“After each attack, we hoped life would get better”

Two months on from Israel’s latest military offensive on Gaza, Haitham Saqqa, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)’s Programme Assistant in Gaza, reflects on living under occupation, blockade and frequent attacks.

I was born and raised in Khan Younis, in the south of Gaza. I have only had the chance to travel outside of Gaza once, when I travelled to Switzerland to speak at the UN Human Rights Council in December 2017, three years after the 2014 Israeli offensive in Gaza. I presented a report on behalf of MAP, on Israel’s violations of the Palestinian right to healthcare, freedom of movement, and the rights of persons with disabilities.

I have lived my whole life in Gaza under occupation. I have strong memories of a few experiences that have become important milestones in my life. One that I will never forget is the 22-day Israeli assault in December 2008.

“After each of these attacks, we hoped and thought life would get better. Each time the assaults ended, we thought they would be the last one. But the situation continues to worsen and the 14-year blockade of Gaza continues to suffocate us.”

I can't forget the first moment of this attack: on 27 December, at around 11.30am, a few days after Christmas. I was at my university’s cafeteria, having breakfast with my classmates, when huge explosions surrounded us. Fire and lights lit up the sky and were followed by people screaming and smoke filling the university.

The news started reporting explosions all over Gaza. Over 1,400 people were killed and thousands more were injured. My classmates and I separated; each one was trying to reach their home safely. I don’t remember if we said goodbye. I also didn’t know if it would be the last time I would see my classmates. Each of us went our separate ways.

That night, my friend’s father called me to inform me that my friend Mohammed and his brother Deia were killed in an attack.

I think the attack in 2008 changed my life forever. Not only because of the massive destruction it caused and the loss I experienced, but also because it was my first experience working with MAP, collecting data about the damage to health infrastructure in my city during and after the attack.

Four years passed, and Gaza faced another attack in 2012. Then, after another two years, Israel launched its 51-day “Operation Protective Edge” which killed over 2,251 Palestinians.

I had no sense of time during the 2014 assault. It was Ramadan and I was fasting. Eid al-Fitr also took place during the ongoing attacks, so we could not celebrate. We hosted more than 50 people in our house who had escaped the airstrikes and ground bombardment from villages in the east of Khan Younis.

It was so difficult for me to hear the names of the people who were killed, injured, displaced, or had their homes destroyed. I lost my friend Saleem who I used to play football with every weekend. He and his brothers started a small café on the beach in Khan Younis to earn their living over the summer. They named the cafeteria the ‘Fun Time Cafeteria.’

The three brothers decided that they couldn’t leave their café during the bombardment – it was all that they owned. An Israeli F-16 attack hit the cafeteria and the three brothers were killed. They were buried under the sand of the beach for a few days, before the Palestinian Civil Defense managed to recover their bodies.

After each of these attacks, we hoped and thought life would get better. Each time the assaults ended, we thought they would be the last one. But the situation continues to worsen and the 14-year blockade of Gaza continues to suffocate us.

This is why in March 2018, a group of young people in Gaza started the “Great March of Return” (GMR), which aimed to end the illegal closure and blockade of Gaza. Young people gathered every day and night at the perimeter fence near the Gaza-Israel border to peacefully protest. Palestinians played music, danced, cooked and told stories. Families joined the events and the area near the fence became a picnic area for Gazans. Some university professors even delivered lectures for their students there.

But the peaceful demonstrations were met with Israel’s shocking and often lethal use of force. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than 214 Palestinians were killed, including 46 children and at least three health workers. One of them was 20-year-old Razan Al-Najjar, who was volunteering as a medic during the GMR.

More than 36,100 Palestinians were injured during the demonstrations, including nearly 8,800 children. One in five of those injured – over 8,000 – were hit by live ammunition and more than 88 per cent of the live ammunition injuries were limb injuries. More than 150 of these limb injuries have resulted in amputations and permanent disability. Over 1,200 people with particularly devastating wounds have required painful and complex limb reconstruction treatment of the type supported by MAP in Gaza.

It is very important for me to start with this introduction before I start talking about the latest Israeli military offensive in May 2021. It is important because it is part of my growth in Gaza; it is part of my past, present, and future. All of these experiences have shaped my life and my childhood. Every time we experience war, we experience loss. We grieve, grow, become steadfast, rise again, and begin new experiences.

This is the first in a two-part series of blogs by Haitham Saqqa, MAP’s Programme Assistant in Gaza.

Photo: Destruction in Gaza following an Israeli strike in May 2021. (Credit: UNDP).

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