I’m going to give the ending first of Sarah Helm’s riveting literary account of touring the overwhelming destruction of Gaza for Newsweek. Yes, Newsweek; but evidently the “European edition version,” whatever that means. Helm:
The evening I left, I passed back by Beit Hanoun. Three young teenagers were digging in the dark… They were clearing the rubble from their family orchard.
The teenagers showed me where they had planted a new clementine tree. As I squeezed back out of the Erez turnstiles, I realised why there was no longer a need to plaster up martyrs pictures on Gaza’s walls. The latest collective punishment inflicted on 1.8 million Gazans had made martyrs of them all.
Before that, we’ve learned that Gaza is a prison that now looks like Dresden in World War II and Israel’s actions have made all 1.8 million people into human shields, and most of them are refugees. Incredible. Helm is British, which helps explain the clarity. The piece is sold in a magazine-like way– “Gaza: One War, One Family. Five Children, Four Dead”– but while Helm describes that “erased” family in Rafah at the top, her focus is the sweeping, staggering destruction of a captive people. Her history lesson includes the Nakba and the refugee experience, and this passage uses words such as prison and siege:
People nowadays call Gaza a giant prison, and as I saw the new perimeter wall, built since I was last here, looming through the torrential rain, I could see why. And yet Gazans on the other side are not there for committing a crime. The vast majority are descendants of Palestinians who came to Gaza 66 years ago for refuge.
Before the 1948 Arab-Israel war, which brought about the creation of Israel, many of these Gazans had lived along this coast in towns like Ashkelon, which they still call Al Madjal. During the 1948 fighting they fled to Gaza as refugees and the towns they once lived in became part of Israel…
Gazan refugees now comprise 1.2 million of the 1.8 million “prisoners”. The rest have lived in Gaza for generations.Prison or not, Gaza today is certainly besieged.
Helm notes that the only other person to get into Gaza the day she did was a Palestinian who “had received exceptional permission to visit a relative in Jerusalem hospital.” She gives this important description of the inhumane bombing of infrastructure in Gaza. As they drive in,
puddles turned to torrents and our car – a 30-year-old Mercedes – sank, with water bubbling up through the floor, though our driver drove on through.
Exceptional flooding was caused not by the storm but Israel’s bombing of several Gazan reservoirs and a pumping station near the beach. We passed the ruins. The target seems to have been a police station, also demolished, right alongside. From the shattered pumping station, raw sewage flowed out to sea.
A simple and brilliant explanation of Israel’s indiscriminate killing of civilians:
It quickly became clear why so many civilians were killed in the summer war. Like Nabil’s family in West Rafah, these people, also near the border, couldn’t get away. In some cases Israel gave warnings, through leaflets dropped by plane or on the radio. Even then, the families often found nowhere to go. Israel accused Hamas of using children as “human shields” during the war but the whole Gazan population was a human shield. Wherever Hamas fired its rockets from, when Israel retaliated there was nowhere in this crowded land for civilians to go – no safe havens. “Civilians were at the eye of the storm,” said Raji Sourani, head of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Even if a family member was Hamas and carefully targeted by Israel, the house he lived in probably held as many as three families so destroying the building meant killing scores of others too.
Where is the balance? Thankfully she did not call Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the IDF; and her editors did not order her to do so.
She describes postwar Gaza in plain terms for a western audience. Think Dresden and London during the blitz:
All across Gaza I found more rubble – areas that looked like mini Dresdens, or London during the Blitz; bombed hospitals, schools, the fledgling airport destroyed, though the latter was bombed in a previous Israeli-Gaza war. Factories were flattened too including the famous al-Awda biscuit factory, which once employed 400 workers. And all around thousands more Gazans were living in the ruins.
I can’t believe this account is in an American mainstream publication, albeit the European edition (you can’t find it easily on the Newsweek website). It’s humbling, isn’t it: that an honest reporter can speak with such clarity about such overwhelming atrocities and not stop herself for the sake of this or that blessed political piety, and her editors allow her to do so? That’s what literary journalism was always about. This comment below the piece is very moving: “Sarah Helm and Newsweek, I add my voice to the other grateful voices here, in acknowledgment of your fine reporting and accurate descriptions. After years of misrepresentations of Israel as “peaceful” and Palestine as “war mongers,” it’s refreshing to see this article that courageously turns those portrayals around and dares to report Truth. Thank you, from the deepest portion of my heart.”