I awoke Sunday morning to news of a massacre in Gaza that evoked memories of Sabra and Shatila – not in terms of absolute numbers, but in the nature of its brutality. An estimated 60 Palestinians had been killed, more than 300 injured and hundreds more forced to flee their homes as Israeli troops and tanks barreled into Shejaiya, a neighborhood in eastern Gaza City. Spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Health Ashraf al-Qidra reported that Israeli forces had denied ambulances access to the houses under siege, saying that the area was a “closed military zone.”
And yet. amidst the reports of destruction, pain and loss, there were Facebook posts like this one from Malaka Mohammed, a young woman from the same Gazan neighborhood who is studying international law in the UK: “Watching Al-Jazeera and my friends and relatives among the casualties. And still strong. I have not seen my family as strong as today. We will never give up till we get our freedom.” For an hour and a half, her father refused to evacuate, even as the bombs were landing at a rate her neighbor described as “more than three in one second.”
In a post the day before, from the Jabalya refugee camp, Sarah Ali (a contributor to a collection of short stories called Gaza Writes Back) wrote: “Last night was horrible. My house shook every five minutes! Except for half an hour in the evening, we’ve been without electricity for over 48 hours. Due to the long blackout, we had no water as well. The Israelis have (again) bombed a main power generator that supplies electricity to many areas. There was Israeli shelling from the sea, air and land. I could hear the kids in our neighbors’ houses crying in terror all night. This is not about destroying Hamas; this is about destroying every Palestinian in Gaza, destroying our lives, crushing our dignity and morale. Let it be known to (Israel) that the more they kill and destroy, the stronger we become. We have nothing left to lose. Now I would rather die with my family under the rubble of our house than have a humiliating truce. No justice, no peace.”
In dozens of conversations with other youth in Gaza (who make up 65 percent of the population of nearly 1.8 million), the opinion was nearly universal: Despite their heavy losses and the gross imbalance of power, they do not want a ceasefire that merely stops the immediate fighting and promises to open negotiations on their other grievances. (The Gaza Strip has been under Israel’s control in some fashion for 47 years, but with suffocating intensity since 2007. Israel strictly limits travel in and out; controls the supplies that come in, including a ban on most construction materials; and prohibits virtually all exports, thus crippling the economy and triggering one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the Arab world.)
No. What they insist on – demand – is a ceasefire tied to an end to their repression, even if it means more death and destruction for their people. Life is meaningless, they say, if it is spent under the boot of an oppressor. My conclusion after numerous interviews with ordinary youth, from one end of Gaza to the other? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his spokesmen are wrong when they accuse Hamas of ordering a sheep-like people to act as human shields or to remain in their homes in the face of warnings to evacuate. The decisions of tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza to stay in their homes until they were literally forced to leave were for some an act of desperation, saying they had nowhere else to go. (UN schools already are crammed with 84,000 displaced individuals.) However, for many others, they were the principled actions of a proud, independent people. And when Hamas rejected the ceasefire unilaterally declared by Egypt and Israel, it had the support of the vast majority of residents.
“Honestly, most of the Gazan people are urging the resistance to continue fighting until they achieve our conditions – which is simply to be able to live as humans with freedom and dignity,” says Fadi Alshaer, a 29-year-old who studied English at the Islamic University of Gaza and lives in the Rafah area. “People here don’t believe that Israel will do anything to give us back our rights if they are not forced to.”
Ola Ziada, a 24-year-old news reporter and English instructor in Gaza’s Jabalya camp, is even stronger: “If they accepted the ceasefire with no preconditions, then I would consider it a betrayal of the blood that has been shed, of the four kids who were murdered just for playing on the beach. We would rather die than go back to the way we were before, imprisoned and forbidden from enjoying what a human should have for a decent life. We have been negotiating for decades and we have gotten nothing. I believe this is the war to determine whether to be or not to be.”
Of course, there are others who have paid a dear price who reluctantly feel otherwise. Omar Mansour, who lives in a town in northern Gaza that has been hit particularly hard, believes the casualties are too high and an internationally negotiated ceasefire should be accepted, even with no pre-set conditions. After holding out even after the Red Crescent tried to help his family evacuate, Mansour finally accompanied his parents to the home of friends in Gaza City when two relatives were killed and much of his block was destroyed. Still, he says he will return in the next day or so, despite the continued violence in his area. “I’m not afraid of death. All I’m afraid of is to watch them destroying my lovely house,” he says.
Mansour doesn’t disagree, however, when Alshaer, Ziada and others point out that the only significant “wins” the Palestinians have ever achieved is not through pleas to the United Nations or international courts, but through rocket fire (such as the concessions achieved at the end of the 2012 “eight-day war”) or abductions of soldiers (Gilad Shalit is a case in point, who was released in return for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners).
Lest one think that these are the fantasies of young people not properly schooled in history or the lessons of life, consider these words of Haider Eid, associate professor of postcolonial and postmodern literature at Gaza’s al-Aqsa University:
“The urgent question facing us in Gaza is not just how to survive for today, but how to hold Israel accountable to international law and basic principles of human rights; how to stop the current escalation and the ongoing massacre and how to stop this from ever happening again.
“Knowing that the credible Goldstone report on suspected war crimes in Gaza in 2008-09, and reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are all ignored or undermined, there is a bitter awareness that we in Gaza can have no expectation of Israeli accountability for the current onslaught…What Palestine needs from the world today is not just a condemnation of the Gaza massacres and siege, but also a delegitimization of the ideology that produced this policy and justifies it morally and politically, just as the racist ideology of apartheid was delegitimized.”