On my refrigerator door I keep a photo of an exceptional Palestinian woman who ran kindergartens in Gaza in the 1990s. Mary Khaas, who died more than a decade ago, would drag her teachers from their refugee-camp homes to visit her Jewish friends at a kibbutz just across the Gaza border.
Attitudes have hardened in Gaza over the last decade, and I don’t know how Mary would feel now. But as U.S. efforts to produce a lasting ceasefire falter, and temporary ceasefires run down, the photo reminds me that many Americans can’t conceptualize the humanity of the civilians who are dying there.
No one wants the Gaza Strip. The Israelis captured it from Egypt in 1967 and regard it with disdain. In Israeli slang “Go to Gaza” means “Go to hell.”
The Egyptians feel the same way. They occupied the strip in 1948 during the Arab war with Israel, when Gaza was part of mandate Palestine. Given the high unemployment and sinking economy in Egypt, the last thing its rulers want is Gaza.
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So Gaza’s men, women and children remain locked in a virtual prison. Since Hamas took control in 2007, Israel has kept the strip under an economic blockade; the Israelis control its sea space, airspace and borders, except for the Rafah crossing with Egypt. Gazans are rarely allowed to exit for medical treatment or to study.
Tens of thousands of Gazans who once worked as laborers inside Israel were locked out of Israeli jobs nearly two decades ago for security reasons. Unemployment is sky-high, and local businesses have been crippled by the blockade, or by previous battles between Israel and Hamas. Gaza lives off the international dole.
Israel portrays the civilian victims, including children, as “human shields” forced by Hamas to stay in harm’s way despite advance Israeli warnings. Hamas says the responsibility for their deaths lies totally with Israel. Each side accuses the other of war crimes.
Both narratives are simplistic.
Hamas has indeed exposed Gazans to peril by firing rockets that indiscriminately target Israeli civilians. By firing from built-up areas, Hamas puts its own population at risk, since it knows Israel will try to eliminate the rocket threat.
So Hamas is culpable for Gazan casualties, but the story doesn’t end there. There is no evidence Hamas is forcibly preventing Gazans from seeking shelter. Some Gazans stay put to protect their modest homes or because it is simply too difficult to flee with huge extended families.
As for prior warning, anyone who has been to Gaza knows the tiny strip is so densely populated that civilians are hard-pressed to escape the shelling and bombing. We’ve seen the videos of frantic families desperately trying to figure out which street is safe. We’ve seen them get blasted in a U.N. school shelter, in a hospital, and — in the case of four young boys — while playing on a quiet beach.
One reason the bombing has gone on so long and aroused a limited international outcry is that Gazans are rarely seen as individuals.
Mary Khaas’ photo brings back many memories of Gazans I knew whose stories would surprise Americans. There was Hatem Abu Ghazaleh, an eminent Western-trained surgeon who returned home to help handicapped children, and Eyad El-Sarraj, a psychiatrist who fought for Palestinian human rights.
There were the Fatah members I met in the 1990s who had spent years in Israeli prisons, learned Hebrew, and had come to believe the only way forward was two states. More recently, there was an impressive group of young academics and Ph.D. candidates I met in Philadelphia who encouraged young Gazans to channel their anger into writing short stories, collected into a volume called “Gaza Writes Back.” And there is the majority of ordinary Gazans who just want to get on with living.
The bottom line: It’s time to stop playing the blame game for civilian deaths in Gaza, or citing statistics and focus on this: Too many innocent people are dying. The bombing can’t continue.
Trudy Rubin is an editorial board member of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.