It’s hard to write this story. It doesn’t feel real. But it is. It’s part of the everyday nightmare Gazans go through.
In February 2021, Yara Yaser Saleh al-Ghouti, a nine-year-old girl, was shot on Rafah beach. The gunfire, according to at least two witnesses on the beach—confirmed by a Tel al-Sultan Police Force report provided to me by Yara’s father—came from an Israeli ship.
Yara was seriously wounded in the arm and leg.
She’s lucky to be alive, rushed to Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital in time for doctors to perform emergency surgery on her. Her father, Yasser al-Ghouti, tells me she requires further surgery. But he cannot afford it, especially after having lost his job at a restaurant to take care of his daughter in recovery.
According to Yasser, Al-Mezan Center For Human Rights in Gaza was initially involved in the case. (I reached out to the Center for more information on the matter but am still awaiting a reply). They attempted to file a lawsuit against the military but it was rejected, it seems, with no substantive explanation. Yasser, however, says “we [Palestinians] are weak in my country” and that’s the reason for the rejection.
Depressing yet true. Palestinians have no real access to justice under Israeli apartheid. In fact, the courts within the criminal regime are there to protect the military, as we saw in the case of the Bakr family.
Ola Mousa at The Electronic Intifada recently summed this up well:
“One of the most widely reported incidents during a large-scale Israeli attack on Gaza in 2014 involved the killing of four children from the Bakr family, who were playing football on a beach.
After a military investigation into that massacre was closed, the Bakr family petitioned Israel’s high court. Not only did the court refuse to order that the probe be reopened, it tried to justify the killings by accepting Israeli military claims that the children were close to a shipping container which Palestinian resistance groups used for storing weapons.”
This makes me wonder what would happen to Yasser and Yara if they, somehow, were able to independently file a lawsuit against the Israeli military. Would he, having procured a lawyer, find himself in a situation—similar to the Bakr case—where the Israeli courts would be making false and preposterous claims that Palestinians are to blame for the near-fatal shooting of his daughter? Perhaps they, not unlike Mohammed al-Halabi (former humanitarian worker in Gaza), would be framed by the courts as a “terrorist” and not even be allowed to see, as in a legitimate court of law, “evidence” the prosecution has to make its case.
I’d not put either possibility past Israel. In fact, when I asked Yasser why the Palestinian Authority didn’t further pursue the report he showed me, he said:
“They do not want to file a lawsuit against the Israeli army, and they also do not want to be accused of killing or injuring children for fear of international criminal prosecutions.”
In other words, the Palestinian Authority fears revenge from the Israeli regime. Even when its military wrongs a child the regime doesn’t want Palestinians “making a fuss” about it. They want them to shut up. Be “grateful” that things are not worse. Should they instead seek justice through the Israeli courts they will be punished just for trying, including the possibility of being presented to the world as perpetrators of the most deplorable of crimes: harming children.
This conditions Palestinians to accept that they must suffer, in silence, every injustice inflicted on them by the regime. If they’re lucky, they might receive some charity from the international community, offering momentary respite but by no means alleviating their oppressive condition.
Yasser has impressed on me that he would very much like to find a lawyer to file, independently, a lawsuit against the Israeli military. He’s a father who loves his daughter and wants justice for her. Finding the lawyer, however, has been difficult for him since living in Gaza, as he shares, is to be in a perpetually “besieged area”, under the thumb of violent Israeli rule. That, contrary to international humanitarian law, dramatically limits his movements and therefore the chances of finding a lawyer—in or outside Gaza.
Learning this forces me to see how for most of my life I’ve taken access to justice for granted. In Canada, when you are the victim of a crime, there’s an infrastructure in place—comprised of courts, lawyers, judges, etc.—through which you can pursue (though not be guaranteed) justice. This is hardly a possibility for Yasser and his daughter. And if we as the international community don’t intervene they, like virtually all Palestinians, will be forced to endure injustice without even the possibility of legal remedy.
Moreover, what ought to particularly trouble us about Yara’s case is that, quite simply, she’s a child. One who was innocently enjoying the beach—among few outlets in Gaza where children can play and have fun (as all children should have the right to do)—and was shot for it. What kind of monsters would do that? And why does the West support the regime that, based on eyewitness accounts and wholly consistent with Israel’s long record of anti-Palestinian brutality, is the apparent culprit?
I’m reminded of Gideon Levy’s astute observation here:
“After we’ve cited nationalism and racism, hatred and contempt for Arab[Palestinian] life, the security cult and resistance to the occupation, victimhood and messianism, one more element must be added without which the behavior of the Israeli occupation regime cannot be explained: Evil. Pure evil. Sadistic evil. Evil for its own sake. Sometimes, it’s the only explanation.”
Indeed, “evil” is what Yara experienced, as well as the unnecessary suffering that both her and Yasser continue to endure. Difficult as this may be it’s important we amplify this when we talk about Israel. Part and parcel of its oppression of Palestinian people is their witnessing firsthand how it is attempting to murder their children.
If such despicable horror does not prompt us, especially in the more privileged parts of the world where we have significant political freedoms, to pressure our leaders to sanction Israel, what does that say about us? Are we any less evil by turning a blind eye to those who kill the most innocent among us?
The price of that is too high. Not only does it mean more Palestinian children will be murdered. It also means losing our own humanity.
Paul Salvatori is a Toronto-based journalist, community worker and artist