On Tuesday evening of this week, Sobhi Sakallah, a father of three and construction engineer from Gaza City, had about 90 minutes to vacate his home before the Israeli Air Force shells struck his neighborhood. The concierge at the Burj Hanadi had come to Sakallah to warn him that the army was about to bomb the high-rise across the street. The residents had been given advance warning.
The concierge was brief because he had to notify the whole neighborhood, as well as all the families living in the high rise itself, Sakallah recalls by phone. Burj Hanadi was a white, hulking block in the center of Gaza housing several offices of Hamas, the Islamist terror organization that runs Gaza and that has been shelling Israeli cities since Monday, firing off more than a thousand rockets. The Israeli army has been striking back from the air, but Gaza, with its 2 million inhabitants packed into just 365 square kilometers, is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and targets there are often located amidst civilians.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 20/2021 (May 15, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.
An Acrid Smell in the Air
The high rise had already been damaged in the last war, in 2014. This time, it collapsed entirely. Shortly after the concierge left again, the first small projectiles hit the street in front of the building and on its roof. “That’s when we knew it was serious, and fled,” Sakallah says over the phone.
His sons are eight and 10 years old, and his young daughter is just eight months. Sakallah had his office in the ground floor of the building, which housed 50 people. “Now all the windows and doors are shattered, the metal frames have come off the walls,” he says angrily. His life is in ruins. He coughs on the phone, explaining that there is an acrid smell in the air from the explosion.
This week, the conflict between Israel and Palestinians once again escalated violently. After riots in Jerusalem on Monday, Hamas began firing rockets from the Gaza Strip. Israel’s army responded forcefully, claiming to have already killed several prominent Hamas figures, including a senior commander, in its more than 600 attacks so far. On Wednesday night, the Israeli military also destroyed the police headquarters.
The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry reported on Thursday that 83 people have died in the Gaza Strip as a result of airstrikes, including 17 children and seven women. The Health Ministry also said that an additional 487 people had been injured. The numbers have not been independently confirmed. For their part, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Islamist group, have fired off 1,600 rockets at Israel since Monday, though most of them were destroyed by Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system. The Israeli army claims that about a quarter of the rockets have accidentally landed in Gaza, allegedly resulting in deaths there.
“I Don’t Know Yet Where I Will Sleep Tonight”
Many Gaza residents say it has been the most brutal week they have experienced in years. For about a decade and a half, the coastal strip has been largely cut off from the world, by Israel to the north and east, Egypt to the south and the sea to the west. For many residents, this renewed violence has been a traumatic reminder of the wars in 2014, 2012 and 2008/2009 – and it raised fears of a spiral of violence, a possible new war.
When the projectiles began raining down, Sakallah packed up money, a few personal items and his laptop before setting off with his wife, his three children and his extended family, which lived in the same building. They had to carry their 90-year-old grandmother because she can no longer walk.
“We were able to sleep on my sister’s floor,” he says, exhausted. “I don’t know yet where we will sleep tonight.”
Most civilians in Gaza were surprised by the ferocity of the Israeli counterattack. Journalist Maha Hussaini, who works for the Middle East Eye and was holed up in her apartment on Wednesday, said: “Today was the bloodiest day for Palestinians since the last major offensive in 2014, when thousands were killed or injured.”
Minutes before the interview, air attacks from Israel hit another high rise, housing shops and offices of media companies. Videos taken shortly after the attack show black smoke billowing over the otherwise quiet city. The street in front of it was a sea of rubble. It was the third high rise to have been destroyed. Hamas then fired another 130 rockets at Israel. The familiar cycle of violence continued.
“I’m sitting on a packed bag,” Hussaini said, explaining that she was ready at any point to run, though it’s unclear where. “No place here offers protection.” She said that everything that moves on the street is seen as a “threat” to the Israeli air force. All those who step outside risk their lives.
“The Hospitals Have No Capacity”
Another phone call, this time with Reham Owda, 43, a researcher and policy analyst in Gaza City. She, too, said she didn’t dare leave the rooms she shares with her extended family. When the rockets struck in the night, she said, the beds in her apartment lifted off the floor. “The impacts felt as violent as earthquakes.”
She said that the power had constantly been cutting out. And our phone connection broke off several times. Owda said she had been watching Al Jazeera all day and checking the news online as well. “We pray to God to protect us.”
“The situation in Gaza was catastrophic because of the coronavirus even before this escalation,” Owda says. “Now it has become unbearable.” She says that her father died of COVID-19 in March, and that the pandemic had brought the hospitals to their limits. “Where are the wounded supposed to go?” she asks. “The hospitals have no capacity.”
Even the border crossing through which the vaccines are meant to come from Israel is now closed, she says. “No one is planning to stop the escalation,” she fears, and vents her anger at Hamas, which is rare in an area that is controlled by the Islamists, because many fear repressions.
Owda says she feared worse when Hamas began firing rockets on Monday to make it clear to the Israelis that Jerusalem and settlement issue represents a “red line.” Several houses inhabited by Palestinians in East Jerusalem are to be emptied to make way for settlers, and Hamas, she says, is portraying itself as the “guardian of the Jerusalem question” in order to bolster its popularity in the West Bank and Jerusalem. With bitterness in her voice, she explains that the group is presenting itself as the “savior of the Al-Aqsa mosque” and “as fighter for the Palestinian cause.” She says this unfortunately has disastrous consequences for the situation of Palestinians.
Panic Instead of Ramadan Celebrations
Helen Ottens-Patterson, the 49-year-old Doctors Without Borders project manager in Gaza, returned on Wednesday evening from the hospital where she works. The British nurse has been working in the Gaza Strip since 2018 and knows how much the civilians there were suffering even before the recent escalation. “The pandemic has hit society hard. Basic medical supplies like antibiotics are in short supply.”
She says the latest crisis is pushing Gaza further into the abyss. “This population has been living behind a blockade for 14 years,” she says, “and has experienced multiple wars. Traumas are resurfacing.” People in Gaza are very nervous, she says, with children screaming and crying.
Some parents told their children the shelling noises were coming from fireworks, according to a piece in the New York Times. Thursday evening marked the end of Ramadan, an event meant to be celebrated joyfully. Instead, there is panic.
Many Palestinians now say they leave their windows open at night, so their glass doesn’t splinter from shock waves from the detonations. Those who can have moved into the ground floor. Hardly anyone can sleep.
The escalation of the violence in Jerusalem was a welcome excuse for Hamas, which is supported by Iran and classified as a terror group by the EU. The Islamists are once again stuck in a dead end: The Gaza Strip hasn’t been able to escape its isolation since the group took power 15 years ago. The economic situation is disastrous and was made worse by the pandemic. In Jerusalem, a Palestinian protest movement has gained steam in recent weeks. The Israeli police reacted aggressively and now Hamas is jumping on the protest movement’s bandwagon, which some observers believe could lead to a third intifada.
The price of attacking Israel, however, is high for the people of Gaza, and Hamas had to be expecting that. After all, it’s not the first time. What does a prominent Hamas representative say about the situation? Basem Naim, 58, a former health minister who studied in the western German city of Bochum and who is now a member of Hamas leadership, is combative. He says he also left his home out of fear of the rockets. “No one in Gaza is safe.” He says the “Israeli aggression” knows no bounds.
He argues that the most recent escalation didn’t start on Monday, but a month ago, when Israeli security forces stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in the wake of the protests and disrupted prayers. Naim says Muslim’s holiest place had been desecrated. Also, he says, people have witnessed how more and more Palestinians have been driven from their homes. He argues that numerous attempts had been made to “peacefully stop these brutalities” but in vain. The international community, Naim says, is also standing idly by. He claims Hamas had no choice but to attack.
When asked what the violence is meant to achieve, he starts throwing out numbers: Gaza has been behind an Israeli blockade for 15 years. “Eighty-five percent of all residents of the Gaza Strip are dependent on international aid. Eighty percent live below the poverty line. Sixty percent of the young people have no jobs. Ninety-five percent of our water is not potable. We have an entire generation that has never left Gaza. That has never experienced what it’s like to have electricity 24 hours a day.” The story, he says, didn’t start with the rockets of Hamas.
“On Tuesday, I Became a Refugee”
He added that you can’t forever push someone into a corner and expect him to die without defending himself. The blockade of Gaza, he says, has only one consequence: “It paves the way for extremism. You can’t expect someone who doesn’t have enough to eat and cannot move freely to think and act rationally.” The humanitarian catastrophe is Gaza, he says, is the ideal breeding ground for “major explosions.” Nevertheless, Naim says, they don’t want continued escalation. He says he hopes that the current situation calms down “as soon as possible.”
Sakallah, the father and engineer, comes from Gaza City and, unlike many in the Gaza Strip, doesn’t stem from a family of refugees. “But on Tuesday,” he says, “I became a refugee.”
When he returned to his home with his family the day after they were displaced, the two sons immediately checked if their toys were still there. “I try to explain to them that things like this happen to us, that wars don’t end so quickly, that this is part of our situation and that we need to be strong.” He says the children were of course very afraid. “But I feel like something is happening to the children that they can’t express.”
Many families in Gaza speak of trauma, especially children. Sakallah recounts how he used to lay the two boys on top of him in the evenings so they get as much physical contact as possible. “The contact helps the children,” he says. He has little hope, he explains, that the situation will improve or that help will reach the people of Gaza.