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Waiting for things to get worse

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009

Could it be that things will get even worse? As the weekend drew near, we heard frantic talk that Israeli troops could soon arrive once again at our doorstep. What then? Already we have experienced so much terror and want.

When the Israeli strikes first began, my wife and I were worrying about lentils. She said we could not have lentil soup for lunch because there were no lentils in the shops. Nor any rice or flour. Suddenly there was a deafening noise, followed by a succession of blasts the likes of which I had never experienced. Our house was rocking, the windows rattling in their panes.

Panicked, we ran into the small hallway. My sister-in-law, who lives upstairs, joined us, frantic because her young daughter was not yet home from school. Sari, a boy from the neighborhood, banged on our door asking for shelter. He trembled as he told us that he'd been on his way home from school in a taxi when there was a thundering blast. The driver stopped the car and ran for cover. The passengers scattered in all directions.

Sari found himself running aimlessly. The explosions seemed to be chasing him, he said. Suddenly, he came upon people lying bleeding in the street. He went up to a man, wanting to help him, and touched his hand. It was nothing but a piece of burnt flesh. Somebody shouted at him to get away, so he ran off.

The news came over the telephone and the television. More than 200 people had been killed and even more wounded in less than 10 minutes. The numbers were climbing and the funeral scenes filled the TV screen. Apparently F16s had dropped more than 100 tons of bombs on crowded Gaza and had hit more than 300 targets in one mission. The pilots must have reported back to their commanders that their mission had been accomplished. But they never reported the pain and suffering of the innocent people and the fear their fighters had spread in the hearts of our children.

Noor, my stepdaughter, was silent throughout the day. Then she suddenly burst out alternately crying and laughing hysterically. She is a bright girl with artistic talents. She wants to write poetry.

On Monday, the phone rang. It was my friend Salam, asking for advice. His four children, ages 11, 9, 7 and 5, had wet their beds the night before. They'd mostly outgrown that a long time ago.

Three days after the attacks began, Fawaz Abu Sitta, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University here, was declared dead on the radio. The announcer said that the rubble of a bombed ministry building had completely smothered his small villa. A friend who happened to hear the broadcast alerted civil defense officials to search Fawaz's basement. They did, and Fawaz was rescued along with his wife, his children and his elderly mother.

This carnage goes on, as does another humanitarian crisis brought about by the Israeli siege of Gaza: a lack of medicines, bread, flour, gas, electricity, fuel and almost everything else. The Israeli siege has literally turned Gaza into a massive prison. All our borders are sealed, so there is no way out.

By Tuesday night, Gaza was like a ghost town. Its streets were deserted and people didn't dare to come out of their houses.

The children suffer the most, I think. They see the fear in their mothers' eyes. The image of their fathers as a source of security is shattered. Their fathers could not provide them with food, and now they are unable to protect them. The rockets will eventually stop flying, I am certain, but it may be too late for these children. To me, the chances seem great that they will join Hamas as they search for a replacement for the father figure, someone to provide and protect. In this way, Israeli actions will only strengthen Hamas.

Wisdom tells us that violence can only breed violence. Israel's brutality guarantees that its people will not be secure. Israel may destroy much and kill many in Hamas, but that is not the solution.

Hamas was born because of the occupation and won the democratic elections in 2006 because of false promises of peace and people's disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority. Israel and its allies should address Palestinian grievances instead of aggravating them by denying justice and security and by violating basic human rights.

Most of the Palestinians in Gaza are here because they were expelled in 1948 when Israel was created. Since then, we have not had a day of freedom or of equal rights with Israelis. We can barely feed our children or provide them with medicine, because Israel controls everything that goes in and out. From where I sit, in the middle of this barrage of bombing, Israel looks to be increasingly living outside the norms of the world community and outside international law.

I am not alone in thinking this. U.N. Human Rights envoy Richard Falk declared that what Israel is doing is a crime against humanity. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, former head of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, have expressed similar views in the past. Israel must be stopped.

It looks increasingly likely, though, that before the missiles stop exploding, we will have more days like last Thursday, when a family that lives across the street came to our house. They had gotten a phone call telling them to evacuate because their home would soon be bombed. Israelis sometimes make these calls, but you can't always be sure what will happen. Some houses are actually bombed after such messages. But some are hoaxes.

Our neighbors stayed with us for a couple of hours before they found out that the threat was just a joke - a very dark kind of humor.

Then on Friday we got word that my stepdaughter's friend - a Christian - had died from wounds she had sustained earlier in the week. Noor spent the day crying.

So many people are leaving their homes if they can. The people who live near Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader, have fled. The entire neighborhood is empty.

I'm scared, but I'm staying where I am. I'm worried about what will happen next, thinking about the serious bloodshed that will follow as Israeli forces come through on land. There will be some resistance, and they will fight that resistance. In the process many civilians will be killed.

Hamas fighters will be battling from homes, from the streets, in the middle of the neighborhoods where for now, we wait.

• Eyad El-Sarraj, a psychiatrist, is the founder and president of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and a commissioner of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.



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