I lived and worked in Palestine for five years. It was an incredible, life-changing experience that I kept meaning to write about but always put off, not knowing where to start or what to say beyond cliché statements such as ‘it broke me, and it made me’. Meanwhile, my life continued to move at a fast pace onto the next chapter. Over time, some of the memories faded but they have been flooding back to me in the past weeks when Israel started a new round of evictions in East Jerusalem and launched its latest military offensive on Gaza.
I say ‘latest’ because this was just another offensive in a long line of offensives on the Gaza Strip since the last Israeli settlers left the Strip (2005) and Israel began the siege and ‘sealing’ of Gaza (2006). This was yet another attack on the civilian population, which has left thousands of children, women and men dead and tens of thousands more maimed or injured since 2006.
Here in Ireland, we only hear about these killings and casualties when they reach a certain threshold. A killing here and there doesn’t make the international news headlines. Therefore, we tend to think that in between the four biggest offensives on Gaza there must have been peace on the Strip, right? Wrong. Missile attacks, sniper attacks and aerial bombardment are sadly a frequent occurrence for Gazans.
I was in Palestine when 1,172 Gazan civilians, including 353 children were massacred in 23 days as part of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead (2008-9). Well to be precise, I was in Ireland when the offensive began. I remember it clearly as it was my mother’s birthday and I happened to be with her and a dear Palestinian friend who had travelled with me to Ireland for the Christmas holidays.
By the time we returned to Palestine in the New Year, almost a hundred children had already been killed. It was the first time that Gazans experienced white phosphorous – a chemical weapon that causes painfully intense and deep burns to human flesh that are hard to extinguish, and which can continue to burn down to the bone or poison internal organs. I know this much about this horrendous weapon because I edited and coordinated the publication of a report that documented its impact on Gazan children, in terms of fatalities, injuries and trauma. The report also covered other serious child rights violations during Operation Cast Lead, such as use of children as human shields by the Israeli army.
It was a very surreal time for me because I remember experiencing that offensive as if watching a film. Now I understand that I was experiencing a form of disassociation. My psyche couldn’t handle the fact that this was happening and so my mind must have converted it into a kind of fictional movie.
This was a coping mechanism that I saw in some other people too – both Palestinians and foreigners (or internationals, as some Palestinians called us). You become normalised to the violence. After a while, you no longer feel grief, shock or fear, and find it hard to connect to victims’ and survivors’ distress and trauma.
I worked in a Palestinian child rights organisation and whenever a child would be shot, killed or imprisoned, we would document it and put it in advocacy reports in the hope that the UN, EU or foreign governments would do something to stop and remedy the violations.
And I remember conversations about these violations with Palestinian colleagues who had been under Israeli Occupation (and oppression) their whole lives. Every day in the office, around 11am, we would gather in the meeting room and have breakfast together. Over humus, za’atar, fresh pita bread, olives, pickles, and sweet sage tea, we would discuss the latest violation. A common refrain would be ‘aadi’(normal), while shrugging their shoulders.
At first, I was shocked at this fatalism, but then I found myself slowly falling into the fatalistic pit the longer I spent in Palestine, as the bodies broken and traumatised piled up.
But today, I live in Ireland, in a safe stable quiet neighbourhood, where the biggest commotion is the noise of the weekly waste disposal truck and the occasional loud lawnmower. No gunshots, no bombs.
Peace is my new normal.
And so, it was no surprise that during the recent bombing of Gaza, several nights I found myself being jolted awake with a rush of cortisol and adrenaline in my body.
Back in a peaceful environment, my psyche can comprehend and connect to the horror of the harm and trauma inflicted on babies, children, parents, grandparents, and the wider community in Gaza.
While I am deeply relieved that the bombing has ceased for now, it is not enough.
The siege on Gaza must end. East Jerusalem must be saved from Annexation. The Occupation must end. Palestinians must receive transformative reparations. And there must be accountability for war crimes. In short, the systematic oppression must stop.
As U.S. human rights activist Rachel Corrie wrote in one of her diary entries, just months before she was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer, ‘This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop.’