An early July letter from Hillary Clinton to Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban reveals her intentions to “defend Israel at every turn” and to ignore Israel’s serious human rights violations raised by the United Nations, a host of respected Israeli and international organizations, and a growing number of Jewish and Christian activists increasingly supportive of the nonviolent boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) for Palestinian rights and equality. Calling Israel “a vibrant democracy” and equating critical discourse on Zionism and Israeli policy with anti-Semitism, she does a grave disservice to the growing international awareness of the massive Jewish settlement growth in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the crushing siege of Gaza.
As a guest of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, I traveled to the region in March with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility to listen to the voices of and work with physicians, mental health clinicians, UN and human rights workers, teachers, students, youth groups, artists, and ordinary people. It was eight months after the devastating war that destroyed the physical and emotional structure of their lives and the fundamental sense of personal safety that is part of normal existence.
I listened to psychiatrists discuss the 51 days of intense fear and insecurity and the challenges of caring for traumatized patients when the clinicians themselves had lost homes, family members, and were equally traumatized. I climbed the rubble of Shejaia where 75,000 people fled under intense Israeli bombing and I met with families living in the rubble of their bombed out apartments because of the utter lack of reconstruction due to severe Israeli restrictions on importing cement and building materials. I noted that the only high-level rehabilitation hospital, el Wafa, was leveled despite desperate calls to respect medical neutrality in times of war.
Physicians and administrators from UN agencies such as UNRWA and OCHA talked of the 450,000 people, mostly women and children, displaced from their homes during the bombardment. “There was,” they said, “no safe place.” Some 900,000 people currently require food assistance. There is a lack of water and electricity, and raw sewerage pours into the Mediterranean due to the bombing of water and sewerage treatment facilities. The Ministry of Finance lies in a pile of rubble, Hamas and Fatah continue their quarrels, unemployment is astronomical, especially amongst the youth, and amidst the hopelessness, there is rising drug addiction and suicidality. This humanitarian catastrophe is compounded by a severely distressed society strangled by years of blockade and siege, factional discord, fundamentalist opposition to the right of Hamas, and dramatic restrictions in options for everyone.
Historical memory is a contradictory process, churning the narratives of the powerful against the realities of those who have suffered the most and are often left voiceless. Now, at the first anniversary of Operation Protective Edge, we are facing a crisis of memory; Israel’s massive ground, air and sea assault killed nearly 2200 Palestinians, including over 500 children, left 11,000 injured, and brought the apocalyptic destruction of homes, hospitals, schools, water and agricultural infrastructure. The popular discourse frames Palestinians and Hamas as the sole aggressors, ignoring occupation, siege, a crushing policy of “de-development,” and the massive provocations by Netanyahu and the Israeli military in the June build up to war. And then there is the phenomenal disproportionality of pitting 1.8 million largely unarmed civilians – most under age 18 – living on a beleaguered strip of land 6 by 26 miles against one of the most powerful military forces in the world.
I found a unique and intimate window into Gazan society, its massive losses, challenges, and phenomenal resilience. I bore witness to 1.8 million traumatized and extraordinary survivors. The intersections of a brutal siege, recurrent wars, homelessness, factional rivalries, and a patriarchal society were clear. I came to understand in a very personal way, the challenging political and human realities in a war-torn area and the desperate need for basic human rights; a respect for personal autonomy, freedom from violence, availability of education and economic choices, and access to housing and health care. I also came to love and respect the immense warmth, humor, and energy of the people in this forgotten and demonized place.
Most distressing, in the midst of the almost total lack of reconstruction, the tens of thousands of people living in their bombed out homes, the unbelievable levels of physical and emotional trauma, the lack of food and drinkable water, everyone I spoke with was worrying about the next Israeli attack. In Gaza, there is no real “post” in the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that haunts so many children and adults.
Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician, author, filmmaker and member of Jewish Voice for Peace.