When the messages stopped: Reflections on Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza
From October 7th to 27th, my phone apps, emails, and texts constantly called for my attention, mostly fragmented messages and videos from the Gaza Strip, cries from survivors and the feared-soon-to-be dead. Medical colleagues and friends stayed to work in their hospitals in the north despite the impossible Israeli directive to move south (to what?) when the roads were reduced to rubble and there was almost no fuel for vehicles. Others did manage to flee from the north to the south, only to be bombed in southern Khan Yunis, Rafah, Deir Al Balah, and nearby refugee camps.
Some colleagues separated from their families (either internally in Gaza or because they now reside in the diaspora) are sick with anxiety. What will happen to the elderly relative who does not have access to her diabetes and high blood pressure medications, or the young pregnant daughter with no access to prenatal care? Are they even alive? There is no clean water and even bread is hard to find. Starvation is imminent.
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Young writers from the mentoring program I volunteer with, We Are Not Numbers, sent desperate, heartbreaking messages when they had access to a bit of electricity or internet connectivity, until October 27th when the messages stopped. For most of them, this is their sixth war, the traumas of the past resurfacing, layering their youthful enthusiasm and hope with fear and dread of the constant bombardments and growing catastrophe, a live-streamed genocide, the most terrifying experience of their already war-wounded existence. Our project has lost three writers to the missiles so far, along with appalling high numbers of their multigenerational families. At least one has been pulled out alive from the rubble of his bombed-out home.
In this country, we seem to have lost our moral compass and respect for human rights. In the fury and grief over the horrific Hamas attack, many have forgotten that destroying the lives of more than 4,200 Gazan children (one child every ten minutes since October 7th), will not bring back the life of a single Israeli child. We have forgotten that all of these children are precious and human and, contrary to the vile and bigoted comments made by Israeli officials and some of our Congress people, they are all innocent.
Messages to me from Gaza abruptly stopped October 28th, except for the occasional gruesome Instagram video. Intense airstrikes obliterated all methods of communication, which meant no landlines, cellphones, or internet. Now messages are intermittently coming again at a trickle, a reflection of Israel’s total control and the damaged infrastructure. The communications are sad beyond belief. “Unfortunately I am still breathing,” one young Gazan wrote to a colleague. “I will try to write something.” “..[A] terrible couple of days,” wrote a doctor.
What this constriction of communications represents in terms of civilian lives is frightening: no one can call an ambulance, check on a relative, rescue workers can’t communicate with each other or victims, hospitals cannot call in emergency support, humanitarian agencies were quickly brought to a standstill, local reporters could not document atrocities and if they were experiencing one themselves, they were unlikely be able to communicate their realities to the international community.
I cannot know if the health workers or young writers I have worked with, agonized over, hoped for, are still alive, searching for water, bread, shelter, loved ones, or buried in rubble-tossed graves. The hospitals have run out of morphine leaving patients writhing in pain, and there is almost no fuel to generate electricity. Patients are being treated on corridor floors because there are no available beds. Israel is bombing hospitals and ambulances, directing patients and staff to leave although there is nowhere safe to go and no medical facilities to receive them and no fuel or ambulances to transport them. This is all under the ruse that hospitals harbor “Hamas terrorists and tunnels,” despite the hospital staff’s assertions that this accusation is false. And even if there were tunnels under hospitals, it is a violation of international law to bomb them.
Gazans have been made largely invisible, and our government does not seem that concerned. By day 32, the number killed reached over 10,328 as reported by the Gaza Health Ministry; in a callous act of minimization, the accuracy of the death count was recently questioned by Biden. In response, the Ministry released the name, age, gender, and ID for almost every casualty. Each of these numbers is a person with a life, a family, beloveds, now a corpse wrapped in communal grief.
Meanwhile the US voted against a ceasefire at the UN and a meager twenty Democrats in the House of Representatives supported a resolution urging Biden to call for an “immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Israel and occupied Palestine” and to send gravely needed humanitarian aid to Gaza. Rashida Tlaib, who has denounced both Hamas and Israel, has been censured for critical comments about the Israeli attack and advocacy for a ceasefire.
Many in Gaza (and around the world) are realizing that Israel’s massive bombardment to “destroy Hamas” and move the population south may really be part of a cover, with US State Department blessing, to depopulate Gaza and move its people into the Sinai. This is called ethnic cleansing. There are also reports of Israel’s interest in controlling the natural gas reserves just off the coast of Gaza. The power of the military-industrial-fossil fuel complex in action.
Despite the moral stupor of our Congress, our city streets and college campuses are filled with protestors. Thousands filled Grand Central Station in New York, and a host of cities from the East Coast to the West, an estimated 300,000 gathered for a protest at the nation’s capital on November 4th. Acts of civil disobedience are happening all over the country. On November 3, a group of us from Jewish Voice for Peace and faith-based allies, shut down the Federal Building in Seattle for two hours. Several polls show that the majority of US citizens support a cease fire. Phone calls and emails are pouring into Congress with the message, “Ceasefire Now!” Perhaps we as a country have learned something from our morally and politically disastrous response to 9/11. Perhaps our elected leaders have not.
The Israeli and US call to destroy Hamas obscures the reality that Hamas is not just a militant insurgency that committed war crimes on October 7th, but an ideology of resistance born of decades of Israeli occupation, siege, and apartheid policies. Israel has bombed tunnels before, sworn to “destroy Hamas” before, and the fighters come back fiercer, better funded, and smarter in the ways of militant resistance. An ideology cannot be defeated when the roots of the ideology are not addressed. It is the responsibility of the international community to pressure Israel to end the siege and occupation, dismantle the apartheid systems, negotiate a viable and just future for Palestinian people, and to stop the endless flow of weapons into the region.
Internationally, many are calling for an immediate ceasefire and the provision of the necessary level of food, medications, electricity, and fuel. They are not merely calling for a “humanitarian ceasefire” or a “pause” to allow civilians to briefly recover, only to be bombed again with the weapons we have paid for. There are some 20,000 to 40,000 Hamas militants and 2.3 million civilians. A ceasefire would give room for civilian hostages to be released; otherwise they are likely to die in the Hamas tunnels; we know that Israeli bombs do not discriminate. Two million plus Gazan civilians and thousands of Palestinian political prisoners and prisoners held in endless administrative detention (no charges and no trial date) are all also hostages to the Israeli war machine. A full ceasefire could give space to negotiate a prisoner exchange for Israeli soldiers, begin serious humanitarian aid, and focus on respectfully addressing the root causes of this tragedy. The solutions must move beyond the continuation of settler colonial proposals that are now being discussed, with Israel maintaining control and Palestinians maintaining their subjugation.
Even Netanyahu speaks of “mighty vengeance,” and the Israeli government, parroted by the US and European governments, claims that “Israel has a right to defend itself.” Its response looks more like rage-filled revenge born of humiliation, shock and grief, with multiple violations of international law, and the creation of a new generation of Palestinians born into trauma, false promises, and abandonment by the international community. As the ground invasion continues, thousands more Palestinians will be injured and killed, Israelis will be injured and killed, and Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and possibly Iran may be triggered to do more than just stand with their Palestinian sisters and brothers.
Palestinians in Israel, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, many with relatives in Gaza, will likely be inspired to launch another unity intifada. With all eyes on Gaza, the Israeli army and Jewish settlers in the West Bank have increased their attacks, killing 158 Palestinians and injuring 2,375, in the continued efforts to drive Palestinians off their land and to suppress any protests.
And after Israel has bombed Gaza into the Dark Ages again, arrested and killed hundreds elsewhere, what then? Will Israeli soldiers occupy the Strip? Will they tighten the siege forever, or in their words, repeatedly “mow the lawn”? Will they push Gazans, 70% already refugees, into the Sinai and tent cities, creating another Nakba? The media is full of Israeli officials talking about “saving Gazans from Hamas”, as if destroying thousands of people and the entire infrastructure is some kind of gift. Palestinians are fully able to liberate themselves if we will only take the boot of occupation and siege off their necks. Oppressed people will resist. We supported that when it came to Ukrainians and Black South Africans; Palestinians cannot be an exception.