What I Saw in Gaza

Amal Sedky Winter

gazaaswThe group was allowed to cross into Gaza from Egypt only because Egypt’s First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, gave her “blessing” to the mission, thus excepting it from Egypt’s 2-year-old closed border policy.

I am not completely new to war landscapes. I was in Iraq right after the 2003 invasion and I did faithfully watch Al-Jazeera’s graphic reports during the Gaza War of December 27, 2008 to January 20, 2009.

But when I arrived in Gaza on March 9, 2009, I succumbed to disbelief: Houses, apartment buildings were shot down (to be expected), but mosques, all police stations and all government buildings, including the parliament? The American International School obliterated; the United Nations Refugee School bombed; hospitals’ walls pocked with bullets. Lone houses stood in plains of rubble; 4,000 of them destroyed.

What the strip had of economic infrastructure was re-engineered into swaths of upturned concrete and twisted metal. Olive trees uprooted, crops bulldozed under.

And even when we were there, during the “ceasefire,” the war continued by non-explosive means. Nothing in — food, fuel, medicines, people with essential emergency skills; nothing out.

Either the enemy was far more powerful than anyone had ever imagined or the idea was to delete all life sustaining elements from the strip.

Who Are These People?

The people of Egypt, where I live part-time, and those of Gaza have a special relationship. We share the wounds of occupation and colonization and, while it’s very slowly getting better in Egypt, we watch our resources exploited by more powerful nations.

But the common relationship is more than political; it’s personal. Practically every Gazan I met had an Egyptian grandparent, father, mother, uncle or cousin. So they celebrated my visit to Gaza as an American but they embraced me as an Egyptian.

Having made this disclosure, I would say that Gazans are unique in the Arab world for their vibrant civil society. In spite of 60 years of Israeli occupation, they’re not waiting to be rescued. They’re focused on pulling themselves out of the rubble Israel made of their land. They said they don’t want handouts. They want a reasonable chance to live on their land.

Inexplicably, they don’t seem to be looking for revenge. I saw not one sign, poster or trace of graffiti which expressed anger or revenge against the Israelis. I heard no anti-Semitic word.

John Ging, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), reasons: “The issue for Gaza is not humanitarian aid; it’s truth and justice.”

Why Were The Gazans Attacked?

Israel carpet-bombed the 146 square mile Gaza Strip. The attack was supposed teach Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israeli villages.

But we all know that wars are never about one thing, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is so long and complex that it almost defies sorting out.

We should note one relatively new factor in the calculus, however. In 2000 the British Gas Group (BG) discovered 1.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (worth nearly $4 billion) beneath Gaza’s territorial waters. In coordination with the Palestinian Authority, the then government of Palestine, BG planned to sell the gas to Egypt for storage and distribution.

Tony Blair, who was prime minister of Britain and is now the European Union’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, intervened, pressuring BG to develop an underwater pipeline that would transport Gaza’s gas not to Egypt for redistribution to Israel, but directly to Israel.

While the election of a Hamas government in 2006 put an end to the Blair plan, the Israeli government proceeded to blockade Gaza’s waters, not only preventing Gazans from fishing but BG from harvesting the reserves.

In December 2007, BG Group withdrew from negotiations with the Government of Israel for the sale of gas from the Gaza Marine field to Israel. In January 2008, BG Group closed its office in Israel.

Gazans wonder if Israel is withdrawing gas by means of nearby “slant pumps”.

It’s true that Hamas’ militia fired rockets at Israel killing three Israeli civilians and one Israeli soldier and wounding 182 civilians. While the rights and wrongs of that action is debated, it’s at least interesting to note that their effectiveness was limited. One Gaza journalist told me, “The rockets had minds of their own. Some looked around and decided to sunbath in the Negev desert, others to take a dip in the Mediterranean Sea. Some decided they’d drop on Sderot, some on Ashkelon; many decided to turn around and go back home.” Hamas’ Katyushas are not smart. They lack the surgical precision of Israel’s unmanned drones.

Whatever the fine points, it’s apparent to most objective observers that Israel’s response to the Gazan rockets was disproportionate.

Israel had planned an all out war on Gaza for six months before it fired the first shot (December 27th 2008.) Then for 22 days, it dropped bombs from F16 jets and shot rockets from Apache helicopters (all of United States origin). Out of a population of 1.3 million, a total of 1400 were killed; mostly civilians and 40% of them women and children. Over 5000 were injured. 50,000 are homeless.

Ambulances were destroyed on their way to the wounded. According to Al Mezan Center for Human Rights 23 emergency service personnel were killed, 17 while on duty. Children clung to the bodies of their dead parents for days while Israeli soldiers prevented help from reaching them.

Psychological Effects

Umm Ahmed, a Bedouin woman in her sixties told me she hadn’t had a full night’s sleep for years. She lives in Hay al-Salam, the District of Peace, near Rafah and the Egyptian border. The bombing, she says, starts between midnight and 2:00 am (I heard it at 1:00 am that “ceasefire” morning) and she and her family get up and run to the fields.

Emad, a 23-year-old volunteer at a youth center told me that his cousin had lost both legs above the knees and one of his arms. His three best friends were drinking tea together when they were killed.

Every mother I met said her children were terrified. They cling, wet and soil themselves, and can’t concentrate. Some refuse to go to school, especially since UNRWA’s school was bombed. Those who do go are unable to study. They’re unable to concentrate. They’re irritable and easily upset. It doesn’t help, the mothers said, that their parents are short-tempered, too.

The Gaza Community Mental Health workers said that according to studies, 99.4% of Gaza’s children are seriously traumatized.

Everyone in Gaza is related to someone who was injured or is dead.

War Crimes

According to Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty International investigator in Israel, the Israelis “have extremely sophisticated missiles that can be guided to a moving car and they choose to use other weapons or decide to drop a bomb on a house knowing that there were women and children inside. These are very, very clear breaches of international law.”

“Prima facie evidence of war crimes” is what Amnesty International calls the Israeli practice of hitting residential streets with shells that send blast and shrapnel over a wide area.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch suggest that Israeli committed yet more war crimes by using white phosphorous. Splashing on humans, it ignites on contact with oxygen, burning through flesh and bone. It can’t be extinguished, except in a vacuum. It must be gouged out.


The Gazans “are very civilized people living in extremely uncivilized circumstances” says UNRWA’s John Ging.

Yet today, as before the war, the Gazans are trapped in an Israeli made prison. They can’t fight or flee; neither can they develop an economy which will sustain them and their children and which could provide them with the degree of security they need so that Israel itself could see them as an economic partner.

But today, they can’t get a piece glass to repair broken windows.

Please tell others about Gaza. Please insist that the United States pressure Israel and Egypt to lift the siege. It’s the least we can do.

PsySR Advisory Board member Amal Sedky Winter is a psychologist who divides her time between Seattle, Washington and Cairo, Egypt, where she teaches in the American University in Cairo’s new Graduate School of Education. Earlier this month, she traveled as a representative of PsySR and PsySR’s Gaza Mental Health Project team to Gaza to observe post-war conditions with American peace organization Code Pink. Amal can be reached at amalsedw@yahoo.com.


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