“Sumud” — the Gazan Secret to Survival

14 July, 2021
An Israel-made  SkyStar-180  surveillance balloon keeps an eye on Palestinians.

An Israel-made SkyS­tar-180 sur­veil­lance bal­loon keeps an eye on Palestinians.

Jordan Elgrably

Sur­round­ed by a naval block­ade and mil­i­tary siege, sur­veilled from above by satel­lite imag­ing, drones and even hot air bal­loons, no one roams entire­ly free in Gaza — and whether you find your­self above ground or below, by the sea or by the bor­der, no place is safe in the Gaza Strip. Still, in spite of the Big Broth­er that is Israel, every­one dreams of bet­ter tomor­rows and every Gazan sur­vives on sumud صمود.

Gaza's Great March of Return protests (photo courtesy Amnesty International).

Gaza­’s Great March of Return protests (pho­to cour­tesy Amnesty International).

The siege of Gaza is the longest siege of a city or indeed, a major land area, in mod­ern his­to­ry. Even the worst, most bru­tal sieges of the 20th cen­tu­ry, in Madrid and Leningrad, last­ed less than three years, while the siege of Sara­je­vo stretched on for four. Incred­i­bly, Gaza strug­gles in its 14th year, often with­out elec­tric­i­ty, san­i­ta­tion and prop­er food and med­ical sup­plies. (After a year and a half of Covid con­fine­ments, some­times with short­ages and exces­sive iso­la­tion, we all under­stand what liv­ing under siege feels like.) In March of 2018, des­per­ate for long-over­due relief, Gazans orga­nized the Great March of Return, an organ­ic protest move­ment along the bar­ri­er fence with Israel; the protests last­ed a year a half, and over time, thou­sands were wound­ed by Israeli snipers, tear gas can­nis­ters and shrap­nel, despite the fact that most Gazans demon­strat­ed peace­ful­ly, far from the fence. 223 Pales­tini­ans were killed (no Israeli sol­diers per­ished as a result of the protests). As Médecins sans Fron­tières observed, “more than 35,600 demon­stra­tors were injured, 7,996 with live ammunition.”

Many Gazans were trau­ma­tized by the 51-day war in 2014; those who sur­vived were vis­it­ed again by the May 2021 onslaught, most­ly con­sist­ing of US and Israeli muni­tions. Gazans are always wait­ing for the next war. It could come tomor­row, next week, or next year. No one knows when, but dread remains in the air the peo­ple breathe — their fear strange­ly co-exist­ing with hope that it will be pos­si­ble to be a human being and a Pales­tin­ian at the same time.  As the late Antho­ny Bour­dain once remarked, “The world has vis­it­ed many ter­ri­ble things on the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple, none more shame­ful than rob­bing of their basic humanity.”


Asym­met­ri­cal Con­flict 

Israeli tanks face off against Palestinian stones (photo courtesy Haaretz).

Israeli tanks face off against Pales­tin­ian stones (pho­to cour­tesy Haaretz).

Refer­ring to these assaults as “war” between the IDF and Hamas is mis­lead­ing and inac­cu­rate. It has nev­er been a war but an asym­met­ri­cal con­flict between one of the strongest mil­i­tary forces in the world, wield­ing F‑16 fight­er jets, Apache heli­copters and Merka­va tanks, against a rag-tag group of mil­i­tants, Hamas’ Al-Qas­sam Brigades, equipped with small arms and inef­fec­tive home­made rock­ets. What Israel calls “mow­ing the lawn” is not so much war­ring against Hamas as it is attempts to break the spir­its, cut down the hearts and minds, of the peo­ple them­selves. These onslaughts are much more about pun­ish­ing Gaza­’s civil­ian pop­u­la­tion than win­ning bat­tles against the Pales­tini­ans Davids. For there can be no doubt that in this nar­ra­tive, Israel is the Goliath and the Pales­tini­ans are the under­dogs. So it has been since 1948, and so it shall be until the day Israelis rec­og­nize the essen­tial human­i­ty of the peo­ple they have failed to elim­i­nate since the cre­ation of their state. 

With respect to what remains the most mas­sive assault on Gaza, in 2014, Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al not­ed that, “Israeli forces fired tens of thou­sands of artillery and tank shells into dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed res­i­den­tial areas, and launched air strikes on homes across the Gaza Strip, killing fam­i­lies inside in many cas­es. They struck schools shel­ter­ing civil­ians and attacked hos­pi­tals and med­ical work­ers, includ­ing ambu­lance staff try­ing to evac­u­ate the dead and wounded.”

As if the 2014 cat­a­stro­phe were not enough, there is the ever­last­ing siege that makes Gaza­’s quo­tid­i­an real­i­ty the aver­age per­son­’s night­mare. The roots of this stale­mate began over 70 years ago, in the 1948 war, when thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans liv­ing in near­by vil­lages and cities fled to Gaza or were forcibly expelled to make room for the new State of Israel. 200,000 weary refugees arrived in the Strip, think­ing they would soon go home. 

Monir Deeb, left, on the beach in 1968 after attending church on a Sunday with Christian friends in Gaza (courtesy Monir Deeb).

Monir Deeb, left, on the beach in 1968 after attend­ing church on a Sun­day with Chris­t­ian friends in Gaza (cour­tesy Monir Deeb).

One of my long­time Los Ange­les friends, Monir Deeb, grew up in a fam­i­ly of refugees. “I was born and raised in Gaza, in Gaza City,” Monir explains. “My par­ents were from El-Maj­dal, which the Israelis call Ashkelon now. El-Maj­dal was total­ly cleansed from all its Pales­tin­ian inhab­i­tants. They did­n’t leave one of the Pales­tini­ans in there.”

Monir speaks of Gaza with pride and returns to vis­it fam­i­ly every oth­er year. “I still have my sis­ters and my broth­er there, I have my nephews, my nieces, and it’s still my place of birth. I have the best mem­o­ries of my life in those streets and along those beach­es and those mar­kets and our gar­den and the trees, you know, that’s the truth.”

(Monir was sad­dened when his father, Mohammed Deeb, passed away recent­ly and was buried in Gaza, for it was his wish to be buried in his birth­place, El-Majdal.)

But today, two mil­lion peo­ple strug­gle for sur­vival and no one knows what the future will bring. Every­one remem­bers what it was like in 2014, beneath the bombs. Many sur­vived but the less for­tu­nate — or were they the lucky ones? — lay beneath the rub­ble of some 18,000 severe­ly dam­aged or destroyed build­ings — homes, schools, pow­er plants, fac­to­ries, hospitals. 


Scars on the Psyche

A Gaza psy­chi­a­trist, Khaled Dahlan, told a reporter friend of mine who vis­it­ed in 2017 that Pales­tini­ans in Gaza are suf­fer­ing from mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional trau­ma, hav­ing been dis­pos­sessed and attacked for decades. “We have had so many con­flicts” in the last 70 years, the psy­chi­a­trist said. The reporter, Antony Loewen­stein, who returns to Gaza when­ev­er he can, declared: “It’s nev­er been more des­per­ate. The Gazan peo­ple are trapped,” he said, “with no clear way out.” 

With for­eign aid, each time after the attacks, much of Gaza is rebuilt. As of this writ­ing, much rub­ble remains from the brief but very destruc­tive May 2021 onslaught. And Gazans con­tin­ue to con­tend with an elec­tric­i­ty cri­sis, endur­ing rolling black­outs for up to 20 hours per day. It hurts the most dur­ing heat waves to have no elec­tric­i­ty and no air-con­di­tion­ing. The chron­ic pow­er short­ages threat­en crops and affect the abil­i­ty of health ser­vices to meet the crush­ing demand of patients, many of whom are already turned away for lack of facil­i­ties or sup­plies. Inad­e­quate sewage dis­pos­al result­ing from Israel’s destruc­tion of sewage plants has meant that Gazans are no longer able to safe­ly enjoy one of their last refuges, the cool Mediter­ranean. They are for­bid­den from swim­ming in the sea, which fes­ters with unprocessed human waste. The surfers of Gaza are gone.

The lack of con­sis­tent elec­tric­i­ty threat­ens the weak and severe­ly ill in hos­pi­tal. Abu Khalil, a res­i­dent with two sons suf­fer­ing from a dan­ger­ous blood dis­or­der, told Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, “I live in fear of los­ing my sons at any minute.” They are at risk of heart fail­ure and oth­er com­pli­ca­tions. Thanks to emer­gency gen­er­a­tors, said Abu Khalil, “You can live with­out elec­tric­i­ty, or sur­vive in the most dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion but not being able to…get them treat­ment is unbearable.”

Amnesty warns that up to 90% of can­cer med­i­cines are no longer avail­able in Gaza. Mean­while, the next Israeli assault is always immi­nent. Imag­ine liv­ing under the con­stant threat of bom­bard­ment, of inva­sion. Look­ing up into the sky, the sur­veil­lance drones are a dai­ly reminder that Israel is over­head, watch­ing Gazans like an Orwellian ene­my. You read uneasi­ly about how the IDF “mows the lawn” by advis­ing its troops that every­where is a kill zone. In a video tes­ti­mo­ny, one sol­dier who served in Gaza said, “Most of our shoot­ing was random…we did­n’t think about civil­ian casualties.”

In a Break­ing the Silence tes­ti­mo­ni­al, a first sergeant in the mech­a­nized infantry revealed that, “While we were sta­tioned there, the armored forces would fire at the sur­round­ing hous­es all the time. I don’t know what exact­ly their order was, but it seemed like every house was con­sid­ered a threat, and so every house need­ed to be hit by at least one shell, so that there’s no one in there.”

Anoth­er foot sol­dier tes­ti­fied that his orders were to, “Shoot, shoot every­where.” He explained:

“The rules of engage­ment for sol­diers advanc­ing on the ground were: open fire, open fire every­where, first thing when you go in. The assump­tion being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], any­one who dared poke his head out was a ter­ror­ist. And it pret­ty much stayed that way through­out the operation.”

Yehu­da Shaul, who found­ed Break­ing the Silence after serv­ing in the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries with the Nahal Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, under­scored that the mil­i­tary’s per­for­mance dur­ing 2014’s Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge was just a con­tin­u­a­tion of Israel’s “cut the grass” pol­i­cy in the region. He said it is “appar­ent that it is only a mat­ter of time until the next oper­a­tion.” The phi­los­o­phy of the Israeli mil­i­tary is that they must cut down Pales­tin­ian resis­tance, and there­fore, Shaul says, “an oper­a­tion every two or three years is an expres­sion of cold and cal­cu­lat­ed log­ic, not whimsy.”

Of course civil­ians are going to be mowed under, Shaul point­ed out.  “The prin­ci­pal casu­al­ties from the ‘grass cut­ting’ pol­i­cy [are] Pales­tin­ian civil­ians, whose pop­u­la­tion is being torn apart in the throes of war. Think about what hap­pens to a soci­ety when hun­dreds of its chil­dren are killed with­in the span of two months, along with 18,000 of its homes. It is impos­si­ble not to dis­cern whether what the IDF is ‘cut­ting’ every cou­ple of years is ter­ror capa­bil­i­ties, or the abil­i­ty for an entire soci­ety to devel­op and sub­sist. In effect,” Shaul went on, “the ‘grass cut­ting’ pol­i­cy is but anoth­er com­po­nent of Israel’s sys­tem of con­trol over the Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion, both in Gaza and the West Bank. In order to pre­serve its con­trol, Israel con­tin­u­ous­ly oper­ates to ensure Pales­tini­ans remain weak and vul­ner­a­ble. As a sol­dier,” Shaul said, “I took part in count­less oper­a­tions aimed at ‘low­er­ing the heads’ of Pales­tin­ian civil­ians in the West Bank. Many oth­er sol­diers have and con­tin­ue to do the same.”

Out of this mael­strom, how will Pales­tini­ans and Israelis find their com­mon human­i­ty? They have lit­tle choice but to share the land they live on together.

Monir Deeb, right, with new friends in Gaza anxious to hear about life abroad.

Monir Deeb, right, with new friends in Gaza anx­ious to hear about life abroad.

Despite the elec­tric­i­ty cri­sis, the short­age of med­i­cines aggra­vat­ed by the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, and the high rate of unem­ploy­ment (half the pop­u­la­tion is out of work), it is in the human spir­it to seek the light. Among the two mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing on the brink, iso­lat­ed from the rest of the world, a young female come­di­an, Reham al-Kahlout, wants to be the first Gazan fun­ny woman to hit the big time, the way Mohammed Assaf broke out as a singer on Arab Idol. Reham records com­e­dy skits with fel­low Gazan actors and posts them on YouTube, work­ing toward her first big break — the chance to go to Cairo, where she says com­e­dy and the arts afford greater oppor­tu­ni­ties. Reham is one of thou­sands of young Gazans who dream of bet­ter tomor­rows, for Gaza too has its rap­pers and rock­ers, its aspir­ing writ­ers and film­mak­ers, along with its fem­i­nists and human rights work­ers con­fronting Gaza­’s class divi­sions and patri­ar­chal oppression.

When I ask Monir Deeb what he sees in Gaza­’s future, he replies, “Its resilience is a trib­ute to the peo­ple. It’s going to exist, because being a Pales­tin­ian, a Gazan, is to resist. Why would any­body sub­mit or kneel to some­body who is try­ing to sub­ject them to their own elim­i­na­tion? What amazes me,” Monir says, “is how the Gazans still car­ry on every­day life, because I would not have been able to do it.”

After a pause in our con­ver­sa­tion, he says, “I think it’s time for all of us, includ­ing me, to speak up about this siege. How much more do they want to suf­fo­cate these peo­ple, and how many more times is Israel allowed to ‘mow the lawn’? And how degrad­ing is this term? How dis­re­spect­ful and incon­sid­er­ate of the Israelis to put such a title about the lives of human beings.”


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