‘Gaza Is a Tomb’
In the rubble of the Gaza Strip, the militias are once again arming up, training men and women, and preparing for the inevitable war with Israel.
GAZA CITY — Everyone freezes. The howl of an Israeli warplane cuts through the conversation. The plane is coming in our direction, and is soon nearly overhead.
Brigade commander Abu Mujahid, 40, snaps his head to the right and nods at two of his men, members of the Nasser Salahuddin Brigade, one of Gaza’s many fighting groups. They silently slip out from under the reed awning we are crouched under and jog up the pockmarked farm road to see what’s going on.
“Did you switch off your mobile and leave it in the car?” Abu Mujahid asks urgently, looking at the sky. He has fought in every conflict against the Israelis since the Second Intifada, which began in 2000. Curved chunks of flesh on his arms and legs are missing, as are his two middle fingers. His soldiers joke that he is half metal.
And then an explosion. It is loud and guttural, but far away. No one even flinches.
“It’s a sound blast, but it will knock your windows out,” he says by way of explanation.
The fighters in Gaza are preparing for a new war every day. It could come at any time: In the past few weeks, Israeli planes and drones have been increasingly circling the 26-square-mile coastal enclave. The Israel Defense Forces have repositioned troops at the eastern borders, an area almost entirely flattened during last summer’s 51-day war.
“The war could start any minute,” says Abu Mujahid. “There is a lot of kinetic movement, so all the fighting groups evacuated the bases, we’ve postponed training sessions, and many of the men have moved underground.”
“There are people right now under your feet,” his wiry second-in-command, Abu Saif, 28, adds with a toothless grin.
Gaza today is a powder keg waiting to explode. The key aspects of the cease-fire agreement that ended the war last summer remain unfulfilled — both Israel and Hamas feel that only more violence can force their enemy to assent to their demands. Meanwhile, the reconstruction of Gaza has stagnated due to Israeli restrictions on letting material into the territory, as well as the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, sapping Gaza residents’ hope for a better future and leading them to believe that there is no alternative but armed struggle.
When a truce to last year’s war was brokered in Egypt in August, it committed both sides to launching indirect talks within a month to resolve the long-standing issues between them. The Palestinians want an end to the crippling eight-year blockade on their territory, the fishing zones extended, an airport, and a seaport. Israel, meanwhile, wants the total disarmament of the territory and the end of Hamas, an Islamist party that has controlled the strip since 2007.
The talks, however, never materialized. Instead, Egypt, which has long served as an interlocutor, largely shut its borders on Gaza’s 1.8 million people, and in February, an Egyptian court briefly put Hamas on its terrorist list. Meanwhile, in mid-March, Israel re-elected hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly said that Hamas is equivalent to the Islamic State.
For all the bark and bluster, the fighters begrudgingly acknowledge that the civilian population probably cannot weather another war. Eight months after the bombing ended, Gaza is still flattened: Only $945 million of $3.5 billion pledged for rebuilding Gaza at an October conference in Cairo has been received, according to a report released on April 13 by the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), while not a single one of the 19,000 homes destroyed in the conflict has been rebuilt. The report went on to state that an estimated 100,000 people are still homeless, with almost 1,300 camping in U.N. schools.
Local bulldozers have cut haphazard paths through three-story-high piles of crumpled concrete to allow people to move around. People paint their names and phone numbers onto the concrete heaps, in case an aid agency bothers to turn up and start the reconstruction efforts.
“We built this house twice before in the last wars, and in the summer another missile took most of the front off and the roof,” said Abu Joseph, 70, navigating an elaborate system of ropes to clamber onto his open roof in the neighborhood of Shejaiya. “Some engineers came here and proved the building is structurally unsound. We’re waiting for it to crumble under us for the third time.”
Basic services have also collapsed, adding more hardships for residents. Electricity is scarce: Most Gaza residents are surviving on just three to six hours of power a day. The water in the taps is salty, because seawater from the Mediterranean has infiltrated the sole coastal aquifer — according to the AIDA report, 95 percent of the territory’s water supply is unfit for human consumption. And because the sewage plants aren’t functioning properly, thousands of cubic meters of waste are openly flowing onto the beaches.
The damage is not just physical. Over 400,000 children — who are suffering the cumulative effects of multiple wars — are thought to have severe shellshock, and many of them are heavily medicated. But money for such care is scarce: UNICEF’s Gaza director, Pernille Ironside, told Foreign Policy that the organization was 70 percent unfunded, meaning it was only able to provide essential psychosocial support to one-fifth of the affected children.
“There is a $68 million funding gap for our two-year emergency response program,” she said.
One of the worst cases of post-traumatic stress in the strip is Montasser Abu Bakr, 12, who last July saw four young boys from his family — including his 10-year-old brother — blown to pieces by an Israeli naval shell on a Gaza beach. Eight months later, he is struggling with powerful antipsychotic drugs after attempting suicide. During the interview with him and his family, he screamed continuously, hid under his bed, attacked his parents, and sometimes went mute.
“The drugs drive me crazy, I don’t know what to do,” he said, breaking into sobs. “Every day, I’m like a piece of wood, I can’t sleep, my hands are clenched in a fist.”
The brewing conflict between Hamas and Fatah, which is the dominant political party in the West Bank, has also hindered reconstruction. While both parties lent their endorsement to a newly formed Palestinian government last year, it appears to have brought unity in name only — Fatah members complain that Hamas is still preventing the government from taking the lead on handling the funds and reconstruction efforts, which was a prerequisite for receiving aid.
“The government isn’t functioning at the moment; Hamas refuses to give up control of the police stations, security, borders,” rendering it effectively useless, said Fatah member Abu Jouda al-Nahal.
Hamas, meanwhile, accuses Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of deliberately undermining attempts to build a functioning government in Gaza.
“Abbas is worried about his political future,” said Mushir al-Masri, a spokesman and leading member of the Islamist group. “The Israeli occupation refuses the peace that Gaza’s united government offers, so Abbas is scared of punishment from the Israelis in the West Bank if a Gaza government actually succeeds.”
As the civilian leaders bicker, the civilian population is increasingly turning to the armed factions for answers. In the absence of other job opportunities, these groups have witnessed a massive spike in recruitment: One of the Nasser Salahuddin fighters, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Mohamed, said they have had to turn away dozens of underage hopefuls.
“The youth want revenge, when they’ve lost so much,” he said.
The unit leader agrees to meet in the middle of the night. A gaggle of new fighters pose in a scrubby orchard with an assortment of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), sniper rifles, and assault rifles. They do somersaults and backflips in the nearby clearing — training activities normally done through flaming hoops or under gunfire, Abu Mohamed added.
Their unit’s latest weapon is women. Throughout Gaza, armed groups have stepped up their recruitment. Now, each one — including Hamas’s Qassam Brigades and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — has a female contingent.
No one knows exactly how many female fighters there are in Gaza, but the Nasser Salahuddin Brigade boasts 80 female combatants working in 25-women units. Each unit has female commanding officers, who answer to a male superior. Hundreds of other women also offer support roles.
“We fit the training around our domestic chores,” said Hadifa, 26, her face obscured by a niqab, while cuddling an assault rifle during a midnight meeting at her Gaza City home. She said the women are trained to use sniper rifles, AKs, RPGs, M16s, and also how to drive cars through war zones, how to fight with a knife, and most recently how to capture an Israeli soldier in battle.
Most of the women, like Hadifa, are either married to brigade members or are sisters of the fighters, and were inspired to join the fighting groups after losing several members of their families in the recent wars. It is not hard to see why they would be a military asset: Women have an easier time moving around war zones, due to the presumption that they are civilians. As a result, they can deliver weapons and food to fighters on the front lines with less risk than their male counterparts.
“We also watch the roads, protecting the men as they move,” said Om Adam, 40, the wife of a senior Nasser Salahuddin commander and one of the oldest of the female fighters.
Om Adam, whose own son lost all but one of his limbs during the 2008-2009 war, said that despite the horrific devastation of war for much of the population, Gaza residents see armed resistance as one of the only ways to take control of their lives.
“Gaza is a tomb; we are dead anyway,” she said, helping her injured son out of his wheelchair. “Either you die pointlessly and slowly, or quickly with purpose.”
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images