate the task of rebuilding Gaza if the war ends.

It is certain that a ground invasion of Rafah will add a new disaster to the series of disasters that Israel has inflicted on Palestinians. But we also want the world to understand that the current situation in Gaza is absolutely dire, that Israel is killing us every day.

Even if it emerges that Israel has used the Rafah issue as a public relations stunt – to distract the world from its goal of establishing a new reality where Gaza has been turned into somewhere uninhabitable – this will not mean that everything is fine.

An entire population is being uprooted from its land and exterminated. It is frightening that the world has been witnessing this crime – with the aid of modern technology – for almost seven months.

Ahmed Abu Artema is a Palestinian writer, activist and refugee from Ramle.