Norman Finkelstein, son of Holocaust survivors, has been investigating the Israeli occupation of Palestine for over three decades. In 2018, he published Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom, which opens with the line “this book is not about Gaza. It is about what has been done to Gaza.” In the book he writes extensively about Israeli abuses in the Strip, and that, right after the blockade started, “economic activity in Gaza came to a standstill, moving into survival mode.” At one point, coriander, potato chips, chicks, chocolates and even musical instruments were among the many items forbidden to cross the barrier. The reason, typically cited, was one of “security,” to “thwart Hamas’ offensive capabilities.”
All these years of blockade, especially in the last decade, left 80 percent of the population relying on humanitarian help. UNRWA Director for Gaza Schmale explains that over a million people receive food assistance from UNRWA but, at least, no malnourished children are dying in the streets, like in Yemen. But if there were any doubts about how fortuitous this was, the comments of the advisor of the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert back in 2006, quickly set the record straight, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Six years later, the Human Rights organization Gisha won a legal battle which forced the Israeli government to release a document that advised the calories Gazans needed to consume to avoid malnutrition: 2,279 daily calories per person.
But the situation in Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis like the others, according to Schmale. It is not a natural crisis, nor a tsunami, nor an earthquake. It is a human-made crisis. Finkelstein agrees — in a 2018 interview with Democracy Now!, he explains that “Gaza is different from all the other humanitarian crises. Why? If there is a natural disaster, like a drought, people move. If there’s a human-made disaster, like Syria, people move. Gaza is the only place on Earth where the place is unlivable and the people can’t move. They can’t leave. They’re trapped.”
Maybe that is why Gaza is called an “open-air prison” so often. We have even heard it from the former conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, multiple times from the world-renowned linguist, philosopher and author Noam Chomsky, and several members from humanitarian organizations. Above all, I have heard it from every Palestinian I have interviewed.
Haneen, however, managed to get out. But even with exit guaranteed, she spent the night at the border. Hours after the gate to Egypt opened, the dozens of people waiting for their turn to cross were told that no one else would be allowed to pass that day, that they would have to wait until morning. Haneen started doubting whether she had actually made the right decision: “I was very scared, it was my first time. I was crying, asking myself if this was the right thing. Am I ready to go out to the world like this?”
Haneen was born in Gaza City in 1993, the main urban center of the region, where more than 700.000 people live. The story of Haneen’s family is similar to many others — they are part of the hundreds of thousands of refugee families in Gaza whose fate was sealed over 70 years ago. On May 14, 1948, on the fifth day of the Hebrew calendar of Iyar and after centuries of persecution of the Jewish people, David-Ben Gurion proclaimed the creation of the State of Israel. Yom HaAtzmaut has become one of the most important holidays in the country, celebrated every year in April or May.
On the other side of the barrier, May is commemorated in a very different way. Every year, on the 15th of the month, the Palestinians remember Al-Nakba, which marks the ethnic cleansing and destruction perpetrated by the Israeli military during the 1947-’49 war. In 1948 alone, thousands of Palestinians were massacred and about 800,000 were driven from their lands — one person’s independence is another one’s catastrophe. “I grew up hearing the story of my grandparents who were displaced, knowing that there was another home in our ancestors’ land,” says Haneen, “and there was this hope in my grandmother and grandfather, this idea that we would come back. We always thought it was just temporary, even though it was more than 70 years ago.”
It was also over 70 years ago, on December 11, 1948, that the United Nations (UN) adopted the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. The resolution 194 reads: “Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” For the past seven decades (except for 1956, 1960 and 1964) the UN has reaffirmed this right every single year. For the past seven decades, the Israeli government has refused it.
Before the Nakba, Haneen’s family used to live in Bayt Tima, a village 34 kilometers outside of Gaza. Haneen tells me her grandparents still have the house key, but there is no house to go back to. Bayt Tima was one of the about 500 cities and villages destroyed to make way for the newly-formed State of Israel. Today there is nothing but rubble where her grandparents once lived. “Sycamore and carob trees grow around the rubble on the site,” writes the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi in his book All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948.
For many Palestinians, opening up about their own Nakba is not easy — it brings back too many memories, too much pain. Sometimes, Haneen said, tears would run down her grandmother’s face. But she would always smile as she remembered her childhood: when she used to pick fruit up with her dad, milk the goats and arrange breakfast for the entire family. They had a big house where they lived with their cousins, aunts and uncles: “Everyone lived together,” she said, “It was beautiful for her.”
Haneen explains that her family was always very traditional. As such, she never told them the truth about leaving: “I told them I’d be having a good job with a good salary,” that would allow her to support her family. “This is the thing I said to my family and my husband’s family.” Her husband knows the truth, though, since they both decided she should leave to try and get a better future for their two kids. It was not a rash decision, but rather something that materialized over time.
She first started entertaining the idea when she was 16, as she and her sister dreamed about traveling and exploring the world: “There are many things out there and we haven’t seen anything,” she would think. Over the years, the idea disappeared into the background. That is, until the Summer of 2014, during the so-called Operation Protective Edge.
The sequence of events that in 2014 led Gaza to the brink of collapse is fairly clear. You can track the political and diplomatic timeline that led to the escalation of the already shaky relationship between the State of Israel and Hamas. But for the journalist Ben Ehrenreich, who was living in Palestine when it all began, it is not of governments or agreements he thinks about when looking back. “What I will remember of that long summer had nothing to do with Fatah or Hamas or the unity government or what appeared to be the real and final end of the peace process and the Two-State Solution,” he wrote in his book The Way To The Spring: Life and Death in Palestine. “I will remember it as the summer of children dying.”
On June 12, 2014, three Israeli teenagers disappeared on the West Bank. Barely a day had passed when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “This is the result of bringing a terrorist organization into the government.” Three days later, in a weekly cabinet meeting, he declared he had proof that Hamas was involved in the kidnapping of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frankel and Eyal Yifrach: “The same Hamas that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority] made a unity government with,” he said. The act, he warned, had severe repercussions. If Netanyahu was looking for a motive to undermine Hamas as a legitimate political power, this, one can say, “dropped into his lap.”
The story was repeated over the following days. Then, the invasion of Gaza. “As ground troops crossed into the Strip, Israel let loose with abandon its explosive arsenal. Gaza’s civilian population and infrastructure — homes and businesses, schools and mosques, hospitals and ambulances, power stations and sewage plants, civilian shelters and civilians fleeing in panic — came under relentless, indiscriminate, disproportionate, and deliberate attack,” writes the scholar Norman Finkelstein in Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom.
Haneen was 20 years old. She lived in Deir al-Balah, and her first child had just been born. “You never forget these things,” she said. She saw buildings collapse around her house: “It was a lot of fear and exhaustion and I was tired of living this vicious cycle of being under the threat of death. We did not have a shelter to run to,” she said. “So I had my daughter and we would put her in between — her dad on one side and I on the other — and we were both like a protection shield for her. We would sleep somewhere in the middle because if there is bombing happening and you are next to the window, the glass will shatter on top of you. And I would look at my daughter and it is hard to imagine a life like this for a child. It’s unlivable.”
The attacks went on for 51 days until a ceasefire was announced on August 26. In a report released in 2016 by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, they wrote that the operation was “the most devastating round of hostilities in Gaza since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967.” According to the UN, in those two months, 2,251 Palestinians were killed, of which 1,462 were civilians. Of the victims, 551 were under the age of 18. Over 11,000 were injured and 10 percent of those suffered permanent disabilities. Over 18,000 families — around 100,000 people — saw their houses destroyed. Behind, laid 2.5 million tons of rubble. On this Israeli side, 72 people were killed, six of whom were civilians. One of them was underage. Around 1,600 were injured. A house was destroyed and 11 others damaged. “These are not wars. These are just protracted massacres,” argues Norman Finkelstein.