Interview with a human rights fieldworker in Gaza
This morning as I brushed my teeth I could hear the familiar buzzing of a drone circling above our building. I ignored the sound. Drones circle overhead all the time; you never know whether it’s just for surveillance or an impending missile launch. The uncertainty makes you feel helpless. What can anyone do?
Five minutes later, a missile fired from what sounded like an F-16 fighter jet struck nearby. The loud boom sent the children running to me. They crowded in the bathroom, for comfort and safety. They looked so frightened and pale; their eyes red from lack of sleep. I am known for keeping a cool head, people say I have nerves of steel, so, typically, I just smiled at them – still clutching my toothbrush. The relief of seeing me smile made them break down in giggles; it’s one of those absurd reactions you have under extreme stress.
Overall, I try to keep things as normal as possible for them; we don’t talk about the war and deaths all the time. We take rational precautions but we don’t overdo it and try to avoid sowing panic. We don’t shout “go downstairs, go downstairs!” each time there’s a drone buzzing.
My home feels relatively safe, because I know my neighbours in the building and around me, and I know there is no one who could be a target. Yet nowhere in Gaza is truly safe. Life is dangerous. It’s war. We trust in God and look after the children.
I try to stay away from the areas where the fighting is taking place; in any case the Israeli military has made them off-limits. No vehicle is immune from attack. Just the other day a drone strike destroyed a clearly marked ambulance.
It’s when I am out taking photos and interviewing people who live in the areas being targeted that I am most at risk. The danger is when you feel that every house you are in could be targeted next. But I believe my work is important – regardless of the danger, it’s essential for the truth to come out.
Last week the case of the Abu Jame’ family in eastern Khan Yunis shook me to the core. Twenty-five members of one family had been wiped out in an Israeli airstrike just as they were eating Iftar, the evening meal to break the Ramadan fast. I arrived on the scene the following morning, just a few hours after the blast. They were pulling out the bodies all night. So many little ones. While I was there, another missile struck nearby.
At the moment, there are 28 people living in my house. My brothers normally live in Salatin in the northern Gaza Strip, where the Israeli ground invasion is going on. My three brothers with their families of about six or seven children each, and my children are all living together under one roof. I let them all stay with me; you can’t refuse when there are lives at stake.
The Israeli ground invasion has made it impossible to get food into Gaza City from the agricultural areas in the north. From the south the main Salah al-Din road that links the whole Gaza Strip is very exposed and comes under frequent drone attacks. At the moment only ambulances and a few humanitarian vehicles use it, at great risk.
The only market that is still functioning is the one in al-Shati Refugee Camp, which opens at night and gets very crowded. The stall-holders must risk their lives to get fresh vegetables. It is a dense area and if an F-16 bombed it the whole camp would become a crater. The few shops that remain open have run out of most stock.
We have electricity for about four to six hours every day, at different times. When the electricity is on we rush to charge all our mobile phones. A second-hand electricity generator costs 1,400 shekels [equivalent to approximately US$400], so not many can afford it. With no power, we have to pump up the water to the storage tanks on the roof – and that’s just to get water in the taps for washing. We have to buy clean water for cooking and drinking.
I have a desk with everything I need to work – computers, chargers, internet, cameras… but no electricity. I just managed to fix my old diesel generator and I got fuel for it today. Hopefully tonight it will work. I really need it, so that I can send the outside world testimonies and photos I have gathered… I feel under pressure to get the stories out of Gaza, so it’s incredibly frustrating when there is a blackout.
Israel/Gaza conflict: Questions and Answers (Q&A, 25 July 2014)
Israel/Gaza: Attacks on medical facilities and civilians add to war crime allegations (News story, 21 July 2014)
Israel/Gaza: Prevent further war crimes after Israeli ground assault (News story, 18 July 2014)
Israel/Gaza: UN must impose arms embargo and mandate an international investigation as civilian death toll rises (News story, 11 July 2014)