When Israel launched its assault on Gaza July 7, tragedy for residents of the Hamas-occupied area multiplied—even as Israel doubled down on its own resolve to fight.
Before the conflict entered its second month, and a promise of extending an Aug. 5 cease-fire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israelis to prepare for a prolonged battle and vowed, “We’ll do whatever is necessary to achieve our goal of a sustained quiet.”
With violence erupting across the Middle East, and assaults by brutal extremists on the rise, Israel appeared ready to dig in for a long fight with clearly defined goals: Put an end to Hamas rocket fire and shut down militarized tunnels leading into Israel.
In July Hamas fired more than 2,800 rockets at Israel—one striking near enough to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport to provoke a 48-hour ban on most international flights. Nearly all Hamas rocket launches from Gaza have gone astray or been neutralized by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, but at least three Israeli civilians were killed.
Facing tepid support from Washington and a violent wave of anti-Semitism in Europe, Netanyahu fought on even without full-on Western backing.
What that meant was more suffering for Palestinians living in Gaza, where the death toll climbed to more than 1,800 as the cease-fire began (Israel claims hundreds of those are Hamas fighters). A longer-term tragedy: The conflict has displaced 485,000 Gazans in July, according to the UN—and without Israel easing restrictions they have virtually nowhere to go. When Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, Israel sealed its borders and has blocked most Palestinians living there from leaving: Few have travel documents even if they did have means to flee.
As daytime temperatures soared near 100°F in July and August, Gaza City streets became graveyards with the stench of death rising. Power and water to Gaza’s 1.7 million people were cut in the bombing.
“The situation is much worse than during any other conflict before,” said Hanna Massad, former pastor of Gaza Baptist Church and president of Christian Mission to Gaza (CMG), a humanitarian relief organization aiding Christians and Muslims. Members of the church “are breaking down in agony due to the trauma they are suffering from the constant bombardment,” he told ASSIST News in late July. “Many lives will never be the same again.”
One member of the church, Jalila Ayyad, was killed during an Israeli bombing attack. Ayyad’s son was seriously injured in the same attack.
In 2010 I sat with Massad in the courtyard of his family home—where he had lived since he was 8 years old—beneath the shade of mango and olive trees planted by his father nearly 50 years ago. Now his house has been taken over by Palestinian neighbors, and “people are running out of food,” he said. The Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches opened their doors to displaced Gazans as homes were destroyed or they received warnings from the Israeli Defense Forces their area was about to be bombed.
“Fear is everywhere,” said Massad. “Nowhere is safe.”
‘The situation is much worse than during any other conflict before. ... Fear is everywhere. nowhere is safe.’—Hanna Massad, president of Christian Mission to Gaza
Another Christian charity, Seeds of Hope, reported its Gaza office destroyed by a 4-ton bomb on July 23. A new Christian believer connected to its ministry was killed July 20 when his home was bombed.
“None of these people are fighters, nor did they choose this fight. They are merely civilians, caught in the middle, who now have no place to go,” said Taysir Abu Saada, director of Seeds of Hope.
Abu Saada once served as Yassir Arafat’s personal driver before he converted to Christianity and authored Once an Arafat Man. He was born in al-Breij, a refugee camp in Gaza, and learned in July that three members of his family living in the camp were killed in bombings.
Despite the suffering, and the international outcry, Palestinians in Gaza increasingly recognize Hamas is mostly to blame for the deteriorating situation. They knew Israel would be forced to defend itself against steady rocket launches from Gaza and shut down the Hamas-built tunnels. They also watched as Hamas walked away from multiple cease-fire opportunities while turning Gaza civilians into targets to win international sympathy.
Onlookers initially blamed Israel for an aerial assault July 28 that left about 20 dead near al-Shifa Hospital and at the al-Shati refugee camp—including children playing nearby—but likely it came from stray missiles fired by Hamas further south. A Finnish journalist later reported on television seeing a rocket fired from hospital grounds.
Hamas also turned al-Wafa Hospital in Gaza City into a command center, making it a base for launching missile strikes and sniper fire aimed at Israeli Defense Forces. “In Hamas’ globe, hospitals are order facilities, ambulances are transportation vehicles, and medics are human shields,” read a statement from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Recordings verified IDF made phone calls to hospital administrators asking whether civilians and all patients had been evacuated and were assured they had before striking the hospital on July 23. The force of the explosion, plus secondary explosions, confirmed Hamas had concealed rockets there.
Such attacks nonetheless fed international outrage and sent the UN Security Council into emergency session, even as Gaza residents blamed Hamas, said everyone understood Palestinian blood had been shed by Hamas itself. “Nobody can forgive Hamas for what they’re doing,” said a 28-year-old journalist who asked not to be identified for security reasons. “No one can forgive Hamas for butchering Palestinians to get power. Most Gazans hate Hamas with a passion.”
With the Fatah-led government in Gaza in tatters and Hamas ruling by decree, a Washington Institute survey of 450 Gaza residents released in mid-July found that 70 percent favor a cease-fire with Israel and 88 percent favor kicking out Hamas. In the survey only 15 percent of Gazans support Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal (who rode out the conflict from the comfort of Doha, the capital of Qatar). And with unemployment in Gaza running at 40 percent, most also favor more economic ties with Israel and would like to normalize relations if Palestinians are allowed more jobs.
For his part, Prime Minister Netanyahu was less moved by public opinion in Gaza than by an ever more complex calculus that’s changing rapidly the region. ISIS militants, now calling themselves the Islamic State, control large swaths of Syria and Iraq and threaten Israel’s neighbors Lebanon and Jordan. Al-Qaeda linked militants have been active in neighboring Sinai since the downfall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. And in the wake of Egypt’s 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government with its ties to Hamas (Hamas formed in the 1980s out of the Muslim Brotherhood), the militants are developing closer ties with Qatar, a well-off U.S. ally. The Gulf emirate is funding militant rebel groups in Syria.
“There is deep proxy behavior, and it’s being fought out in the streets of Gaza, and once again the Palestinians are being duped in the process,” said Judith Rood, professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at Biola University. “The Israelis have to kill in order to survive. Israel is being forced to have blood on its hands.”
Rood said militant groups operating alongside Hamas, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, together with others in the region “all spring from the same root,” and Israel takes their encroachment seriously.
The discovery of more than 30 tunnels—several over 1.5 miles long—dug from Gaza right into Israeli kibbutzim also created “a new equation,” wrote Jonathan D. Halevi, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “They give Hamas an ability to infiltrate Israel and carry out strategic attacks involving mass killing, along with an ability to launch missiles from locations concealed within civilian population centers that serve, in effect, as human shields.” Left alone, these “terror tunnels” could make way for attacks that kill thousands of Israelis.
Despite the threats, Israel has had trouble shaking its pariah status in the West. The United States, including President Barack Obama himself, condemned specific attacks by Israel, while at the same time trying to broker a new cease-fire. But the United States too could be blamed for extending the conflict with strategic stumbles: Initially Secretary of State John Kerry and others insisted Qatar serve as an intermediary with Israel and Hamas, even as distrust for Qatar grows in the region. U.S. officials also signed an $11 billion weapons deal with Qatar right in the middle of Israel-Hamas fighting last month—even as the Gulf emirate moves closer to Muslim Brotherhood–linked militants. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in July said, “We have to confer with the Qataris, who have told me over and over again that Hamas is a humanitarian organization.”
In Europe, sympathy for Hamas morphed into outright hatred for Israel and Jews. July protests in Paris suburbs turned violent, trapping Jewish business owners who had to fight their way to safety through riot police. In Wuppertal, Germany, after a bomb attack at a synagogue July 29, Jewish leaders said they had received death threats and warnings not to wear yarmulkes in public. Protesters in Berlin chanted, “Gas the Jews.”
“We are experiencing in this country an explosion of evil and violent anti-Semitism which leaves us all shocked and dismayed,” said Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews. “That anti-Semitic views of the nastiest and most primitive type can be chanted on German streets we never thought possible again in this lifetime.”
The 72-hour truce launched Aug. 5 came when Egypt stepped in as mediator, as it has done in Israel-Hamas conflicts in the past. It came a day after Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, signifying Jewish exile and other tragedies up through the Holocaust. “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” the rabbis recite from the book of Lamentations. This year the threat and rumble of rockets overhead in Israel and pleas for relief from Gaza all transform that distant dirge into present-day reality.