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Yasser Saymeh/AFP/Getty Images

Permanent temporariness

Middle East | Civilians on both sides of the Israel-Gaza divide suffer in war

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

DURHAM, N.C.-From a small apartment on a quiet street in Durham, N.C., Laila El-Haddad listens through laptop speakers to the echo of Israeli bombs sailing into war-torn Gaza. El-Haddad isn't watching news footage or YouTube clips. She's talking with her father who lives in the center of Gaza City.

The sometimes hourly calls via cell phone or internet are El-Haddad's only connection to her parents, both Gaza natives confined to their home after Israel launched a military offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip two days after Christmas. El-Haddad, 31, lives in Durham with her two small children and her husband, a Palestinian refugee completing his medical residency at a local hospital.

The freelance journalist blogs about the frightening updates her parents send from their darkened home in Gaza. A week into the offensive, her father called to ask for a news update from El-Haddad, who watches the Al Jazeera English network via satellite on a large television in her living room. "What's going on?" he asked. "It feels like they bombed our street from the inside out . . . What's the news saying?"

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The news in Gaza was sobering: Palestinian medical officials reported that Israeli attacks killed more than 900 people in the first three weeks and left more than 4,400 injured. They estimated half of the dead were members of Hamas, and half were civilians. Israeli officials reported 13 Israeli deaths, including three civilians.

Some 20 miles north, news came to southern Israelis through sirens. For years, the frequent alarms have warned residents of incoming rockets from northern Gaza. When the warning sounds, Israelis have about 15 seconds to seek shelter. "It's hard to explain what is 15 seconds to run for your life," says Lea Malul, spokeswoman for Barzilai Medical Center, a hospital in southern Israel. After the Israeli offensive began in December, hospital staff moved all patients to the basement, fearing heavier bombardment from Gaza. According to Malul: "The unknown is the worst feeling we have."

The fresh fighting between Gaza and Israel is the latest grim chapter in a long history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but civilians on both sides have at least one thing in common: prolonged suffering and a precarious existence with no long-term solution in sight.

Israeli officials say Hamas forces in Gaza have fired some 6,000 rockets toward Israeli territory over the past three years alone. Since the rockets aren't guided, many miss heavily populated areas and kill few people. Other rockets destroy homes and buildings in southern Israel, and Malul says her hospital has treated over 700 patients with shrapnel-related injuries during attacks over the last eight years, including loss of sight, loss of limbs, head injuries, and internal injuries.

Last year, Israel reached a temporary truce with Hamas, the militant Islamic party that controls the Gaza Strip, a 35-mile-long stretch of land that is home to 1.5 million Palestinians. (The secular Fatah party controls the West Bank.) When Hamas-which refuses to acknowledge Israel's statehood-declared an end to the six-month truce in December and reignited their rocket campaign, Israel responded with a devastating air and ground offensive. Israeli officials say they want to weaken Hamas and demand an end to rocket attacks. Hamas demands that Israel reopen its sealed border with Gaza.

After withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel imposed economic sanctions on the region already languishing in poverty, citing Hamas' rocket attacks. Hamas captured the Gaza Strip from rival party Fatah in 2007 largely by promising social services and capitalizing on the economic sanctions. Israel and Egypt sealed their borders with Gaza, in part to stop the flow of weapons into the region. But the closed borders also stopped the flow of people and made leaving the tiny strip mostly impossible for its packed population, even under fire.

El-Haddad's parents are among those who can't flee. Her father sends images of Israeli fliers instructing Gazan residents to leave their neighborhoods before attacks grow worse, but the fliers leave him wondering: Where can he go?

From her kitchen table in Durham, El-Haddad scrolls through satellite images on Wikimapia, an online map that allows users to label their locations. She points out an image of her parents' home in Gaza City before the strikes began. It's situated near a mosque her father attended and two blocks from the Parliament Building struck by Israeli bombs early in the offensive. "He's so close," she says.

El-Haddad was born in Kuwait where her parents attended medical school, but since most Gulf States don't grant citizenship to Palestinians (or other outsiders), she inherited her parents' Palestinian status. (Palestinians don't have formal citizenship anywhere since most were forced out of Israel beginning in 1948.) Growing up, that meant a long series of ever-changing identity documents, and yearly trips back to Gaza to update the family's residency papers. (Many Gazans didn't make the costly trips back to Gaza and eventually lost their right to return home.)

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