The siege and sorrow of Gaza

The humanitarian situation in the besieged Palestinian enclave is worsening and will become catastrophic once the Israeli ground invasion begins

Palestinians look for survivors in the rubble of a destroyed building hit during an Israeli air strike, as an injured woman is helped in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 13. AFP
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The horror of the Palestine-Israel war has been unfolding rapidly.

US President Joe Biden’s speech last week was clear: he is solidly behind Israel. Disappointingly, there was no sign of him asking Israel to restrain from pummelling Gaza, but he said on Sunday that Israel re-occupying Gaza would be a big mistake and stressed the need to protect civilians. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel on October 12 held no explicit diplomatic message asking Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have compassion on the 2.3 million residents of Gaza, who will suffer due to the response to Hamas's heinous atrocities. He is due back for talks in Israel today.

But politics aside, let’s focus on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. It is worsening and will be catastrophic when the ground assault begins. The messages I’m getting from Palestinian colleagues inside are terrifying – there is nowhere for them to hide. One was rushing to try to find bread for his very young children, another desperately storing water – but as he lives in North Gaza, it’s almost certain his small farm will be hit by rockets. Humanitarian aid should never be politicised, and medical care and treatment for those who desperately need it – think of those on life support, getting dialysis or other treatments that require specific medicine or electricity – cannot be left to die. Already at least 2,670 people have been killed in Israeli strikes and about 600,000 displaced.

Humanitarian workers must be protected. Both the UN and the Red Cross have confirmed deaths of their staff; I won’t list numbers because they will no doubt rise each day. Ambulances have been hit and medics killed. There is no more fuel in Gaza, which not only means no light and no water pumped – but also life saving devices at hospitals will not work. Surgeons are writing they are out of supplies for burn victims – one posted on X that he was using regular soap to wash a teenage girl who had 70 per cent burns all over her body.

In another column, I wrote about the terror of being trapped under bombs. I am ashamed to write this, because although I have experienced it more times than I would like, I have always gotten out. As a foreigner and a journalist, I have always found a way to be evacuated. People in Gaza don’t have that luxury.

I’d like to stress again there is nowhere in Gaza to run. Because of Israeli and Egyptian blockades, the only two exits from the Strip. And when the invasion starts, there will be hellish scenes of urban street fighting, murder and mayhem.

Unlike in Israel, there are no air raid shelters in Gaza

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, that always does great work, called the situation in Gaza “catastrophic”. Last week, he sent a letter to foreign ministers clarifying six points that urgently need to be addressed, including the need for both Hamas and Israel to maintain a humanitarian corridor and to respect pauses and safe passages of humanitarian personnel and supplies.

Medical supplies are scarce in Gaza hospitals

Medical supplies are scarce in Gaza hospitals

Civilians in need of lifesaving support from Israel and Egypt must be provided for. He also stressed that “defined, safe demilitarised zones must be established and respected”. This is because most Palestinians in Gaza can’t reach safe areas, and there is nowhere to take shelter. Unlike in Israel, there are no air raid shelters in Gaza.

Mr Egeland also called for the international community to “facilitate agreements for release and repatriation of all civilians, with immediate release of children, mothers with infants, the wounded and sick.” Above all, Mr Egeland has called for a cessation of hostilities in Gaza.

This is the only way to avoid not only a full-scale war but thousands of people dying. Bombing Gaza will not accomplish what the Israeli government wants to do – defeat Hamas and subdue the population. The former might be possible, the second will never happen.

Instead, they will create a generation whose memories are only of blockades and bombings, of death and destruction, and they will be the next generation in charge. Radicalisation of youth who watched Gaza turn to flames will be angry and they will be impressionable. We've seen this in the past and we will see it again.

Restraint must be taken by all – Hamas and Israel. Mr Biden’s words last angered many. Hamas’s actions were hideous; I condemn them, and I mourn the Israeli dead. But to punish the entire Gaza Strip because of the actions of Hamas (and their proxies, even as the links are yet to be fully investigated) is collective punishment. Israel will counter that the acts of Hamas are war crimes, and they are right. But the end game should be to de-escalate violence, not fuel it. Vengeance is never a successful diplomatic strategy, nor a way to end wars.

The hostages must come home. Hamas must be eradicated. And Palestinians must find a way to live in dignity and have self-determination at all costs.

One long term-strategy for sustainable peace might be to identify the new generation of Palestinian leaders. Gaza has many brilliant young people. Two-thirds of Gaza’s population is under the age of 25. But there is widespread unemployment, at 64 per cent – not because people are unmotivated to work but because of the blockades. Peace initiatives could train people in Gaza to work with like-minded Israelis. Together they can counter radicalism, replace Hamas with a leadership that wants peace with its neighbours, and restore balance to a region spinning wildly out of control.

If not, in the coming days, the alternatives will be cataclysmic.

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Published: October 16, 2023, 10:15 AM