GAZA – I trekked across the Sinai Peninsula after watching the fighting from the Armistice line for a few weeks in December and January. Israel wouldn’t let human rights monitors into Gaza, so I decided to take my team of researchers in through Egypt once the fighting stopped. I’ve been to Gaza twice before – in 2004 when there were still settlements there, and again in 2006 after they were removed, and I consider myself seasoned to working in war zones. But the tragedy I faced in Gaza hit me hard.
Watching the rockets rain on Israel, and the bombs fall on Gaza I knew a humanitarian crisis loomed. With the borders closed people were going without food, water, electricity, and most urgently – medical care. I’ve been to many war zones, but one constant is always there – civilians bear the brunt. But as I stood there watching the white phosphorus flames raining down on Gaza city and Beit Lahiya I could only imagine the Dante’s inferno I would find.
The Abu Halima house reeked like a fireplace. The walls were black and sooty, the wooden beams long since turned to charcoal. The fire inside had been so intense the electric sockets had melted. I could only imagine what the family faced inside. I met Sabah Abu Halima, 44, a housewife and mother of a large family, in the burn unit of the Shiffa Hospital. She was thoroughly traumatized, laying there with her burned arms trying to grasp at her children no longer there. Her son Ahmad had to tell me what had happened. On January 4th an Israeli white phosphorus artillery shell pierced the roof of the house. It decapitated Ahmad’s father and burned his three brothers and a sister to death. Sabah and five of her family were burned in the fire and so their ordeal is not over.
In the days after the smoke cleared, the Palestinian Authority tried to pour millions into rebuilding Gaza but was thwarted. Now some humanitarian aid has been let in and Hamas activists are handing out cash payments of $5,100 to Palestinians whose homes were destroyed. Seventy-five countries and international organizations made pledges to give billions in reconstruction aid. Thus far, this is an opportunity lost for Israel. Moderate Palestinians have no reason to stay moderate. Israel should be helping with the rebuilding, provide victim assistance and compensation, and open the border to humanitarian aid and monitors.
The stories I heard will live with me for a long time, and the suffering Israelis and Gazans endured will surely last far longer if the warring parties don’t take seriously their moral responsibility to make amends to war’s victims for their violence.