Anwesha Bhattacharjee/StoryWeb Editor
Connie Cheng/PhotoPhoto Editor
Student witnesses terror in Gaza Strip as Israeli strikes escalate; student group seeks to help Palestinians from home
What should have been a time for joy and celebration quickly turned into a race against death and missiles, when days after her sister’s wedding, a student watched firsthand Israel’s air, land and sea offensive within the Gaza Strip.
Rawan Muhanna found herself stuck in the midst of conflict, cooped up at home for fear of being hit under the open skies, living in uncertainty for two weeks until the American consulate arranged an evacuation for her family through Jordan.
“My sister was there, my cousins, family were all there,” Muhanna, a chemistry senior, said. “It was bitter-sweet — bitter in the sense that they’re not safe. But sweet in that I was so ready to come home. I had been there two weeks longer than I wanted to, and I felt like I was let out of this prison finally.”
A week after they got back, her mother’s nine-month pregnant cousin along with her two sons were killed in an air strike in the heart of Gaza. The family had taken refuge in the city after evacuating their home in the Shuja’iyya district of Gaza where dozens were killed after Israel ordered an evacuation and attacked the area.
That is the reality of Gaza.
As a child, trips to Gaza had been easier for Muhanna. She remembers flying to Tel Aviv from where they would cross the borders with ease. But each year it’s been harder to get in and get out. Palestinians can’t land in Tel Aviv anymore.
The last time Muhanna was in Gaza, in 2006, she saw the start of another war.
This year, when her family planned the trip so her sister could get married there, everything seemed normal. They had checked that the Cairo border would be open and flew out, but as soon as they arrived things began to go awry.
They had to wait two extra weeks in Cairo because Egypt did not open the borders to Gaza on time and the wedding had to be postponed.
Soon after the wedding, three teenage Israeli boys were found dead in the West Bank and caused palpable unease among civilians — the people of Gaza knew it wouldn’t end well, Muhanna said.
Things escalated quickly going forward, and Muhanna remembers very little; it was all a big blur for her.
Every time she heard the sounds of air strikes she’d look out of the window and see missiles hitting the city. She would check the news on her phone to see which part of the city had been hit and if everyone was safe.
Stepping out of the house, even for food, can be scary and exposes people to the risk of being hit. Very few taxis run in such times, and even when they do, they speed on the empty streets in order to avoid becoming targets.
There are no underground trenches, nowhere to go for cover in the event of an air strike, Muhanna said. The people of Gaza simply sit inside their homes, hoping to stay safe.
A strip of land that is no more than 139 square miles is home to an estimated 1.5 million people, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, with a per capita density of 11,000 people per square mile.
“The city is so incredibly densely populated, you can’t hit anything in the city and not kill someone,” she said. “You can’t. So there’s nowhere safe to go. You can’t go into the city. You can’t go anywhere.”
The Palestinian death toll in Gaza has gone up to 1,400 and 80 percent of the casualties are civilians, while 3 Israeli civilians and 56 Israeli soldiers have died in the four-week conflict, according to the United Nations.
For many kids in Gaza, this is the third war they’ve lived through, and no one knows how many of them will survive this one to see a fourth.
“I think they’ll never become desensitized to loss of life,” Muhanna said. “Sometimes (the media) likes to portray people there as people who have a suicidal complex, that they don’t care if they’re killed. It’s never been like that, it’ll never be like that. They value life just as much as you value life, just as much as I value life.”
Entire families get wiped out in wars like these with some losing 18 or 20 members in one attack, she said.
“Sometimes, there’s only one kid left from his whole family,” Muhanna said. “You wonder, this kid isn’t going to grow up and say, I love Israel, let’s make a peace deal. Violence breeds violence.”
With burgeoning refugee numbers at the U.N. camps in Gaza and blockades on aid the 1.2 million refugees on the strip face a scarcity of rations.
Even in times of peace, at least half a million displaced Palestinians live in eight recognized U.N. camps. Several blockades on trade since 2007 have taken the economy on a downward spiral rendering more than 80 percent of the employable population dependent on international assistance, according to UNRWA.
Despite having a power plant, which has now been bombed, the people in Gaza only have electricity half of the time even when there is no war, Muhanna said, with eight-hour power cuts after every eight hours of electricity supply.
The younger citizens of Gaza want to get out to find a better life for themselves, but can’t, because even in the absence of open warfare, they can’t get in or out of Palestine easily.
Entry and exit of people and resources to Gaza is controlled by Egypt and Israel, while in the West Bank, it is controlled by Jordan and Israel. Palestinians living in Gaza can’t enter West Bank and vice versa, and getting out of Gaza is an ordeal for Palestinians because many nations don’t recognize Palestine as an official country.
Even for American citizens of Palestinian origin, the process of entering West Bank or Gaza to visit family is a challenge, with waits of six or eight hours at the borders, said Tamam Bushnaq, president of Students for Justice in Palestine, or SJP.
Gaza’s air space is occupied as is the coast, and drones are a part of normal Gaza life, Muhanna said. It is common to see warships in the distance away from the coast line, or to hear that fishermen have been shot at by navy ships, even when there is no war, she said. The possibility of war is real and very normal for the people of Gaza.
“You look at the people of Gaza right now, they don’t have a lot to lose,” Muhanna said. “They feel like they’re not living anyway.”
When the conflict started, there were numerous protests by Palestinians opposed to war in downtown Dallas and UTD’s SJP chapter had a booth there where they encouraged passers-by to write letters to prominent Texas statesmen expressing discontent at the way the United States has handled the situation, Bushnaq said.
They were able to send 200 letters to seven statesmen including Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, she said.
Bushnaq and a few other SJP officers also got together and started a Twitter hashtag campaign through the @Palicampaigns account, where they started tweeting using a new Gaza hashtag every Saturday at 8 a.m. and ask their friends to tweet using the same hashtag, Bushnaq said.
They released the first one, #iccforIsrael, which stands for International Criminal Court for Israel, on July 26, that demanded a trial for Israeli war crimes and it gained a lot of popularity, she said. The second one released Aug. 2 was #interviewPalestinians.
Using social media to generate awareness and garner public opinion is one of the few things that Palestinians living outside Gaza can do besides praying for the safety of their countrymen, Bushnaq said.
“You wake up every day, not wanting to check the news but feeling bad because you think these are my people,” she said. “The least I can do is to check the news and see how they’re doing.”
With more media presence, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is becoming clear to the world and though people might not be able to understand how the Palestinians live in Gaza, they can definitely empathize, Muhanna said.
Gaza might not be normal but its people are very much human, affected by loss and grief just as much as anyone else, she said.
The waiting game that is the life of people in Gaza, not knowing if they’d be hit next, not being able to escape, with no safe haven, is perhaps the most claustrophobic and excruciating experience Muhanna has ever lived through.
“I (was) in this open land, but I felt like the world was kind of caving in on me,” Muhanna said. “I couldn’t leave and it was such an odd feeling. Can you imagine living here and you want to go to Houston and they tell you too bad or that you’re stuck in the DFW area…? (Gaza) is, in fact, an open-air prison.”