They were somewhat happier times on my first visit to Gaza. I hesitate to use the word happier, it feels callous – but given how things are currently, maybe it’s about right, writes Thom Walker.
My guide was our ever-ebullient fixer Khaled Abu Ghali. His warmth and encyclopaedic knowledge of the situation here is unrivalled by almost anyone I have ever worked with. His bravery and heart on this visit, as well as that of our driver Khaled Kahoulut, have been almost overwhelming.
What our team found in these “happier times” was both tragic and devastating, especially for the first time visitor. There was no rumble of F16s overhead, nor whirr of drones, or dull thud of artillery and rocket fire that are so common now. Yet among the welcoming smiles, there was sadness and anger. Anger at the immense difficulty of simply living here.
We met the Dola family, living five to a room in their rat-infested home in the Al-Shate refugee camp – the same camp that was hit by a strike two days ago. Their oldest son, a 26-year-old former kung-fu king named Arab, had recently had a baby. After a fall at the building site where he worked, he had been paralysed from the waist town. Formerly the family’s sole breadwinner, he was no longer able to earn a living, and remained bed bound, barely able to cradle his new-born daughter, Asil.
Watch: the children of Gaza
Then there was the charming Suhel, a budding and talented footballer and just 17 years old. His team made it to the final of a local tournament largely thanks to him. Quick and skilful, he ran rings around most of his opponents. Yet with no means of ever leaving this narrow strip of land, he told us he had few hopes for his footballing future.
The mood is dark, yet defiant, but with little hope, the level of destruction barely fathomable. Thom Walker
The stress faced by Gaza’s 1.8 million people seemed unbearable even in those more peaceful times. Jobs were scarce, many thousands lived on food aid, and the seven-year siege remained. There is the highly restricted border to the north with Israel. To the south, a once-friendly Egyptian government in the Muslim Brotherhood has been ousted for military hardliners who saw Hamas as a threat. Despite this, everyone I met was friendly and educated. Many spoke excellent English, but few maintained much optimism for their lives ahead.
In pictures: despair and anger in Gaza City
Six months later, and such thoughts of the future can only have worsened. The mood is dark, yet defiant, but with little hope, the level of destruction barely fathomable. Whole areas like Shajaiya have been flattened beyond recognition. Entire streets, neighbourhoods and lives destroyed in barely three weeks, while the shocking number of dead continues to rise each day. When we drove around in February, the scars of wars past were evident. That was where a mosque was destroyed in the 2008 conflict, Khaled told me. There, an Israeli F16 hit a house in 2012.
Conditions were dire undoubtedly, but most houses were still standing. Seeing the level of destruction wreaked on the territory this time, it’s hard to imagine when, if ever, the rubble will be cleared and any semblance of life restored. Palestinian officials say more than 1300 people have died here in this war, and few people I have spoken to believe it will end there. With 53 Israeli soldiers and three civilians dead also, both the Israeli PM and Gaza’s rulers Hamas appear to have too much at stake to back down now.
Our first full day brought home the tragedy of what is happening here. At our hotel we heard 2 booms nearby, received a phone call, and within minutes found ourselves in Al-Shifa hospital trying to piece together what it was that had killed eight children. It was mayhem; people were screaming, many covered in blood, others looking shell shocked, barely able to speak. Four bodies were wheeled past me, so small that two could fit on to a single stretcher.
In pictures: uncertain future for Gaza's children
Remembering my own nieces and nephews of a similar age, I struggled to understand how it was possible that this could be allowed to continue. Regardless of your view on this war, surely every child deserves to be more than another footnote in the continued history of bloody conflicts. The next day we awoke to a billowing cloud of black smoke over Gaza City. A territory that struggles to keep itself running at the best of times, now faces an acute shortage as the main power station was hit by an Israeli strike.
A crumbling state, besieged and cut off, presently sits under the cover of darkness from dusk til dawn. Just those few places with generators offer a beacon of petrol-fuelled normality amid the gloom of despair. All this while fighter jets and drones ply the skies, and almost two million people hunker down, terrified in the shadows, wondering where the next artillery or missile might strike. It is a terror that will only increase after yesterday when an Israeli artillery strike hit a UN run school for displaced people, killing at least 15. Sanctuary is slim for those already forced to flee the fighting.
Almost 220,000 have sought safety in such shelters though after today, it’s hard to see people feeling safe in them either. As we picked through the debris of a shattered classroom, families were already packing up what little they had left and leaving. “Where will you go?” I asked one woman. “I do’t know,” she said, “but I can’t stay here.” Many streets are deathly quiet, but for a few cowering in the doorways in front of their homes, their fear palpable as we travel around. Even the beach, before a small haven of calm where families played and swam in the sea, is a no man’s land after four children were killed in a strike there. The sea is empty of fishing boats. Only Israeli gunships dot the horizon.
Throughout the history of this blood-stained conflict, millions of Palestinians have fled their lands as fighting has raged and armies have moved in. Many have ended up in Jordan, Lebanon, and beyond. But Gazans, now more than ever, have nowhere to go.