Living conditions in the Gaza Strip are, to put it bluntly, what most civilized people would consider “unlivable.” But this state of affairs is nothing new. The UN and other humanitarian agencies have been predicting calamitous outcomes for years. Yet conduct a Google news search and, other than the little “blip” when another such report is released, Gaza barely breaks the news or sends even solidarity activists into the streets in any numbers until people die — and die in large numbers.
Thus, our understanding of Gaza is marked by milestones drenched in blood — the Israeli assaults of 2008/9, 2012 and 2014, and now, the massive protests called the Great Return March. Since the launch March 30, 128 Palestinian protesters have been killed and more than 14,600 injured. To put those numbers in perspective, the 2012 Israeli war on Gaza (the shortest of its three major assaults on the Strip) killed 174 and injured “just” 1,000. And yet few (except Israel, of course) contest the fact that the Return March protests have been largely nonviolent.
As the founder of We Are Not Numbers, a Gaza-based project that helps youths develop their English-language skills while sharing with the world their personal narratives, I have been struck by the high rate of depression among the nearly 200 members. A confidential assessment found that 56 percent qualified as clinically depressed. One might predict that a constant threat of violence would be a top contributor, but surprisingly, it was not. Rather, the most common causes of a depression so entrenched that suicides have skyrocketed in this otherwise deeply religious society are: their inability to leave the small, cramped space; chronic, persistent power outages (the average for electricity is just four hours a day); and the astronomically high unemployment rate (60 percent among youth). Those grinding, soul-sapping realities are 24/7; yet they have been going on for so long — more than a decade now — that the external world has come to treat them like a “necessary evil.” The message we collectively are sending the people of Gaza is that it is only violence — which ultimately means their deaths and injury — that will put them back on the agenda.
“I’ve been working at my writing all of my life, struggling to make the voices of my people heard. I believed that everyone has the capacity to serve their people, even if it is by writing and advocating in the security of their homes. Yet, what has been the result? My words seem to have fallen on deaf ears. My writing seems a mere token compared to the acts of the many others at the forefront, literally forcing change while they risk their lives.”
Another of our writers, Haneen Abo Saud (Sabbah), captures this same struggle in a poem, in which she is torn between joining the “death-defyers” on the front lines of the demonstrations and living to protest through her stories:
An inner voice pleads, “What if you get shot?”
My other voice responds, “So what? At least you tried.
You tried to break the silence and the chains.
Maybe you will feel better if you die fighting for your dreams.”
I know many people in Gaza and elsewhere who have lost faith in the Great Return March as the body count rises and the only result, in their minds, is “talk, talk” in support of Israel’s “right to self-defense” or milk-warm condemnation with no teeth. But my conclusion is totally different. The series of Great Return March protests has generated a steady stream of media coverage of Gaza that has actually focused on the inhumane living conditions and probed the “why” behind residents’ willingness to risk their lives (thus finally challenging the ridiculous trope that they don’t value life or are mere puppets of a genocidal Hamas):
The New York Times, notorious for hiring Jerusalem bureau chiefs with personal ties to the Israeli military, published three op-eds written by previously unknown Gazan Palestinians. One was titled, “Gaza Screams for Life.” In a piece attacked by Fox News and the Zionist lobby, the paper headlined one story, “Israel Kills 58 and Injures Over 1,300 by Gunfire at Gaza Border.”
The Huffington Post published a split-screen image, juxtaposing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in front of the Great Seal of the United States with a graphic photo of a Palestinian man carrying a child as he runs from flames.
The Guardian, which has a strong reach in the United States, featured a similar split screen, of the violence alongside Ivanka Trump opening the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, above a banner headline reading,” Israel: Trump’s new embassy opens — and dozens are killed.”
The New York Daily News went even further with this headline: “Daddy’s Little Ghoul: 55 Slaughtered in Gaza, but Ivanka All Smiles.”
CNN invited Palestinian Noura Erakat on camera several times to destroy the Israeli party line.
And the Washington Post gave her the bully pulpit for an unusual video op-ed.
Yes, “mainstream” media coverage continues to be, on average, conflicting and incomplete at best and Zionist at worst. But the fact remains that in the wake of the Great Return March, Palestinian voices and perspectives are significantly more apparent than in the past. That leads to public opinion shifts — a very necessary step before official policies and practices (like foreign assistance and UN votes) can begin to change.
Would this kind of high-profile attention have resulted from the March if Palestinians had not exposed Israel’s brutality by provoking its soldiers to shoot unarmed protesters? Sadly, I think not. Just as the large media don’t cover hunger strikes by Palestinian political prisoners until it begins to look like they might die, it’s Israel’s killing of nonviolent Palestinian protesters that inspired this wave of attention that has caused what I believe is the beginning of a sea change in the media/public landscape — an example of which is a video featuring Palestinian voices by a prominent, Jewish U.S. politician. The 128 deaths and about 8,000 injuries by gunshot were not in vain — although the price was steep.
But….wouldn’t it be so much more humane and just of the “world” — of which we are members — if we were as activated by the everyday structural violence imposed on Palestinians as we are when they are killed or maimed? And if we as activists showed Palestinian youth we will support and give visibility to their stories and art as much as we do calls for emergency relief and news of their murder/arrest?
Fortunately, in her poem, Haneen shows she has yet to conclude she can only be effective by sacrificing her life. She writes:
I imagine a hand extending from that far-away land.
I will just take that hand
And go home.
Still….how will anyone hear me then?
Who will read my words?
I will be shot for trying to reach for my dreams.
I want the world to hear my reasons, my reasons for marching.
We want to have a normal life with happy moments.
We want to breathe and have other worries besides what we will eat for the day.
We must be heard.
We must be free.
Let’s show Haneen (and the rest of the young writers and artists) she is right. That we will listen and support her when she shares her words. We Are Not Numbers is dedicated to doing just that, but we must fight for every penny of donation and live in a constant state of worry about lack of funds. We could do so much more if we had just a bit more support! Please consider helping however you can.