drowned by the whoosh of Hamas rockets taking flight…..In the
street outside, whistles and cheers rose. Why the jubilation, I asked?
Surely the rockets were a prime reason for Gaza’s catastrophe?…..You don’t understand, I was told. The Arab countries dare not throw
so much as a tennis ball at Israel. But Gaza can launch 100 rockets a day…..
Now that the dust is settling down, difficult questions will be asked and will need honest answers. There will be very few unbiased people in this fight.
We fully expect (and so does the world) that there will be another war just around the corner. It is important (as they say) to keep learning the lessons that hopefully will postpone, delay, and slow down the conflict. It will be vital to keep reaching for the middle ground, even if it looks impossible and sounds foolish.
I thought that killer drones were silent and practically invisible –
until I counted seven of the silver objects circling in the summer sky
overhead, buzzing endlessly like angry bees.
If you believe that all guns sound the same and one explosion is much
like another, then Gaza’s ceaseless symphony of war will provide an
education. Soon, you will be able to distinguish the staccato
thunderclaps of a naval bombardment from the deep and steady boom of an
You will learn that Hollywood is wrong and bombs do not whistle when
they fall – and you rarely see, or even hear, the jet fighter that
destroys the building in the next street. At first, this rib-shaking
explosion and its mini-mushroom cloud of black smoke appear to have
erupted from nowhere.
You will discover that salvos of Hamas rockets take off with a
prolonged “whoosh”, leaving trails of white smoke in the sky; that a
falling bomb does not explode on impact but drills a gaping void in the
centre of a building, smashing its way methodically through one storey
after another, before detonating under the foundations. Then you will
learn that when human beings are shredded and eviscerated, the street
runs with blood.
From previous wars, I knew that explosions have a strangely
capricious quality. But it was still a surprise to come across a single
surviving door, standing intact and defiant on a sea of rubble that had
once been a home. At another scene of destruction, a new television lay
beneath a mountain of white concrete, apparently unscathed; nearby, a
large bathtub had been hurled upwards to perch precariously on top of a
heap of debris.
After a few days in Gaza, however, you stop being surprised by the
extraordinary. Dinner takes place outdoors to the accompaniment of
explosions. Soon, you mentally phase out all but the most thunderous
blasts, just as someone who lives near a busy street will tune out the
sound of traffic.
But what if every blast is thunderous? That happened on Tuesday
morning when an ear-splitting, heart-pounding, wall-shaking bombardment
broke over Gaza City from midnight until 5.30am with barely a pause.
those hours, I had some sense of what London must have sounded like
during the Blitz.
Most of all, you learn that conflict in Gaza is fundamentally
different – more intense, more soul-destroying and more perilous for
ordinary people – than just about anywhere else in the world.
Why is that? First and foremost because Gaza serves as Exhibit A for
the dictum that you can run, but you can’t hide. In other wars I have
covered, civilians who find themselves in the path of battle simply take
what they can and move. They walk to safety, travelling as far as they
need to go.
In January, I was in South Sudan at the outset of that country’s
civil war. When the town of Bor was besieged and bombarded, most of its
people crossed to the far bank of the White Nile and set up a vast
This was a dangerous journey and the conditions that awaited them
were terrible. But at least they were safe on arrival. Once on the west
bank of the river, only the distant boom of artillery reminded the
refugees of the perils from which they had fled.
The 1.8 million people of Gaza have no such option. Their world
measures 25 miles in length and seven in breadth at its very widest
point – and just about every location within that tiny area has come
under attack. Thanks to the partial blockade enforced by Israel and
Egypt, Gaza’s inhabitants cannot leave: they have no means of escape.
The best that families can do is take refuge in the nearest United Nations property, usually a school, and hope for the best.
During my 12 days in Gaza, the number of people displaced in this way
grew by leaps and bounds. When I arrived, some 30,000 refugees were
sheltering in UN premises; by Friday, that total was close to 240,000 –
or 13 per cent of the territory’s entire population.
And that does not count the hundreds of people sleeping in the open
outside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, nor the tens of thousands more who
have packed into the homes of relatives.
Remember one other fact: about half of Gaza’s people are under the
age of 18. No one fights in Gaza without maiming, killing, displacing or
traumatising legions of children. This not a campaign waged in empty
desert, mountain or plain – forget Iraq or Afghanistan – but a battle
fought in narrow alleyways crowded with infants and families.
So when Israel sends troops and tanks into Gaza, understand what that
means. First of all, the inhabitants of the targeted area receive an
order to leave, delivered by voicemail, text message or a leaflet
fluttering from the sky. I happened to arrive a few hours before the
ground invasion began and the 100,000 people of the towns of Beit Hanoun
and Beit Lahiya, lying squarely in Israel’s intended line of advance,
were receiving these alerts.
Israel says that its prime concern is the safety of the people: only
by emptying an area can its troops fight Hamas without killing even more
civilians. The warnings also offer clear reassurance that everyone will
be able to return once the operation is over.
I do not question the sincerity of Israel’s argument and I recognise
the dilemma of its battlefield commanders.
I would simply offer three
First, these eviction orders presently apply to everyone inside an
Israeli-controlled buffer zone stretching for two miles along Gaza’s
northern and eastern borders. That amounts to 44 per cent of the
territory’s entire surface area. So almost half of Gaza has been
deliberately – if temporarily – cleared of its people.
Second, events have demonstrated the stark truth that nowhere is
safe. Twice, Israeli forces have bombarded UN schools housing the
displaced; in Jabaliya on Wednesday, they killed at least 16 people,
including children in their sleep.
Third, if Israel’s leaders act on their threat to expand the ground
operation and send their troops and tanks still deeper into Gaza, even
more Palestinians will be forced from their homes. Suppose Israel
decides to increase the area under military control from 44 per cent to,
say, 50 or 60 per cent. Every street and every block that Israeli
forces capture will represent thousands more refugees.
Where will they all go? Every available UN school is already packed.
Whatever threadbare system exists for sheltering the fugitives is, in
the words of Chris Gunness, the local UN spokesman, “overwhelmed” and
“at breaking point”.
Make no mistake: if Israel escalates this operation still further,
then the people of Gaza will be herded and corralled into
ever-shrinking, and ever more squalid, pockets of supposed safety.
What cause could possibly justify such suffering? This brings us to
the second reason why Gaza’s tragedy is different. Even by the standards
of wars down the ages, this one is singularly futile.
Israel, on its own account, is not fighting to destroy Hamas or solve
the humanitarian and security problem posed by Gaza. No, the purpose of
its campaign is to punish the radical Islamist movement for firing
rockets at Israeli cities, destroy its tunnels and delay the moment –
note the word delay – when Hamas will be able to resume launching
missiles. This is a struggle not for victory, but for temporary tactical
advantage in a campaign that Israel expects to have to repeat, time and
again, into the indefinite future.
And Hamas? Its rocket barrage is primarily intended not to solve a
problem, but to achieve psychological solace. Over dinner in a
Palestinian home last week, the boom of artillery fire was briefly
drowned by the whoosh of Hamas rockets taking flight nearby. In the
street outside, whistles and cheers rose. Why the jubilation, I asked?
Surely the rockets were a prime reason for Gaza’s catastrophe?
You don’t understand, I was told. The Arab countries dare not throw
so much as a tennis ball at Israel. But Gaza – little, impoverished,
blockaded Gaza – can launch 100 rockets a day. Never mind that Israel’s
“Iron Dome” missile shield minimises the damage they cause. What matters
is that they are fired at all.
My hosts, I hasten to add, did not share this view – and Palestinians
are enduring their nightmare with profound courage and stoicism. Even
in the midst of privation and terror, they greet visitors with dignity
and courtesy. Yet they are trapped in a vortex of suffering – and one
that has no discernible end.