The call was from someone working with the International Committee of the Red Cross. It came one day during Operation Cast Lead – a major Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.
I don’t remember the exact date when we got the call. Every day felt the same then.
The streets were empty of people. But they were full of debris from buildings that had been destroyed or damaged.
You could smell the explosives in the air.
It was eerie but far from silent.
Israel’s tanks and helicopters were extremely loud. Louder than anything else we could hear.
Al-Saftawi – the neighborhood where we lived in northern Gaza – was dark and frightening. There was no water or food and almost no electricity.
The day we got that call left a scar on my soul.
I remember my dad shouting my name and those of my brothers and sisters. He had to alert the other people living in our building, too.
I could hear the panic in his voice.
I remember neighbors rushing toward us so that they could help.
Some of them held my hands as I ran. I was barefoot.
I had filled a bag with a few belongings that I – then aged 15 – regarded as precious.
Some of my favorite clothes and my diary went in that bag. I also packed a few things that would remind me of my best friends.
But I had to leave the bag behind.
When I pleaded with my dad to let me bring it, he told me that I had to get out immediately.
All the residents of our building took refuge in one opposite us.
We were expecting Israel to bomb everything that we had.
Our home has five stories and a heavenly garden, with olive, lemon, fig and palm trees. It was built with my parents’ hard-earned money. We have a swing in our backyard. That made me feel privileged as a child.
Inside, we have a framed photograph of our grandparents. It offers a constant reminder of our family’s plight – of how we were refugees because our grandparents were expelled from their native villages of Beit Jirja and Isdud by Zionist forces in 1948.
Our family’s political affiliations are obvious from the pictures on the walls.
The photograph of my grandparents hangs beside one of George Habash. He founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
My home meant everything to me. Now, I was waiting for it to be blown apart.
We waited for what seemed like an age. Nothing happened. Luckily.
No time for healing
Operation Cast Lead lasted three weeks, during which Israel killed some 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including more than 300 children.
When it was over, I wished that everything would stop for a few days, so that we could process what we had been through; the cruelty to which Israel had subjected us.
But there was no time for healing. Life had to go on.
Palestinians in Gaza – myself included – have to deal with fear and loss at an early age.
We get on with our daily business after each traumatic event. Then another traumatic event occurs when we are not expecting it.
I did what I could to lead an ordinary life following Operation Cast Lead. I went back to school and pretended everything was ok.
But it wasn’t.
No matter how hard I tried, I was not able to escape from what happened on the first day of Operation Cast Lead. The sound of Israel’s helicopters were still buzzing in my head.
My sister Shahd and I were at school that day when Israel attacked a site nearby.
We fled the school together but became separated outside. On the streets, I kept calling out for Shahd but could not find her.
Thankfully, we were soon reunited. But the thought that Shahd could have been killed on that day has stayed with me ever since.
I am also still haunted by the image of schoolmates running from one place to another, searching desperately for shelter.
And I will never forget how our family had to break terrible news to one of my friends, then staying in our home. Her father was also staying with us and was killed in Israeli air strike when he went to buy some groceries.
We had to inform my friend and her siblings about their father’s death.
Even though I couldn’t get these things out of my mind, I managed to live with some degree of normality until early 2011. Then the uprisings erupted in Egypt and Tunisia.
Young people in Gaza were inspired by those uprisings. They prompted us to stand up for our own rights.
We started to plan our own protests and began mobilizing on social media.
My political activities distracted me from my studies. I would spend the mornings at school and the rest of the day either protesting or organizing with other activists.
In March that year, we protested for three consecutive days before the Hamas-led authorities broke up our protest. Police officers in plainclothes beat us up.
The small sense of optimism brought by the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings did not last long in Gaza.
The siege imposed by Israel and Egypt continued to have a suffocating effect on our lives.
Young people remained desperate. Unemployment was high and most families were dependent on food aid, particularly from the United Nations.
Later in 2011, I enrolled in Gaza City’s al-Azhar University. I began studying for a degree in English and French literature.
Going to college should be a joyful and exciting experience. Yet it felt like there was no way that I or any other young person could have a good future in Gaza.
Young women have it even harder than their male counterparts.The Hamas-led authorities have, to put it mildly, not taken kindly toward women, like me, who are politically active.
Decades of Israeli colonization have made the patriarchal culture in Gaza more pronounced.
The full blockade imposed by Israel since 2006 has left us isolated from the rest of the world.
One consequence is that society has become more conservative. Gender equality is not regarded as a priority by many at a time of worsening economic conditions.
After less than a year in al-Azhar University, I decided to leave Gaza and move to somewhere safer. Somewhere I could live more freely.
I went to Turkey, where I studied journalism at the University of Ankara.
From Turkey, I made various trips to Europe. I later moved to Belgium, where I am now studying French.
I have been away from Gaza for eight years now. Almost half of that time has been spent in Brussels, where I have been granted protected status.
Yet the horrors I witnessed in Gaza have not left me.
I often have trouble sleeping. When I do get to sleep, I often have nightmares.
I am regularly consumed with fear and anxiety. I feel unsafe, unstable and uncertain.
I get flashbacks of my parents’ faces when we were told to evacuate our home. They look terrified and helpless, unable to fulfill their basic duty of protecting their children.
I am afraid of losing someone I love or hard-earned and valuable possessions.
A sense of danger has shadowed me for a long time.
I am obsessed about having a plan for the next few days and, sometimes, even for the next few hours. If things do not work out the way I wished, I have panic attacks.
The trauma I have experienced is complex and I have decided that I cannot live with it.
Western psychology has limitations when it comes to what Palestinians have experienced.
We often hear that post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent in Gaza. The prefix “post” implies that the trauma is behind us, when it is really ongoing.
Despite the limitations of Western psychology, I have begun cognitive behavioral therapy in Western Europe.
I kicked off knowing that the healing process would be long and difficult, especially given that the violence inflicted on Gaza is continuing. Yet the process has been made smoother because I have found the right therapist, who acknowledged that my trauma is simultaneously personal and the result of what Palestinians have experienced over many generations.
My own trauma is part of Palestinians’ collective memory and consciousness.
Throughout my CBT sessions, I have got to learn more about the source of each emotion I experience.
That has helped me develop a strategy. I try to face, accept and express my fears, instead of avoiding them.
I am constantly aware that I should live in the present, rather than letting memories take over me.
The resilience of my people gives me strength and the hope I need to carry on.
Recognizing the trauma I have experienced has made me what I am today and has shaped my awareness about other injustices around the world. It has empowered me.
Israel wages psychological warfare as part of its occupation. That is part of a deliberate strategy.
Ariel Sharon, the late Israeli political and military leader, developed a philosophy of what has been called “maintained uncertainty.”
The analyst Alastair Crooke has written about how – through implementing Sharon’s philosophy – Israel “repeatedly extended and then limited the space in which Palestinians could operate by means of an unpredictable combination of changing and selectively enforced regulations.”
Palestine itself has been dissected through the construction of Israel’s settlements and road networks reserved for settlers. All of this was intended to induce in Palestinians a sense of “permanent temporariness,” Crooke has written.
Israel’s psychological warfare has become more extreme since Operation Cast Lead.
During the major attacks on Gaza of 2012 and 2014, Israel adopted stronger tactics of torment and harassment than it had previously deployed. Israeli forces phoned Palestinians with hostile messages, dropped leaflets with threatening content from planes and interrupted Palestinian radio and TV programs so that they could broadcast Israeli propaganda.
The International Criminal Court’s decision to open an investigation into crimes in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip is significant. Finally, Israel may be held to account for some of its crimes.
The decision also raises questions.
Why has it taken the ICC so long to arrive at this decision?
Why does the ICC wish to investigate the activities of both Israel and Palestinian armed groups? Why is it treating “both sides” – the occupier and the occupied – as if they are equal?
Why is the investigation limited to things that happened after June 2014? That means that many of Israel’s crimes – including those committed during Operation Cast Lead – have been neglected.
Will Israel’s impunity really end? Do Palestinian lives matter for the world’s most powerful governments and institutions?
Palestinians know very well that the US and European Union are complicit in the crimes committed against them. They present themselves as advocates for human rights, yet finance and enable Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ basic rights.
Some of the protagonists in Operation Cast Lead enjoy an undeserved respectability.
Gabi Ashkenazi, the military chief who oversaw the offensive, is now Israel’s foreign minister. That means he holds the post which Tzipi Livni held in 2008 and early 2009, when she encouraged Israeli troops to behave extremely violently while attacking Gaza.
Today, Livni sits on the International Crisis Group’s board of trustees. The website of the International Crisis Group claims that it is “working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world.”
Israel has always acted as if it is above international law. Ever since it was established, Israel has treated Palestinians as a “demographic time bomb” right from the moment they are born.
Although Israel has developed and put into practice a range of different techniques to contain and to break Palestinians, we have not gone away.
As one of our great poets, Tawfiq Ziyad, wrote:
Here we shall remain
A wall on your chests
We starve, go naked, sing songs
And fill the streets
And the jails with pride
We breed rebellions
One after another
Like 20 impossibles we remain
In Lydda, Ramleh, Galilee.
Tamam Abusalama was born and raised in the Gaza Strip. She now lives in Belgium.