Tag Archives: Gaza War

Gaza: Photos, reflections

Just got back to the U.S. day before yesterday after 2.5 months in Palestine/Israel, including 9 very intense days in Gaza. Didn’t post much while there…but now that I’m back, will be sharing many photos, many reflections; here, on Twitter and on my Facebook. More polished/produced pieces of writing and filming will come later. For now, the raw stuff:

Below: This photo of me was taken in Shejaiya, east Gaza City, on the rubble of what used to be a clinic. I have seen a lot of devastation in my life, but I have never seen anything like what I saw in Shejaiya. My camera (much less my brain) could not hold the scope and scale of the destruction:

shejaiya jen2

 Below: I met these kids as they were climbing in the ruins of their destroyed home, in Beit Lahiya, Gaza–very close to the border with Israel. Most amazing: they wanted to play and clown and have fun. Like all kids.

little boy climbing

kids scramblingkids beit lahiya2 boys climbing the walls boys beit lahiya1  boys with rubble and tents

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One Family, Two Doors, Nowhere to Run

(You can read the original of this article in TomDispatch.com)

No Exit in Gaza
Broken Homes and Broken Lives
By Jen Marlowe

Rubble. That’s been the one constant for the Awajah family for as long as I’ve known them.

Four months ago, their home was demolished by the Israeli military — and it wasn’t the first time that Kamal, Wafaa, and their children had been through this.  For the last six years, the family has found itself trapped in a cycle of destruction and reconstruction; their home either a tangle of shattered concrete and twisted rebar or about to become one.

I first met the Awajah family in August 2009, in the tent where they were living. I filmed them as they told me what had happened to them eight months earlier during the military invasion that Israel called Operation Cast Lead and said was a response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

I had no intention of making a film when I went to Gaza, but after hearing the family’s story, I knew I had to.  I returned again in 2012 and have continued to stay in touch in the years since, realizing that the plight of the Awajahs opened a window onto what an entire society was facing, onto what it’s like to live with an interminable war and constant fear.  The Awajahs’ story shines a spotlight on what Palestinians in Gaza have endured for years on end.

What stuck with me most, however, was the demand of the Awajah children regarding the reconstruction of their new home in 2012: they insisted that the house have two doors.

What The Awajahs Saw

In separate interviews in 2009, Wafaa and Kamal Awajah told me the same story, each breaking down in tears as they offered me their memories of the traumatic events that had taken place eight months earlier — a night when they lost far more than a home.  The next day, a still grief-stricken Wafaa walked me through her recollections of that night, pointing out the spot where each incident had taken place.

On January 4th, as Operation Cast Lead’s ground campaign began, the Awajah family was at home.  Wafaa’s eldest daughter, 12-year-old Omsiyat, woke her up at around 2 am.  “Mom,” said Omsiyat, “soldiers are at the door.”  Wafaa jumped out of bed to look. “There are no soldiers at the door, honey,” she reassured her daughter. When Omsiyat insisted, Wafaa looked again, and this time she spotted the soldiers and tanks. She lit candles in the window so that the Israeli troops would know that a family was inside.

Suddenly, the ceiling began to crumble.  Wafaa, Kamal, and their six children fled, as an Israeli military bulldozer razed their home. No sooner had they made it outside than the roof collapsed.  As tank after tank rolled by, the family huddled under an olive tree next to the house. When dawn finally broke, they could examine the ruins of their house.

Just as the Awajahs were trying to absorb their loss, Wafaa heard nine-year-old Ibrahim scream. He had been shot in the side.  As more gunfire rang out, Kamal scooped up the injured boy and ran for cover with the rest of the family. Wafaa was hit in both hips, but she and five of the children managed to take shelter behind a mud-brick wall. From there, she saw Kamal, also wounded, lying in the middle of the road, Ibrahim still in his arms.

Israeli soldiers approached her husband and son on foot, while Wafaa watched, and — according to what she and Kamal both told me — without warning, one of them shot Ibrahim at close range, killing him. He may have assumed that Kamal was already dead. Despite Wafaa and Kamal’s wounds, the family managed to get back to their wrecked home, where they hid under the collapsed roof for four days with no food or clean water, until a passing family with a donkey cart took them and Ibrahim’s body to a hospital in Gaza city.

As far as I know, the Israeli military never investigated the incident.  In fact, only a handful of possible war crimes during Operation Cast Lead were ever investigated by Israel.  Instead of an official inquiry, the Awajahs were left with a dead son, grievous physical wounds that eventually healed, psychological ones that never will, and a home reduced to pile of rubble.

One Family in Gaza, Jen Marlowe’s award-winning short documentary film featuring the Awajah family
Life Goes On

When I met them eight months later, the Awajahs were struggling to rebuild their lives.  “What’s hardest is how to offer safety and security for my children,” Kamal told me. “Their behaviors are not the same as before.”

Wafaa pointed to three-year-old Diyaa. “This boy is traumatized since the war,” she said. “He sleeps with a loaf of bread in his arms. If you try to take it from him, he wakes up, hugs it, and says, ‘It’s mine.’”

“What you can’t remove or change is the fear in the children’s eyes,” Kamal continued.  “If Diyaa sees a bulldozer, he thinks it’s coming to destroy a house. If he sees a soldier, whether an Israeli or Arab soldier, he thinks the soldier wants to kill him. I try to keep them away from violence, but what he experienced forces him to release his fear with violence. When he kisses you, you can feel violence in his kiss. He kisses you and then pushes you away. He might punch or slap you. I am against violence and war in any form. I support peaceful ways. That’s how I live and raise my children. Of course, I try to keep my children from violence, and help them forget what happened to them, but I can’t erase it from their memory. The memories of fear are engraved in their blood.”

I thought about Kamal’s words as I filmed Diyaa and his five-year-old sister Hala scrambling onto the rubble of their destroyed home — their only playground — squealing with glee as they rolled bullet casings and shrapnel down the collapsed roof.

What moved me deeply was the determination of Kamal and Wafaa to create a future for their surviving children. “Yes, my home was destroyed, my life was destroyed, but this didn’t destroy what’s inside me,” Kamal said.  “It didn’t kill me as Kamal. It didn’t kill us as a family. We’re living. After all, we must continue living. It’s not the life we wanted, or had, but I try to provide for my children what I can.”

The Fragility of Hope

In 2012, I returned to Gaza and to the tent in which the Awajah family was still living. It was evident that the trauma of their experience in 2009 — along with the daily deprivation and lack of security and freedom that characterize Gaza under siege — had taken a toll. “I had thought that those were the most difficult days of my life,” Kamal said, “but I discovered afterwards that the days which followed were even more difficult.”

In 2009, Kamal told me that the war hadn’t fundamentally changed him. Now, he simply said, “I lost myself. The Kamal before the war does not exist today.”  He spoke of the screams of his children, waking regularly from nightmares.  “The war is still chasing them in their dreams.”

Most painful for Kamal was his inability to help his children heal. His despair and feelings of helplessness had grown to the point where he had become paralyzed with severe depression.  “I tried and I still try to get us out of the situation we are in — the social situation, the educational situation for the children, and the mental situation for me and my family.”  But their situation, he added, kept getting worse.

My 2012 visit, however, came during a rare moment of hope. After nearly four years, the Awajah family was finally rebuilding their home. Trucks were delivering bags of cement; gravel-filled wheelbarrows were being pushed onto skids; wooden planks were being hammered down. In 2009, I had filmed Diyaa and Hala playing on the rubble of their destroyed house.  In 2012, I filmed them climbing and jumping on the foundation of their new home.

“I am building a house. It is my right in life for my children to have a house,” Kamal said.  “I call it my dream house, because I dream that my children will go back to being themselves.  It will be the first step to shelter me and my children, away from the sun and the heat and tents, our homelessness.  The biggest hope and the biggest happiness I have is when I see my children smiling and comfortable… when they sleep without nightmares.”  Kamal added, “I can’t sleep because of my fear over them.”

For Wafaa, while the new home represented hope for their future, its construction also triggered flashbacks to that night of the bulldozer.  As she told me, “Bulldozers and trucks bringing construction material came at night, and, at that moment, it was war again. When I saw the bulldozers and the trucks approaching with big lights, my heart fell between my feet.  I was truly scared.”

Planning for the new house also provided Wafaa and Kamal with a poignant reminder of the fragility of hope in Gaza. “The children say to make two doors to the house,” Wafaa told me.  “One [regular] door and the other door so when the Israelis demolish the house, we can use it to escape.  We try to comfort them and tell them nothing like this will happen, but no, they insist on us making two doors.  ‘Two doors, Daddy, one here and one there, so that we can run away.’”

The Gaza War of 2014

After my 2012 visit, I periodically contacted the Awajah family. Construction was proceeding in fits and starts, Kamal told me, due to shortages of materials in Gaza and their lack of financial resources. Finally, however, in the middle of 2013 the home was completed and as the final step, glass for the windows was installed in February 2014.

Five months later, in July, the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza began. I called the Awajah family right away.

“The children are frightened but okay,” Wafaa told me.

The Israeli army had warned their neighborhood to evacuate and they were now renting a small apartment in Gaza City. During a humanitarian ceasefire, Kamal was able to return to their house: it had been demolished along with the entire neighborhood.

When I spoke to the Awajah family at the end of September, Kamal told me that rent money had run out.  Seeking shelter at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school wasn’t a viable option, he said, because there were already so many families packed into each room. The Awajahs were back in a tent next to the rubble of their twice-destroyed home.

Click here to see a larger version

2014: Kamal and his children on the rubble of their twice-destroyed home

The family’s situation is far bleaker than in 2009.  Then they were able to tap into an electricity source and there was a communal outhouse for all the tent-dwelling families in the area. This time, Kamal said, the area near their house was entirely deserted: no water tank, electricity, outhouse, gas, or stove for cooking. Their only possessions were the few items of clothing they managed to take with them when they fled. They were sleeping on the ground, he said, no mattresses or blankets to ward off the cold, only the nylon of the tent beneath them. The children had been walking several kilometers to fill jugs with water until villagers who lived nearby made their wells available for a few hours a day.

Wafaa told me that she was cooking on an open fire, using scrap wood scavenged from the remnants of her house. For the first week, the children returned home from school every day and, surrounded by nothing but rubble, began to cry. Seventeen-year-old Omsiyat briefly took the phone. Her typically warm and open voice was completely flat, no affect whatsoever.

Worse yet, Kamal still owes $3,700 for the construction of their previous house.  Though the home no longer exists, the debt does.  “We are drowning,” Wafaa said.

The Awajah family today

Drowning in Gaza

The Awajahs aren’t the only ones in Gaza who are drowning. The true horror of their repeated trauma lies in the extent to which it is widespread and shared. Nine-year-old Ibrahim Awajah was one of 872 children in Gaza killed in the 2009, 2012, and 2014 wars combined, according to statistics gathered by the United NationsOffice for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairsand B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. (There was also one Israeli child killed by mortar fire in that period.)

The flat affect in Omsiyat’s voice reflects the assessment of the United Nations Children’s Fund that nearly half of the children in Gaza are in urgent need of psychological help.  And Kamal’s desire not to move into a communal shelter is understandable, given that 53,869 displaced people still remain crowded into 18 UNWRA schools.  According to Shelter Cluster, an inter-agency committee that supports shelter needs for people affected by conflict and natural disaster, the Awajah family’s house is one of 18,080 homes in Gaza that were completely demolished or severely damaged in the 2014 war alone. A further 5,800 houses suffered significant damage, with 38,000 more sustaining some damage.

Shelter Cluster estimates that it will take 20 years for Gaza to be rebuilt — assuming that it does not face yet another devastating military operation. As the last six years indicate, however, unless there is meaningful political progress (namely, the ending of the Israeli siege and ongoing occupation), further hostilities are inevitable.  It is not enough that people in Gaza be able to rebuild their houses yet again.  They need the opportunity to rebuild their lives with dignity.

Kamal Awajah said as much. “I don’t ask anyone to build me a home for the sake of charity. That’s not the kind of help we want. We need the kind of help that raises our value as human beings. But how? That’s the question.”

There seem to be no serious efforts on the horizon to address Kamal’s question, which has at its core an insistence on recognizing the equal value of Palestinian humanity. As long as that question remains unanswered and the fundamental rights of Palestinians continue to be denied, the devastating impact of repeated war will continue for every family in Gaza and the terrifying threat of the next war will always loom.  The Awajah children have every reason to insist that their future home be constructed with two doors.

Jen Marlowe is a human rights activist, author, documentary filmmaker, and founder of donkeysaddle projects. Her books include I Am Troy Davis andThe Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker. Her films include Witness Bahrain and One Family in Gaza. She blogs at View from the donkey’s saddle and tweets at @donkeysaddleorg.

[Note: To help the Awajah family rebuild their home, Jen Marlowe set up an Indiegogo campaign on their behalf, which you can visit and share by clicking here.]

Copyright 2014 Jen Marlowe

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Scanning the names

18 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the offensive in Gaza began.

It is clear to me that Israeli soldiers should not be in Gaza, and that, by being there, they are part of a horrific system of violence and domination in which over 500 Palestinians have been killed in the last two weeks, including entire families, children, women, elderly, disabled, and massive destruction done to civilian property and infrastructure.  I have commented on the horror of that in various ways here and here and here.

I also believe that when soldiers or fighters are killed, it is not the same as when civilians are killed, especially when those soldiers are an invading army leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

But none of this changed my reaction upon seeing the list of names of the Israeli soldiers killed yesterday. I scanned each name and city of origin with my breath held, praying that it wasn’t someone I know, a young man or woman whose counselor I had been when s/he was a teenager, someone I had listened to music and cracked jokes with as I drove him/her  to the peace center in Jerusalem where I worked from 2000-2004.

Most of the young Israeli men and women who I knew and grew to love as teenagers served in the Israeli  military.  (A very courageous few became conscientious objectors and refused to serve.) Many still serve, some in combat units. I know at least one who is in Gaza right now. I am still connected to dozens of soldiers or former soldiers via Facebook or email. Several I count among my friends. All of them I care for.

Yes, they should not be in Gaza. I cannot–with any moral honesty–condemn the killing of soldiers as I would condemn the killing of civilians. I am not trying to make any claims of symmetry here–such claims would be blatantly false. My heart literally feels like it is bleeding for the people of Gaza right now.

And yet, I do hold my breath as I scan the names, praying the name does not belong to someone I know and care for. And, of course, even as I let out the breathe with a bit of relief when I find I recognize none of the names, I know that the names belong to people that others care, deeply, for, and my grief, concern and fear extends to them.

I hope the Israeli young men/women I know who are soldiers in Gaza right now emerge unharmed.  Equally, I wish (for their sake and for the sake of people in Gaza) that they play no role in harming civilians. Yet I know even before I write this that it is too late for that. Whether or not they pull a particular trigger that launches a particular shell or bullet or missile–just by being there, they are part of a system of overwhelming devestation and death.

What I wish more than anything is that the soldiers whose names I was scanning, the soldiers I know personally, and those I do not, were not in Gaza (or the West Bank) at all. I wish this for their sake, their families’ sake, and I wish it for the sake of the Palestinians who are suffering under this brutal assault. I wish they were in their university right now, or at their jobs, or at the beach, or on vacation. And that Palestinians had equal opportunities for education, work, recreation and travel.

I wish that the Israeli government (and the Hamas government and the PA as well) cared for the well-being, safety and security of their citizens/people more than they care for whatever political gain they think they will attain by continuing this assault, and turning human lives into political pawns.

As I write this, my email inbox pinged with the names of 11 fresh deaths of Palestinians who lived in a residential tower that was the latest target of an Israeli airstrike. I am nauseated by the news, quite literally.

And now I go to scan those names, feeling sicker by the moment.

 

 

 

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Each one is a world

7:34pm

We were sitting at Lincoln Park in West Seattle, with a handful of friends who had gathered for a picnic potluck, awaiting others who would be joining us shortly.

A Facebook message came through on my Smartphone from my friend Yousef Munayyer.

Hey Jen, just saw some news about a young man from the Shurrab family in khan yunis being the latest victim, Name is Tayseer. Have you heard from Amer recently?

Amer Shurrab was, as a matter of fact, sitting across the picnic table from me at that very moment.  He  had come for a few day visit from Monterrey, where he is finishing his MBA. Though we had planned the visit weeks before the shit hit the fan in Gaza, the timing of it felt oddly right. I think it felt somewhat comforting to Amer to be surrounded by people who had some notion of what he was going through, and the beautiful Pacific Northwest was allowing some respite from the obsessive news-checking and strangling stress that is inevitable when one’s family is under bombardment.

We had just returned to Seattle after spending the last two days in Olympia with Rachel Corrie’s family. In between deep acknowledgment of the horror of the situation in Gaza, some of it spoken and some of it silent, we spent several hours on Mt Rainier. Just a few hours earlier, Amer took his first ride in a kayak.

And then, as we were waiting for other Seattle friends and activists to come and meet Amer, which had been the impetus of organizing the picnic potluck, Yousef’s message came through over Facebook.

I walked around the picnic table where everyone was introducing themselves and gently touched Amer on the shoulder, asking him to step aside from the group with me. He did, and I showed him Yousef’s message.

“Is he a relative?” I asked.

Amer’s face instantly clouded with fear and worry. “It may be my cousin Mohammed Tayseer,” he answered. He immediately pulled out his phone, and walked up a path towards the woods so he could call his family with some measure of privacy. I stared at him for a moment as he sat on the railing of the path, head bowed down, cell phone pressed against his ear, and could think only about the incident that led to Amer and I re-connecting after many years of not having been in touch–the incident in January 2009 during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” when two of his brothers were killed and his father injured.    In the months and years since that horrific event, I had grown very close to Amer, holding him in my heart as family. I had visited his family in Khan Younis twice–the first visit is described in this blog post and the 2nd visit, tragically, just two days after his father passed unexpectedly, due at least in part to the grief and stress related to the murder of his sons.

And now. And now, here was Amer, on the phone to confirm if the most recent killing in Gaza was another member of his family.

Amer continued to sit on the rail, head down, but his arm with the phone was dropped limply by his side. I approached.

“Was it your cousin?”

It was.

I went back to the group at the picnic table. Amer needed a few minutes alone, he told me, and he would join us when he felt ready.

The mood of the gathering shifted instantly. Where there had been casual, light conversation, there was now mostly silence laden with sadness, anger, dread,  and, overlaying it all, worry for Amer, who was now sitting on a log by the water’s edge, head still bowed. The only clear thought echoing through my mind in those next minutes: This is so unfair. This is so fucking, fucking unfair.

I saw a rather large group approach and walked towards them to see who was joining us. It was my friend Kara, and her husband Hakim, who is from Gaza. With them were Hakim’s six-year old sister Hiba and his mother, who he had been working on bringing to the U.S. from the Gaza strip for months but had managed to get out, in the end, just a day before the bombardment began. Other friends from Gaza, one from the same neighborhood that Amer is from, joined shortly afterwards.

I sent a quick prayer of thanks for the new arrivals. There were people here who shared Amer’s pain.

Hakim and his friends Anas and Mohammed lit coals on a barbeque and started to grill meat patties, chop peppers and tomatoes. Hiba found some sidewalk chalk and began to draw a stick figure of a smiling little girl under a big colorful tree, next to a house. Amer came back from his perch by the sea and soberly joined the group which had now trebled in size and had the Gazan dialect of Arabic chatter intermingling with English and the wafting odors of grilled meat prepared with Middle Eastern spices.

Hiba gave Amer a rock she had specially decorated for him with the sidewalk chalk. People began to eat.

In some way, we needed to directly confront, as a group, what had just happened to Amer’s cousin, what was happening to every family in Gaza. We had to find a way to hold space for the pain and the loss. And to honor those who had been killed these last 8 days, those that loved them, and those that were living in terror that they, or their family member, would be next.

And so, as the sun set and the mountains turned a deep purple, our group of 17 (6 of them from Gaza) gathered tightly together around the picnic table. Passing around a smartphone with the information loaded, we read aloud, one by one, the name and age of every one of the 194 human beings who had been killed in Gaza (as well as the one Israeli killed) since the assault began. A reminder that those killed are not numbers. They are people. Many of them children. Some of those children even younger than Hiba. Each one with a family. Each one an entire world.

The web-based list had not been updated in the last hour.  Amer’s cousin was not yet on it. But we didn’t need a website to know his name.

“Mohammed Tayseer Shurrab,” Amer said in a strong voice when the last name on the smartphone had been read.  Insha’allah ,he added, this would be the last name. Insha’allah, the list would grow no longer. Then, as the mountains deepened from purple to black, Amer led us in a prayer for the dead.

We held silence together for a moment.  Anas and Hakim spoke about what this simple act of solidarity meant to them.

Then, we shifted our circle from around the picnic table to around Hiba’s chalk drawing. It was by the narrowest of threads that the six-year-old girl was not, at that moment, shuddering under fierce explosions from bombs dropped by warplanes and drones.

The drawing: A smiling girl. A home. A tree.

What every child deserves to draw.

What every child deserves to know.

hiba drawing

Hiba’s chalk drawing

 

 

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Vehemently resisting dehumanization

Perhaps as much as the bombing, and  people fleeing their homes in northern Gaza in anticipation of a bloody invasion, I am frightened by the dehumanization of the very real humans in Gaza that I am bombarded with.

Whether it’s by people labeling them as “terrorists” or “Hamas supporters” or placidly suggesting that they are victimized only by Hamas using them as “human shields”…or by numbers and statistics, or people posting photos of small children with heads blown open, or limbs blown off, causing us to look at these children, not in their human childness, but as gory images…

I want to resist this dehumanization, if only for a moment, by describing the Palestinain human beings that I know in Gaza.

I know pharmacists in Gaza.

I know doctors.

I know people who work for the United Nations, who work for humanitarian organizations, who work for human rights organizations.

I know people who run youth programs and I know teachers.

I know mothers who love their children with a fierce protectiveness.

I know a father whose 9 year old son was executed while he was holding him in arms–and who then struggled with how to raise raise his surviving children without being surrounded by trauma and violence. I know a father who bought his little girls bunny rabbits so they would have something small and cuddlyto hold so his daughters could retain their own humanity and have a chance at growing up emotionally intact.

I know accountants.

I know taxi drivers who have invited me to their home for lunch and introduced me to their families, who I have dodged bullets with and brought cigarettes to during long months of siege.

I know small children who, while living in tents in horrible conditions, wake up in the morning and have their faces scrubbed clean by their big sister and the sand brushed out of their hair with what little water there is so that they can go to school looking fresh and have a chance at learning.

I have friends who are new mothers and new fathers, just figuring out how to meet their infants’ needs.

Many of the young men and women I know I remember as teenagers, when we used to gather at pizza restaurants in Gaza, and in later years gathered at beach-side cafes and smoked arghillas, reminiscing, talking, laughing…


This post will not do anything to end the horrible madness. But my God–if we don’t insist on holding people–all people–in their humanity and reminding ourselves of that every moment of every day–what chance do any of us have?

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