Gaza shatters the facade of ‘calm’

Mohammed R. Mhawish

+972 Magazine  /  October 8, 2023

Palestinians have long warned that Israel’s blockade and repeated aggressions would eventually lead to an explosion. But few of us in Gaza expected this.

More than 24 hours have passed since Hamas broke out of its Gaza cage, launching an unprecedented attack that caught the Israeli army completely off guard. The infiltration of Palestinian militants across the separation fence, as well as by air and sea — already described as Israel’s most significant intelligence and military failure since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 — has resulted in the deaths of over 700 Israeli citizens from shooting attacks and rocket fire, and the kidnapping of dozens who have been brought to Gaza. 

For those of us watching from within the besieged Gaza Strip, the situation has been nothing less than terrifying. Shortly after the attack began, Israel declared a state of war, initiating a relentless barrage of airstrikes targeting a wide range of locations across the strip, including hospitals, public spaces, and residential compounds. The death toll in Gaza has already surpassed 350, with thousands more wounded, and it appears inevitable that the worst is yet to come. 

Since news of the attack first emerged on Saturday morning, I have been living a daytime nightmare together with my wife, our 2-year-old son Rafik, my sister, and our parents. In moments of Israeli bombardment, we all huddle together, gripping each other’s hands tightly. We try to conceal our fear, wearing a mask of calm even as the attacks draw nearer. Our prayers, usually so strong, now feel fragile — a stark reminder that we’re powerless to protect ourselves. 

This isn’t our first experience with Israeli wars on Gaza. My son experienced his first in 2021 while still in his mother’s womb. My parents have endured this tragedy since 1967. I have lived through five wars in just two decades. But the idea that we can normalize fear is a fallacy. Each conflict feels like the first, with our hearts trembling from the moment the first airstrike hits until a ceasefire is finally announced.

This new attack from resistance groups in Gaza follows a series of intense weeks of Israeli state and settler violence across the occupied territories, which played a considerable role in leading us to this current crisis. Palestinians have been sounding the alarm, warning that the blockade, persistent impoverishment, repeated Israeli aggressions, and fragmentation of their communities would eventually lead to an explosion. The Palestinian leadership and resistance heard the calls of the people to counterattack Israel’s policies of aggression, so a reaction was expected. 

What has surprised most Palestinians, however, both at home and in the diaspora, is the scale and intensity of this attack — as Israeli authorities continue to release more names of the dead while Palestinian resistance operations are ongoing in southern Israel.

Trapped in an open-air prison 

Daily life in Gaza has rapidly deteriorated over the past sixteen years of Israeli siege. Today, approximately 97% of the water in the strip is considered unsafe for drinking; over half of the population lives under the poverty line; 80% of the strip’s population relies on foreign aid; and the future for most youth is uncertain, with 64% of them unemployed and their dreams and aspirations stifled by the limitations of the blockade. 

The majority of Palestinians residing in Gaza are refugees living in perpetual exile from their ancestral homes, after being expelled by Zionist and Israeli forces in the Nakba of 1948. Back in 2018 and 2019, the demand to lift the siege and return to their homes resonated around the world as tens of thousands of Palestinians protested at the fence during the Great March of Return — protests that were revived in recent weeks. Israel killed hundreds during these marches and inflicted thousands of injuries, deliberately targeting many with live fire to their limbs. Those wounds, both physical and psychological, have not yet healed.

The world has watched as we’ve lived here, trapped in this open-air prison, yearning for freedom. We’ve endured this existence for decades, and despite it all we’ve clung to our hope and our determination to resist: if we ever had the chance, we would.

What Israel and much of the world calls “calm” is the eerie stillness that lingers before the storm, before Gaza is once again plunged into chaos. This so-called calm is deceptive because, in our reality, it is anything but peaceful. “Calm” is when Gaza is bombed, while villages, towns, and cities across the rest of our occupied lands are invaded, homes bulldozed, journalists shot, ambulances attacked, mosques vandalized, schools tear-gassed, and Palestinians massacred. 

But this facade of calm shatters when Palestinians, driven to the brink, finally respond to the unrelenting pressure. The world may look on in shock, but for us, it is the culmination of years of suffering and despair. It is the moment when we defend our very existence and right to live peacefully in freedom.

While it is true that Israel’s intelligence failures allowed Hamas to catch them off guard, it is also the result of a failure of imagination, empathy, and basic decency. It is a failure to comprehend that a people cannot be expected to endure decades of occupation stoically and passively.

It is essential to recognize that the siege itself is a provocation. Forcing people to live in an open-air prison — a deliberate act of keeping an entire population in a state of constant vulnerability — is itself a form of violence. What is driving the escalation that we are seeing now is the fact that we Palestinians are fed up with living under constant conditions of occupation and colonization. These are the issues that need to be addressed for any meaningful resolution to occur.

The right to resist 

Israel has been waging a war against the Palestinian people for over seven decades through ethnic cleansing, occupation, apartheid policies, and a brutal siege on Gaza. Yet despite their vastly superior fighting power, recent events have highlighted the bankruptcy of Israeli leaders’ rhetoric and their inability to bring about peace and security.

What the world fails to understand is that the Palestinian people have the right to utilize armed resistance in the struggle for freedom and to defend themselves against Israeli aggression. Indeed, many of those currently condemning Hamas’ attacks on civilians have been awfully quiet while Israel has committed unspeakable crimes against the Palestinian people, including imposing collective punishment against the residents of Gaza. Any analysis or commentary that fails to acknowledge this reality is not only hollow but also immoral and dehumanizing.

At times like this, it is crucial to keep the stories of struggle in Gaza — and the Palestinian people at large — in mind and to help amplify our calls for dignity as we continue to endure unimaginable assaults on our existence in the quest for justice, peace, and equality.

For years now, families in Gaza like mine have lived with the constant, unsettling need to have our important belongings packed and ready at all times, in case we have to leave with only a moment’s notice. They contain the essentials for survival in the midst of chaos: medicines, documents, mobile chargers, personal belongings, and hygiene kits. Having these bags ready at all times reflects how scary life can become in an instant in Gaza.

Now, as I write these words, my family and I are hastily gathering our emergency bags to leave the house after being told that our neighborhood is about to be bombed. I have lived through five wars on Gaza, but I have never felt this much horror or seen this amount of destruction.

Mohammed R. Mhawish is a Palestinian journalist and writer based in Gaza; he is a contributor to the book A Land With A People — Palestinians and Jews Confront Zionism (Monthly Review Press Publication, 2021)