Civilians in the midst of war – a story from the humanitarian crisis in Gaza

Oxfam’s Michael Bailey returns to Gaza after the ceasefire and talks to the real casualities of the Gaza crisis – innocent men, women and children.

Oxfam’s Michael Bailey returns to Gaza after the ceasefire and talks to the real casualities of the Gaza crisis – innocent men, women and children.

I’m in Gaza for the second time since the ceasefires. I’m meeting six people who just survived a war. I’’m hearing about school yard panic. The first missiles struck Gaza City just as schools were emptying. School children, teachers and parents didn’t know whether to stay in the school yard or go into the street. I’m told of a wrong decision at one city centre school that cost 10 young lives. An Israeli missile struck the road as children were hurrying to get away.

I’m also talking with parents ashamed as they cried in fear in front of their children.

“My husband said I should be strong for them, but I thought we were going to die. We were the last family left in the apartment building. The tanks were coming up from the end of the road. We all crowded into the UN compound and watched the tank shells hitting the apartments we had just left.”

I ask them what you tell your children at a moment like this. “I said we are in a war.” Who is fighting whom? I ask.

The reply says nothing of Hamas, its all about civilians. “They are fighting us, civilians. They are angry with us and they want to punish us.” I can’t really argue back, I wasn’t there.

I can tell them about my trip to the Israeli town of Sderot (in Israel) during the war. I tell them about the incoming rocket warning and hearing the detonations while I was still hurrying to the shelter. They seem surprised. It’s news from another world, ten kilometres away. Another world they cannot visit because the Israeli government will not let them leave Gaza.

I tell them what I heard in Sderot. Left wing Israeli people told me they didn’t like what was happening to civilians in Gaza. They said they could hear the explosions and feel the ground shake. But they wanted the war on civilians in Sderot, the rockets from Gaza, to stop. Once again there was no talk of Hamas. “Our kids are told Arabs shoot the rockets, Arabs are bad.”

Gaza is a small place. Three weeks of Israeli bombardment and battling with Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups on the ground has left its mark everywhere I look. On the way south from the Erez crossing to Gaza, I pass through Ezbet Abed Rabou. Here every house has been reduced to a pile of broken concrete. Coloured towels, blankets, carpets and mattresses sandwiched between tons of flat grey slabs. The bright paint of bedroom walls exposed to public stare.

An old man brews tea on a wood fire outside his personal mound of rubble. “Yes”, he says “Hamas gave me money and Oxfam gave me water and the UN gave me food. I don’t want any of it, I want my house back.”

Further into Gaza City I pass car repair workshops with their roofs blown open. Factories scarred by shell blasts and filled with twisted metal. A cement works with 13 cement mixers and yellow industrial tractors pushed onto their sides like children’s toys. The owner is stunned, his private business, his expensive machinery, destroyed by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. “No work for 19 months because of the blockade and now this, why?”

I travel on to the Zaitoun farm lands. Amidst the wreckage of churned up mud and felled trees, an immense tangle of wire and white feathers. I have been here before. Oxfam bought 15,000 eggs a week here to distribute to the poorest families in Gaza City. Samiha’s 65,000 chickens were crushed to death when Israeli bulldozers destroyed his farm. Samiha is not alone, all around are ruined farms, mangled greenhouses and ripped up fields.

I’m due at Barcelona Park, a public space in Talet El Hawa, South Gaza City, for an interview with Al Jazeera TV. I’’m asked about the humanitarian need. Is the crossing at Kerem Shalom, south of the Gaza territory, adequate? “No, it’’s in the wrong place, it’s too small and its wasting aid money, more than $1,000 for every truck, $3 million a month wasted”, I reply. The backdrop to the interview is a large crater. An Israeli missile in the middle of the Park buried two basketball courts. Israeli tanks clawed up the playing surface of the football ground. The 15 metre lighting poles are flattened. Around the devastated park shell blasts mark the facades of residential apartment buildings. The shells have punched away balconies, windows and walls. The private details of people’s homes are on public view here as well.

I am still struggling to explain the devastation I have seen. Palestinian civilians I talk to in Gaza feel they were the focus of the Israeli military offensive. Israeli civilians in Sderot feel they are the target of rockets from Gaza.

Civilians on both sides feel they are under attack whatever the politicians say. That is what scares me most of all in Gaza today, the vulnerability of all these innocent civilians.