‘Ceasefire? Gaza has been taken back 1,000 years’

Palestine
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Salah Haj Yehia in Khuzaa, Gaza, holding a missile. © Salah Haj Yehia

‘I might be going to Gaza tomorrow, to take in some medicine,’ he says, searching his cell phone for pictures of his previous visits to the Strip. ‘I am still waiting for permission.’ Twenty minutes later, he gets the call granting him a pass, followed by packages delivered to his home. ‘Insulin,’ he says, as he opens one of the styrofoam coolers and holds up the life-saving medicine.

Salah Haj Yehia, the Director of the Physicians for Human Rights – Israel Mobile Clinic (PHR), has worked for the organization since it was set up in 1988, during the first Palestinian Intifada in the Occupied Territories.

Sitting in his living room, in the arab city of Taibeh, Israel, he explains the role that PHR plays in Gaza. ‘We have been going to Gaza since the closure of the Strip began in 2007. I’ve been there tens of times over the past eight years.We take much needed medical supplies and medicine for chronic diseases. We operate and teach new techniques to the Gazan doctors who are not able to attend international conferences and update their skills due to the [border] closure.’

Now, he was eager to go for his fifth visit to the Gaza Strip since Operation Protective Edge, 51-day war waged by Israel on Gaza began in the summer of 2014. The bombardment left 2,131 Palestinians dead (including 501 children and 257 women), 1,500 children orphaned, and 11,000 injured.

Haj Yehia made his first visit to Gaza shortly after the war started. He recalls the fear he felt as he walked through the Erez Crossing, the pedestrian way which connects Israel to Gaza, surrounded by the continuous sounds of sirens and bombings just beyond the border.

Two hours and 1,300 metres later, keeping close to the walls of the passageway for safety, he and a small group of doctors arrived in war-torn Gaza. Smiling, he adds ‘half the team of doctors who were going to go to Gaza backed out as soon as they heard the bangs!’

That morning, as the attack on the 360-square kilometer Strip continued, the PHR team took the 20-minute ambulance ride to the largest hospital in Gaza, al-Shifa hospital.

Haj Yehia was struck by two things: the magnitude of the destruction, and the emptiness of the usually over-crowded streets. ‘During past attacks on Gaza, people would walk around the streets, but this time, aside from the constant pounding of bombs, there was silence. Left and right, I saw only destruction; there were no people... It was as if Gaza was under curfew.’

'Half the team of doctors who were going to go to Gaza backed out as soon as they heard the bangs!’

The contrast between the eerie silence of the streets and the confusion and screams in al-Shifa Hospital was overwhelming. ‘As soon as we arrived, the emergency room started filling with victims from Sheikh Radwan [a neighborhood in Gaza] – the martyrs, the injured and the bodies without limbs – and with the stench of blood filling the room, the doctors from PHR started working alongside the Gazan doctors. Five people had been killed, and 26 burned and injured.’

The next four days were filled with fear and determination, as they went back and forth from their hotel to the hospital, working tirelessly with the medical staff in Gaza.

Haj Yehia was horrified by what he saw and heard. He made a brief visit to Shuja’iyya and Khuzaa, the sites of two major bombings, but he remembers Khuzaa in particular, filled with death and unfathomable destruction.

He visited a young man, an ambulance worker, at al-Shifa hospital. During a three-hour (so-called) ceasefire, a market in Shuja’iyya was attacked. As ambulances and neighbors helped the injured, another attack occurred. Twenty-two were killed, and 170 were injured. Haj Yehia wondered why Israel would bomb the neighborhood during a cease-fire, and then again bomb those helping the injured.

What most affected him was the day a cemetery was bombed, in a sense, killing the dead twice. While the funeral for a 75-year-old man who had died of natural causes was being prepared, the cemetery where he was to be buried was attacked. The injured and dead were brought to al-Shifa. That day, Haj Yehia wanted to go back home. ‘When cemeteries are being destroyed, I think it is enough!’ Still he persisted, and remained in Gaza.

Haj Yehia thinks the devastation caused by Operation Protective Edge is greater than that of the two previous wars. ‘Gaza has been taken back 1,000 years,’ he says sadly. In this open-air prison, nothing is safe or certain.

Gaza residents have been reduced to homelessness. Haj Yehia painfully watched 250 families set up camp on the grounds of al-Shifa Hospital. Plastic and bed sheets sheltered them from the summer heat, while the hard ground served as their bed.

Salah Haj Yehia, crossing the pedestrian border at Erez, Israel.

Salah Haj Yehia

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 44,300 homes were affected by the bombardment and approximately 20,000 housing units were destroyed or severely damaged. Prior to the attack, there was a shortage of 71,000 housing units.

Around 28 per cent of Gaza’s 485,000-strong population fled their homes, becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs), living in United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools, emergency shelters, churches, mosques, empty buildings and with host families. An estimated 110,000 remain IDPs.

Others have returned to the rubble that was home. Gathering what they could of their belongings, they have set up tents among the ruins – trying to create a sense of normalcy in an abnormal situation.

Shelter Cluster, an international organization which assesses post-conflict reconstruction, estimates that it will take 20 years for enough housing units to be rebuilt. However, the Palestinian Authority (PA) believes that if the blockade over Gaza were lifted, reconstruction would take approximately five years.

It’s not just homes that were destroyed.

Some 62 hospitals and clinics were damaged, including El-Wafa Rehabilitation hospital, the only one of its type in Gaza, which was demolished. ‘With 11,000 injuries, where are the patients who need rehabilitation going to go?’ Haj Yehia wonders. Of the 3,374 children who were injured, 1,000 will have permanent disabilities.

‘With 11,000 injuries, where are the patients who need rehabilitation going to go?’

The only power-plant in Gaza was destroyed. At the time of writing, electricity is available for only six hours a day. The water and sewage systems, in a poor state prior to the war, have fallen into even deeper disrepair, resulting in 450,000 people being unable to access municipal water. Around 12 per cent of wells have been destroyed or damaged, as have many distribution pipes.

Almost 420 businesses and workshops were damaged, and another 128 completely destroyed. ‘Factories that produce biscuits, plastic, cardboard and aluminum, and which purchased their materials from Israeli distributors, were destroyed. What is the reason for that?’, asks Haj Yehia.

The Agricultural Development Association estimates that the agricultural and fishing industries have seen losses of over $100 million. It is estimated that 3,670 acres of agricultural land, 316,579 livestock and 1,161 beehives were destroyed. As a result, over 8,700 farming and fishing families are now unable to support themselves, increasing the already high rate of unemployment, which stood at 40 per cent.

Prior to the war, UNRWA had stated that there was 57 per cent food insecurity. Currently, that figure is 72 per cent. The cost of food, Haj Yehia explains, has increased now that the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza are no longer usable. Produce has to be brought from Israel, usually at high prices.

It is probably the children who have been most affected. More than 25 schools were destroyed and 232 were damaged, in an area which was already 200 schools short.. The academic year began three weeks ago, with schools devoting the first week to psychological counseling and recreational activities. It is expected that 373,000 children will require direct and specialized psycho-social support.

Currently, there is a month-long cease-fire. As governments and the citizens of the world turn their attention to other political turmoils, ‘nothing has changed in Gaza,’ says Haj Yehia.

‘After eight years [of the border being closed], the people of Gaza are tired and depressed. They no longer believe that they have a future, and they live without hope. There have been three wars in six years, and many people have still not recovered from the last two. They are afraid that this was not the last of the attacks. And with winter coming soon, life for them is going to be very difficult.’

Haj Yehia believes that ‘things would change for the better for the Palestinians if there was freedom of movement and if workers could go to Israel. As their financial situation improves, people will be less stressed. As things stand, more pressure and stress is caused, which just makes things worse.’

Palestinians are resilient. When a life is taken, another replaces it. During the seven week war, joy replaced anguish for 350 mothers who gave birth to new lives. Even amid death and destruction, there’s hope in the sound of a newborn’s cry.

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