During the past month of fighting in the Gaza Strip — a rectangle of desert and farmland along Israel’s southern coast, home to 1.8 million Palestinians — a small boy with a shy smile lost his big brother. Now, squinting through the scope of an imaginary sniper rifle, he vows to kill Israeli soldiers as revenge. A curly-topped toddler lost her mother and the tendons in her tiny legs before she ever learned to walk. A young father lost the home he finished building for his family just two years ago. A mechanic lost his auto repair shop — today a sad pile of rubble and crumpled car parts. A Palestinian photojournalist for Agence France-Presse lost his best friend, another journalist, meeting him for the last time at a morgue instead of a cafe.
“Everybody in Gaza has lost something in this war,” said Mahmoud Abu Ghalion, 35, whose family’s tile factory was bombed useless (for the second time) during Israel’s recent operation.
“If you didn’t lose your son, you lost your house, you lost your business,” he said.
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The writer and activist Asmaa al-Ghoul, a fierce Hamas critic and columnist for Al Monitor, lost nine members of her extended family in an Israeli missile strike on the house in the Rafah refugee camp where she grew up. And with that, al-Ghoul also lost hope for peace with Israel.
On Aug. 12, the tenor of al-Ghoul’s voice over the phone was like that of most Gazans right now — drained, dehydrated, horrified, incredulous. “What a shame. What a shame,” she said. “How can [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu sleep and we cannot?”
More than 1,900 Palestinians have been counted dead in Gaza by local health officials since fighting began on July 8. The United Nations has estimated about 75 percent of those to be civilians and about 30 percent children.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), however, has cast heavy doubt on any figures tabulated under the watch of Hamas, the Islamist organization that runs Gaza. Israel claims to have killed around 900 fighters.
In Israel, 64 soldiers killed in the fighting — the largest IDF loss since the Second Lebanon War almost a decade ago — caused a collective mourning so great that the country’s pulse seemed to stop. “It’s not just personal pain,” said a combat soldier at the IDF funeral for Hadar Goldin, killed in Gaza. “It feels as if everyone is meshed together.”
Yet this life-altering, Earth-shattering war in Gaza still has no clear winner.
As of press time on Aug. 12, reports trickled in that for both Palestinians and Israelis — negotiating through mediators in Cairo — war concessions could end up on the conservative side. If a deal was, in fact, reached, it appeared Gaza would not be granted a complete opening of land borders, nor a seaport and airport, as Hamas promised its people. And neither would Gaza be demilitarized and long-term security ensured, as Israel promised its people.
Daniel Nisman, a former IDF combat soldier and current military analyst at the Levantine Group, said in an interview with the Journal that if such a deal went through — similar to the agreement between Hamas and Israel that ended their war in 2012 — “then the next round would only be a year or two away.”
Alon Ben-David, a senior defense correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10, said that before the war Hamas was so weak that it needed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of the Fatah Party who runs the West Bank on Israel’s other edge, to help lift Gaza’s blockade — which is why the two parties formed a Palestinian unity government in April, one that Israel swiftly rejected.
Had Israel negotiated with the Hamas-Fatah unity government, Ben-David said, “We could have done the same thing without 64 casualties and massive destruction of Gaza.”
During the war, named Operation Protective Edge by Israel, the IDF claims to have knocked out two-thirds of Hamas’ rocket supply, as well as dozens of tunnels leading from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. Some see this last effort as vital, including Nisman, who said a massive terror attack using all the tunnels at once — “another Yom Kippur War” — may have been avoided, thanks to the IDF’s bloody, three-week ground operation. (Others, including Ben-David, are certain the tunnels were being built for “a strategic surprise for wartime,” not a random attack.)
But regardless of Israel’s gains, thousands of Palestinian fighters, including Hamas’ top men, remain alive in Gaza — along with Hamas’ street cred within the strip.
Relatives say 1-year-old Raiga Wahadan, who lost her mother and older sister in strikes on Beit Hanoun, may never take her first steps after an Israeli drone rocket snapped tendons in one leg and blew a hole in the other.
At a high-energy (if slightly under-attended) victory march down one of Gaza City’s main roadways on Aug. 7, the third and last day of a temporary cease fire, Hamas parliament member Mushir al-Masri announced, “We have won the military battle, and with the permission of God, we‘ll win the political battle.” Gazans cheered, waving green Hamas flags. On side streets, young girls could be spotted skipping to the tune of Hamas victory songs pumped from rickety vans speeding through the city.
“We have to keep fighting until we get what we want,” said Misham Nasar, 40, a doctor at Al Quds Hospital in Gaza City who was front-row at the rally.
“Tell your people we are not killers,” Nasar said to an American journalist in the crowd. “We like life, like you. But if we have to die, we like to die standing. We love our resistance — not because we love killing, but because it is all we have to win our freedom.”
Dozens of Gaza residents interviewed by the Journal echoed this sentiment: To them, the fight had become more than a showdown between Hamas and Israel. It had become a war of independence.
“We lost a lot of people and homes. We can’t feel that we lost everything for nothing,” said Ahmad Al Eigla, 22, who had moved to a makeshift refugee camp outside Shifa, Gaza City’s main hospital, after surviving an airstrike on his home.
Naim Al Ghoul, 20, a Gaza City resident studying to become a teacher, said: “We are proud of [the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing] and all the fighters on the ground. We will support them until we get what we want. We need to break the blockade to go out to study, to do business — to have a normal life like everybody in the world. We prefer to die [than to stop fighting] because we feel like we are already dead,” the young man said.
Along with the lives of 64 soldiers and three civilians, Operation Protective Edge reportedly cost Israel up to $3 billion in military expenses and indirect hits to the economy. It also boosted anti-Israel sentiment around the world and Hamas’ popularity in Gaza.
“Israel gave Hamas the life kiss” with this war, said longtime Hamas critic al-Ghoul.
“So if Hamas is our destiny in Gaza, at least give them a chance to be a government,” she said.
That may be one of Israel’s only viable options at this point. Ben-David said that if the IDF had wanted to take out Hamas, it could have — but that Israel knows Hamas is a safer neighbor than even more radical Islamist organizations that could rise to fill its shoes.
“Compared to others in the region, they look almost vegetarian,” Ben-David said of Hamas.
Avi, an IDF combat soldier who fought in Gaza and could not give his last name while in uniform, said Israeli troops understood Hamas wasn’t to be taken out completely. “We know Hamas — we don’t know others,” he said.
However, this made for a confused offensive. “The whole Israeli establishment, the military and political echelon, were looking at it as an operation,” Ben-David said. “But for Hamas, it was a war … and you cannot really fight a war when you announce to your enemy that they’re not going to lose it.”
He and many others have argued that once Israel entered Gaza, ground troops should have pushed all the way to the sea — at which point Hamas would have been forced to play by Israel’s rules.
“We should have avoided this war,” Ben-David said. “But once you’re in it, you can’t go in it without aiming to win.”
Young Palestinian mother Samar Mkat and her three children fled their home in northern Gaza weeks ago, when airstrikes came too close for comfort. The house was later destroyed by Israeli fighter planes, which were targeting Hamas rocket-launching sites in her backyard.
“I wish I could go back to my home, but at the same time, I’m proud [of Hamas fighters],” she said. “We love them more after the war, because they’re taking care of us.”
Mkat now shares sleeping quarters with 10 others in a sweltering elevator nook the size of a broom closet at a United Nations school in Gaza City that has become a shelter for more than 2,000 refugees. She is one of an estimated 250,000 people in Gaza who will have no home to return to when the war finally ends.
But despite her desperate situation, Mkat said Hamas’ end goals — including lifting Israel’s economic and travel blockade on Gaza — were worth the war. “We can’t find food, we can’t find work, we can’t find bread” because of the blockade, she said. “If my husband died and we had no money, what would we do?”
Even in wartime, the gangs of barefoot kids running the streets of Gaza are their usual elfish selves, darting through alleyways and doorways as if powered by jet packs. When asked, many will tell you they want to fight Israel when they grow up.
“Of course I want to be a fighter,” 11-year-old Shedi Al Dawawseh said. “Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, it doesn’t matter. We are all one people.”
Shedi and his brother Mohammed, 6, sat on a couch in their family’s stately living room on Aug. 9 as the house grew dark with the night. (Gaza has been without electricity since its only power plant was bombed.) On the walls hung big portraits of Fatah leaders next to photos of men in the Al Dawawseh family, prominent Fatah supporters.
“I’m Fatah,” the boys’ father, Zuheir, said proudly. “But the Israelis can’t differentiate between anyone. All for them is black-and-white.”
The first boom of the evening shook the room — an airstrike nearby, somewhere in Gaza City. Kids shrieked in the streets below, running past the spot where Zuheir’s 10-year-old son, Ibrahim, had been killed a day before — the first fatality after a 72-hour cease-fire dissolved.
On the morning of Aug. 8, Israel apparently dropped a drone rocket on the Nour al-Mohammedi mosque, still under construction after being destroyed in Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza. It crashed through the scaffolding, killing Ibrahim and injuring other boys who had been acting out an imaginary gunfight at the site.
“The IDF was targeting two rocket-launching sites in the vicinity of the mosque,” an IDF spokesman told the Journal.
Asked if the boys playing at the mosque had been visible, the spokesman said: “Sadly, positioning terror sites near civilian areas such as a mosque is a method often employed by Hamas. The IDF goes to great lengths to avoid harming civilians when fighting in urban areas, while Hamas specifically uses its own population as human shields for its terror activities. In doing so, Hamas endangers civilians on both sides, for its agenda.”
When 2-year-old Baraa Bakroon, pictured here in his demolished home in Shujaiya, hears Israeli bombs falling nearby, he says, “Don’t be afraid, Dad.”
Neighborhood children said they searched through clouds of dust created by the strike for 10 minutes, finding various pieces of Ibrahim before they located his body.
One little boy held up a chunk of Ibrahim’s skull between two fingers to show a reporter. “This is from his head, see?” the boy said.
For the first time in three days, an ambulance screamed through Gaza City and pulled into the roundabout in front of Shifa Hospital. A swarm of photographers rushed to snap a photo of Ibrahim as he was pulled from the vehicle — his forehead peeled back, his head split open.
“We found him without a head,” his father Zuheir said to the reporters, sobbing uncontrollably. “He doesn’t fire a rocket, he doesn’t make anything. There is no reason to kill these kids.”
Zuheir turned his wet face to the sky. “Why did you kill him?” he asked. “What’s your message?”
Later, at his home, Zuheir said he feared Ibrahim’s death would have long-term effects on his remaining sons. “I wish these kids would take care of me when I’m an old man, but now they are starting to think about being fighters because they can’t forget what happened to their brother.
“The Israeli army puts something inside these kids,” he said. “They give them a reason to be a fighter now.”
Al Monitor columnist Al-Ghoul has fought for women’s rights in Gaza, for her freedom to wear blue jeans in the street and, especially, for unity between the Palestinian political parties Hamas and Fatah.
But with Operation Protective Edge, she said Israel knocked the wind out of Gaza’s internal struggle.
“Even simple people who never fight, they start to talk about resistance and fighting,” al-Ghoul said over the phone. “This is not Hamas’ fault — this is Israel’s fault. If anybody makes Hamas more strong in the street, and if they win the next election, who did this? Israel and [Abbas].”
Al-Ghoul had just returned to work after taking a week off to grieve. “I still see their faces everywhere,” she said of her family in Rafah.
Despite Israel’s attempts throughout the operation to notify Palestinian civilians when they needed to evacuate, many did not. Some said they never received a warning from the IDF; others said they received one and decided to wait out the fighting like they had in past wars, when the IDF had targeted specific homes but didn’t tear down entire neighborhoods. Still others said they simply didn’t know of a safer place to go.
Kerem Batniji, a 35-year-old doctor at Shifa, said the severity of the war hit him after the first night of the IDF’s tank incursion into Shujaiya — a battle that churned the neighborhood into an unrecognizable gray pulp and reportedly killed more than 60 people. Batniji remembered treating a young boy on the brink of death that night.
“From the front, it looked like nothing happened to him,” Batniji said of the boy. “But his buttocks and back were totally evacuated. So I gave him pain medication and asked my fellow nurses to take him to a nice corner to die in peace. That was the only time I almost cried.”
An old man walking by, hearing the doctor’s story, said quietly: “We do not expect this from a civilized people.”
Some of the war’s most horrific scenes played out in the Khuzaa neighborhood, south of Shujaiya along the border with Israel.
The neighborhood — once among Gaza’s most beautiful, its streets lined with palm trees and its backyards filled with rabbits, chickens and grape-leaf arbors — was crushed to dust over days of fighting.
On Aug. 9, residents wandered the streets, dazed, surveying the damage and setting up blanket forts in the ruins of their homes. The air smelled of unrefrigerated food, sewage and rotting flesh. One group of men started a small fire at a bombed-out gas station to barbecue what remained of their dismembered chickens. A toddler stuck out his tongue under the faucet of a dried-up UNICEF water tank.
Close by, the war marched on: A Hamas rocket shot up from the earth, followed minutes later by an Israeli airstrike targeting open land. Khuzaa residents were careful not to gather in large groups, saying they feared an Israeli drone that could be heard buzzing above would deem them a threat.
But a few young men took the risk, leading this reporter into a nearby sand pit that they said had been filled with Israeli tanks during the Khuzaa fighting. Heaps of toiletries and old, rotting food with Hebrew labeling — canned fruit, hot-dog buns, cranberry cereal bars, broken eggs — littered the area.
The land had once been a farm belonging to the Qdeih family, said 25-year-old neighbor Khaled Al Karaa. More trash littering the marbled family home indicated Israeli soldiers had been sleeping there; gaping holes in its walls and rubble on its floors indicated they had shelled it afterward.
“They destroyed everything,” Al Karaa said. “It’s like this is not someone’s home.”
A damning report out of Khuzaa from Human Rights Watch quoted Palestinians who said they had traumatic run-ins with Israeli soldiers while trying to flee fighting in the area between July 23 and July 25. In it, witnesses allege that IDF soldiers deliberately shot and killed civilians after telling them they could evacuate. Multiple residents of Khuzaa who spoke to the Journal said they witnessed similar atrocities.
“I was just crying and thinking they would also kill me,” said Mohammed Abu Reeda, a red-haired 12-year-old from Khuzaa.
(When presented with witness accounts from Khuzaa, an IDF spokesman said the allegations were “still being looked into by the IDF.”)
Ahmad Al Najar, 78, an elderly Khuzaa resident wearing a red-checkered keffiyeh, said that of all the wars he’s experienced in his lifetime, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
As tens of thousands of homes lay in ruins, years from repair, and international organizations race to patch the city’s most essential infrastructure before a public-health disaster, even Gaza’s brightest optimists are struggling to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
But al-Ghoul said despite it all, she still believes that, one day, “Gaza will be one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I was in Europe just three months ago — I can stay in any country I want with my children. But I believe in Gaza. Even if Israel comes every three years to kill the beauty and the peace, I believe Gaza will help itself.”
She said she thought the only immediate way to escape this cycle would be for Israel and the international community to recognize the Fatah-Hamas unity government — the same union that Israel originally resisted as if “bitten by a snake,” as Yigal Elam wrote in Haaretz.
Elam, a historian and scholar of the history of Zionism, argued in an Aug. 12 op-ed that Israel can’t afford any further operations in Gaza if it wants to retain any international legitimacy.
With violent options exhausted, he wrote, the only road left is diplomatic.
“I do not believe in reconciliation — nations do not reconcile,” Elam wrote. “But states do make peace and sign agreements in order to ensure the safety and well-being of their inhabitants.”