Here comes that difficult time of year again: the anniversary of an event that changed the taste of life for Palestinians inside the Gaza Strip and throughout the world. It is three years since the Gaza massacre, or what Israel called Operation Cast Lead.
I still vividly recall the first hours of this 22-day nightmare, when I was with my classmates at university, sitting a final exam paper. We were almost done with the paper when we heard the first explosion. It is somehow common to hear explosions in Gaza, so we kept still until two louder explosions occurred. It was then that we dropped our pens and looked throughout the clouds of smoke that were getting closer. Supervisors immediately called on us to evacuate the campus through safe routes.
Once we got to the street, it was a different world. There was smoke and ash everywhere and Israeli F16s and drones were filling the horizon. Ambulances and fire trucks were speeding up along the opposite road, civilian cars were going in all directions and people were running as if they had all just entered into a bad dream. No matter how hard you tried to look, there were neither policemen nor officials to help the terrified people running here and there. Up to that moment, we had no idea of what was going on. We just knew that something really bad had happened, and that we were not safe walking on the streets with the lack of of safety procedures and shelters.
However, I will never forget how some young people had the courage to act voluntarily in that crucial time on diverting the traffic and helping other people out, risking their own lives. Two hours later, it was all over the news channels. Approximately forty persons were killed in the first air strikes and Israeli officials were threatening to wipe Gaza off of the map.
The bombs kept on falling and the death toll was increasing rapidly. My relatives had gathered at our house, believing that it was in a more secure area than theirs. We were continuously watching the news and had limited our movement outside the house to the extreme. Two days after that, a bomb fell on a main electricity line in our neighborhood, causing a blackout. The blackout remained until after the massacre was over.
By the third or fourth day there was a de facto curfew. Israeli jets were dropping loads of announcements for the people of Gaza to stay at their homes and to call the military about anybody shooting rockets on Israeli towns. The water supply was cut off and we and thousands of other households were isolated from the world. I will never forget how neighbors were so helpful in sharing their water supply with others.
The Saraya, a large security complex near our house, was a military base built during the British mandate of Palestine (1920-1948). This base was targeted during the massacre with heavy missiles until it was totally destroyed. As each missile fell, a window was broken or a door was jammed. We were alerted 24/7 and could barely sleep during the night that was always glowing due to the daily dose of white phosphorus.
After the first two weeks, it was apparent that the Israelis had run out of targets as governmental, military and even international aid bases were completely or partially destroyed. Absurdly, the air strikes started targeting open land and already destroyed buildings, presumably just to terrify people. The rubble at the Saraya base was bombed for a third and fourth time.
Some of the blasts were so powerful that rocks and bricks flew for hundreds of meters, hitting all the houses close by. It was a shocking experience witnessing the huge explosions, while seeing and hearing the metal, bricks and wooden parts of your house falling apart all around you. Here I believe is the very basic rule of life in Gaza: the place that was thought to be safer than others is dangerous after all. You are never safe.
During the following days, a two-hour break in the curfew was announced. People rushed to secure their families’ basic needs. I could not forget the long rows of people awaiting their turn to collect some bread or to fill one small gasoline tank (which was the limit per person), but people were sharing their everyday needs with each other It is said that hardship brings people together. The need for unity and helping others was the prevailing feeling inside homes, between families and among neighbors in these harsh days.
After more than 22 days of continuous fear and terror, the operation was over. We lost 1,400 martyrs; thousands of people were wounded with white phosphorus and other state-of-the-art Israeli weapons. Electricity and sewage infrastructure, transportation systems and roads were severely damaged.
In the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, the international empathy for the Palestinian cause rose and pro-Palestine movements across Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa became stronger than ever. Demands for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel grew louder.
Until today, a number of families that were left homeless by the massacre have not yet managed to find permanent housing. The infrastructure is still damaged and the reconstruction process is moving inefficiently and very slowly due to the banning of construction materials. In the meantime, the Israeli siege remains in place. As I wrote these lines at night, at least two Israeli strikes took place, killing at least one and injuring a dozen, some with serious wounds.
United we can overcome the hurdles and defeat the occupation.
Rafat Abushaban, 23, is a Palestinian activist living in Gaza. His blog is www.zaitoontree.com