Gaza’s tents have become ovens

The conditions in Gaza’s tents are appalling. 

Omar Ashtawy APA images

The Holocaust survivor and intellectual Israel Shahak was among the first to compare Israel to the Nazis.

Shahak suggested – more than 40 years ago – the only difference is that Israel hasn’t yet built ovens or gas chambers. Seeing conditions in Gaza, I think Israel has indeed done so.

Gaza has often been described as a massive concentration camp, but the conditions now are worse than the term implies. This densely populated patch of earth has become a cesspool of raw sewage, endless fields of rubble and pulverized asbestos, the toxic particulate matter of explosives and other military chemicals, water and air pollution, and inescapable filth.

It is poison upon poison, breathed in and out by young and old alike. Wounds cannot escape infection and do not heal.

Nothing can heal.

The trees are gone. Israel bulldozed them along with the majority of farmlands.

Animals die of thirst and hunger and rot where they fall. People, too, decompose where they fall from Israeli snipers.

Gaza is beyond the words we typically use. Concentration camp isn’t a big enough term.

It is a macabre laboratory testing the limits of unabated terror upon a defenseless captive population. The ceaseless buzzing of zanana drones punctuated by wanton bombing, broken, torn and dead bodies being pulled from rubble.

Rinse and repeat, day after day. Elevated cortisol levels that do not, cannot, fall to baseline ravage the mind and body.

Food is scarce or unhealthy. The water is dirty.

Eradicated diseases run rampant. Small feet are bare, dirty and cut up.

Hair and bodies unwashed for months. Scabies, lice.

Anger. Deep despair and depression.

Hopelessness. Fear. Terror.

This is what genocide looks like for the still living.

The narratives of sumud (steadfastness), courage and heroism are just another form of dehumanization. The sort that makes the world believe Palestinians can endure anything.

They can’t. There are limits.

Enough. It has long been enough.

The truth is grim and hard to witness, but it should not be masked with romantic notions of some angelic society with boundless capacity to withstand what should never be withstood.

Tent ovens

The nylon tents Israel forced people into are, alas, their ovens.

Heat strokes are the latest causes of death. Several children have died as a result.

Likewise, two Palestinian Christian women, another mother-daughter pair who had been sheltering in a church in northern Gaza after Israel bombed and destroyed their homes.

Nineteen-year-old Lara Grace Khalil al-Sayegh and her mother finally got permission to leave through Egypt after paying the mandatory $5,000 per person and waiting weeks on end for their turn. They had no choice but to leave on foot in the scorching heat, hoping to find a more hospitable earth to hold them.

Lara collapsed along the way and died of heat stroke.

Her mother remains in a coma.

Red dustpan

My friend’s children spend their days reminding each other and their parents of items in their now obliterated home.

“Remember how you had to push the button twice on the remote for it to work?”

“Remember the red shorts with Spiderman that Dad wore around the house?”

They laugh. But it’s not really laughter.

When my friend swept the kitchen and had to use a piece of cardboard instead of a dustpan, her youngest said, “Remember the red dustpan under the sink? … Remember the sink?”

My friend knows these are expressions of deep trauma she doesn’t know how to penetrate, and wouldn’t have the capacity to do so even if she knew.

She herself is barely holding it together. And she’s one of the lucky ones.

She has a job and modest income from an international non-governmental organization.

Her boys have shoes and one extra pair of clothes, which she washes by hand every day after coming home exhausted.

Achingly simple wants

Children ask their parents questions that have no answers. “When can we go home?”

They ask questions much older than their years and one wonders if they know the meaning of their questions.

“How are the ceasefire negotiations? Is there an agreement yet?” This from a 4-year-old.

I speak to children every chance I get and often ask the same question, “What do you want most of all in the world?”

Without exception, the answer is for the bombing to stop so they can go home. I prod to know what then.

What do they want after a genocide? Nothing at all.

A safe home is the ceiling of their deepest desires.

“What do you miss the most?” I stupidly ask.

“My father,” one boy tells me.

He cannot contain the tears that rush from utterance of the word “baba,” and he buries his face in my arms. I immediately regret the question, fearing that I may have traumatized him more.

I spend the remainder of my time that day in private conversation with him and his mother, listening to whatever they want to say, and I ensure they have enough food and supplies at least for the next month.

I don’t know if it was for them or to appease my guilty conscience.

Gaza is a place of stupid, pointless, meandering, painful questions with no answers.

Dismantled resourcefulness

In the past, despite Israel’s intermittent “mowing the lawn” bombing campaigns; despite the “diet” it put Gaza on to bring people to the brink of starvation; despite the power cuts, the cruel siege and imprisonment, Palestinians in Gaza still found ways to excel.

They created universities and managed to become the most highly educated people per capita in the region, with a literacy rate of more than 97 percent.

They built businesses, found ways to make do with sporadic electricity, established ingenious recycling industries, produced profound literature and art and created a robust local economy.

Israel always hated this. The Israelis have always hated our joy and resourcefulness.

Even now as people are barely holding onto life, Israel’s society and media personalities seethed at the sight of Palestinian children playing in the ocean on one of the hottest days in Gaza’s recorded history.

They claimed Israel wasn’t hitting them hard enough. Israelis apparently need to see a permanent erasure of our smiles and total despair in our children.

To some degree, they have succeeded.

People are deeply depressed. The social and familial bonds that have long fortified Palestinian society, especially in Gaza, are being slowly dismantled.

But for an ancient people like Palestinians, with roots older than Israel, older than Zionism and older than monotheism, this anguish will prove temporary.

When the conversations continue, especially in private after the tears fall, people remain eager and resolved to rebuild. Even those who plan to leave for the sake of their children, vow to return and rebuild.

susan abulhawa is a writer and activist. She is a founder and director of the Palestine Writes Literature Festival and Playgrounds for Palestine.




Thank you, Susan.
They are indeed testing people's limits, but they have been reached and surpassed in every way. ENOUGH. ENOUGH. ENOUGH!!

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