Gaza City: Palestinians are marking one year since last summer’s devastating Israeli war on Gaza — with a ceasefire still largely holding but few of the issues that led to the conflict resolved. The war took a heavy toll on Gaza, killing 2,251 Palestinians, including more than 500 children. Six Israeli civilians were killed in the 50-day assault.
It was the third war in Gaza in six years, and by far the deadliest and most destructive of the three, leaving families wondering when the suffering will end.
“You have to remember, if you are even just a seven-year-old child... you have been through three wars,” said Robert Turner, Gaza operations director for UN relief agency UNRWA.
Now, the majority of children living in areas of Gaza hardest-hit during last year’s conflict are showing signs of severe emotional distress and trauma, a Save the Children report said this week.
Israeli air strikes and shelling hammered the densely populated Gaza Strip, dominated by the Hamas movement, causing widespread destruction of homes, schools and other buildings.
Now, more than 70 per cent of children in the worst-affected areas of Gaza suffer from regular nightmares and bed-wetting and live in fear of further fighting, while half do not want to attend school because they are afraid to leave home, the charity said.
“We saw our home being destroyed. I was crying because we have memories and dreams there, from the day of our birth. My memories, pictures, clothes, toys ... everything is gone. I can’t live, I only feel pain,” a 12-year-old girl told the charity.
Homelessness and repeated exposure to violence, coupled with soaring unemployment for parents and limited mental health support, have prevented children from recovering from the mental trauma of war, according to Save the Children.
Around 100,000 people in Gaza are still homeless a year on from the conflict, while major reconstruction of health facilities, water networks and schools has yet to begin, the charity said.
“Many children in Gaza have now lived through three wars in the past seven years, the last one notable for its brutality.
They are emotionally and, in some cases, physically shattered,” Save the Children CEO Justin Forsyth said in a statement.
Of the 1.8 million people living in Gaza — a population growing by 50,000 a year — nearly two-thirds are dependent on aid in some form or another. It is the United Nation’s longest-running relief operation, set up in 1949.
An Israeli blockade, as well as a lack of financing from international donors, have been blamed for the slow pace of reconstruction in Gaza, where around 18,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.
Instead of houses, frustration has built in Gaza, where 39 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
“If we don’t address the underlying causes of these ongoing conflicts, we’re simply resetting the clock for the next cycle of violence,” said the UN’s Turner.
In Shijaiyah, after weeks of sharing cramped quarters with relatives during last year’s war between Hamas and Israel, 39-year-old Mohammad Al Selek thought nothing of it when he heard the incoming roar of two mortar shells. But once a suffocating cloud of acrid smoke filled the stairwell, his heart sank — the family’s home had been struck by Israeli fire.
Moments before, he had been enjoying a rare break, relaxing with a cup of tea and cookies as he marked the end of Ramadan. The house was filled with his children, nieces and nephews, and Al Selek’s father had taken the restless kids to play up on the rooftop, where the family kept rabbits and chickens.
After the explosion, Al Selek and his wife ran up the five flights of stairs to the roof and found a sight he still struggles to comprehend.
“We found an unbelievable scene — my children along with my father lying on the ground,” said Al Selek.
Caught in a living nightmare, he saw the bloodied, mangled bodies of all three of his children, his 71-year-old father, Abdul Kareem, and six other relatives lying next to the chicken coup and rabbit cages. Feathers and fur from the animals the children had begged their grandfather to see shortly before were strewn everywhere.
Al Selek’s life changed forever that July 30.
The Israeli strike on his home in Gaza’s Shijaiyah neighbourhood, just along the border with Israel, came at the height of the fighting and was one of the deadliest single incidents during the entire conflict.
Because of the heavy casualty toll, Israel’s Military Advocate General launched an investigation into the Shijaiyah incident.
The report found that Israeli forces had come under mortar fire from Palestinian militants in the area. Without air surveillance available, they responded to the source of fire, launching a total of 15 mortar shells over an 18-minute period, according to the report. The probe cleared the military personnel of any wrongdoing, finding no evidence of criminal misconduct.
Amid the chaos on that Shijaiyah rooftop, Al Selek said he first found his five-year-old son, Abdul Haleem, still breathing among what he described as “piles of flesh with open skulls.”
He rushed him downstairs and outside to an ambulance, then he ran back to the roof and repeated the grim task, carrying the lifeless body of his youngest son, Abdul Aziz. Grief overcame him when he saw the remains of his eight-year-old daughter, Omeneya, but he could not carry her down.
As he stepped out of the ambulance for a second time to get back to the roof, a white flash signalled a new barrage of shelling. He was knocked down and the explosion severed his right leg below the knee. He thought he would die and he professed his faith before he cried out for help.
By the time the shelling stopped, at least 30 people were dead, including 10 members of Al Selek’s extended family — eight of them children.
“This is one of the most horrible crimes in Gaza,” said Mohammad Al Alami, a lawyer at the independent Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
Families like the Al Seleks had thought they would be spared from the fighting — and even sheltered relatives from across Gaza because their block’s narrow alleyways were far from the front lines.
“Nobody ever thought this neighbourhood would be hit and I just don’t know how it happened,” said Bilal Humaid, who lost his 55-year-old father, Rajab, in the Shijaiyah shelling.
Bilal, 22, chokes up, remembering that day. Once his father heard the shells hit, he rushed out to help his neighbours, only to be wounded himself by another incoming shell, minutes later.
Gasping for air, Rajab lay among other victims, waiting for help. The smell of rust filled the air as blood mixed with petrol and dirt. The wounded cried out for help. Medics with stretchers struggled to navigate the uneven pavement, carrying out triage, selecting those who still had a chance and leaving those who were beyond help.
Rajab was taken to a hospital where he survived for five more days before he died of his wounds.
“People were coming to stay here, saying this is a safe neighbourhood,” Bilal said. “But for months after the strike, the spirit of the community was gone.”
— Compiled from agencies