“The real victims of the war are the survivors,” my friend Hamza, a Palestinian journalist, told me earlier this month, as we drank mango juice at a beach café in Gaza City.
Indeed, despite 12 months of relative peace, Gazans are still enduring the aftermath of three Israeli wars in the past six years, an ongoing Israeli and Egyptian imposed blockade, a crippled economy, and internal political strife.
“Everyone here—100 percent of the people—are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Hamza said. Just moments earlier, he and his brother instinctively ducked their heads upon hearing a nearby firework explode.
This sentiment was echoed numerous times by the doctors, public health officials, journalists, artists, and aid workers I spoke with throughout my visit to Gaza.
“The war ended on the 26th of August, 2014,” said Dr. Ghada al-Jadba, the Chief Field Health Program officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). “But another crisis began. You will see the destruction of the houses but behind the houses you will see more and more destruction of the people. Behind each house, there will be a very sad story, a disaster, a humanitarian disaster.”
Hamza and another journalist, Jehad, took me to Beit Hanoun and Shujayia, where some of the worst destruction from last summer’s war took place. They showed me where, just a year ago, they witnessed hundreds of dead and mutilated bodies, killed by Israeli forces, strewn across the streets under the afternoon sun.
We saw apartment buildings that had been flattened by American-exported F-16 jets, the floors piled on top of one another like pancakes.
We saw people still living in the bare skeletons of buildings despite the absence of any walls. Large open spaces dot the landscape, where houses and farmland were completely demolished by Israel’s Caterpillar D-9 bulldozers.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza destroyed 18,000 homes, leaving more than 100,000 homeless. Approximately 2,205 Palestinians, including at least 1,483 civilians and 521 children, were killed. Seventy-one Israelis, including four civilians (plus one foreign civilian) and a security coordinator, were killed by Palestinian rocket fire and attacks on invading soldiers.
The blockade, which Israel and Egypt began imposing in 2007 after Hamas took internal control of Gaza, has prevented nearly all goods, including construction materials and many medical supplies, from entering or exiting Gaza. Gaza’s people, too, are largely prevented from leaving the Strip.
“It is like a large prison,” Dr. al-Jadba said. “This increases all the challenges of addressing health problems.” Since the war, these problems have multiplied.
A small number of patients whose condition Israel considers treatable only in foreign hospitals are granted limited exit permits. Most Gazans are not so fortunate. My friend, Mohammed, watched his father die after he was prevented from leaving for medical treatment.
Compounding the challenges imposed by the blockade, Gaza’s hospitals and schools are facing an unprecedented financial crisis. Forced to teach in overcrowded classrooms, many of which were damaged by Israeli airstrikes, UNRWA’s teachers are currently on strike. Gaza’s hospitals, seventeen of which were damaged or destroyed during last summer’s war, are on the brink of shutting down, as officials can no longer afford the fuel necessary for the generators. Gaza currently has just six hours of electricity per day.
These conditions have left many people feeling hopeless. “It was easier during the war,” a young aid worker said to me at a café one evening. “During the war, they killed us instantly. Now they are killing us slowly.”
When asked what Americans could do for the people of Gaza, nearly everyone I met said that political solidarity should be the first priority.
“This means that the illegal blockade on Gaza should be removed,” Dr. al-Jadba said. “The international community needs to help in removing this blockade. This will relieve the economic situation and improve the psychological and social situations.”
Suhaila Tarazi, the director of Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, agreed that Israel must “open the borders for people.”
“We are human beings,” said a doctor from the Union of Health Work Committees. “We have the right to live in independence and to move freely.”
“We want to live with the Israelis as good neighbors,” Dr. Maher Ayyad, of Ahli Arab Hospital, added, “but let us live together with open borders in love and peace.”
Just as I was leaving Gaza, four more Palestinians were killed in the territory, as an Israeli ordinance left over from last summer unexpectedly exploded amidst the rubble of a building in Rafah.
Too many Americans sat on their hands last summer while Israel used American weaponry to kill more than 2,000 people and destroy an entire territory’s infrastructure. How much longer will we remain silent?