Terms like ‘collateral damage’ and ‘proportionality’ belie the civilians whose lives were taken in the latest pointless cycle of pain and suffering. When the logic behind the attacks is so incomprehensible, words fail
May 11, 2023
For this 87-year-old woman lying sick in her home in Khan Younis, the past 75 years shrank into a single moment dating back to April or May 1948. It was then that she and her family fled their home in Jaffa after it was bombed by the pre-state militant Etzel and Haganah forces. They thought they’d be home after two or three days – a week or two at most. On Tuesday, she surprised her family by waking up from a two-day coma. Her children understood through her mumbling that upon waking, she believed herself to be her 12-year-old self again, a girl whose world had been turned upside down in a matter of hours.
“It has nothing to do with the recent bombings. I don’t think she knows there’s a new war,” her granddaughter told me. “It’s common. Even when our elders lose their memory, they remember themselves during the Nakba. So I thought to myself that maybe when I’m old with Alzheimer’s, I won’t remember anything other than that terrible war in 2008, when I was 12 years old.”
We have here everything we need to make a factual remark on the ongoing Nakba. Not a confrontational, argumentative or narrative remark, but a simple fact: The Nakba, a disaster of dispossession and expulsion, hasn’t let up for a moment since we turned the Palestinian people into a nation of refugees. And they – how irritating – refuse to adapt or surrender to this reality. This is the necessary starting point to understanding the political, military and social facets of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
A Hamas operative who isn’t a member of the organization’s military wing once proudly told me, “During the first intifada, we threw stones – but now, we have rockets.” For our part, we Israelis had the homemade Davidka mortar, and today we have the kind of bombs and military aircraft that the military censor would bar us from naming. Each side boasts the development and efficiency of its weapons, but Palestinian organizations live in constant denial as the gap between their arsenal and Israel’s continues to widen.
“I was getting ready to sleep. Suddenly I felt the shockwaves. Like an earthquake. Only then did the sound follow,” said the granddaughter, who I’ve known since she was a child, of Tuesday morning’s bombings. “I thought that, as always, the Jews are bombing open areas, empty bases of the Jihad or Hamas.” She used a term hurtful to me which is commonly used by Palestinians, feeling no need to replace “the Jews” with “the army” for my sake.
“In previous cases our resistance organizations shot at Israel and knew that no Israeli would be killed,” she continued. “The army shelled and knew that no Palestinians would be killed,” she said. “Each one would respond to the other, and we could go back to normal.”
That is why the shock was so great this time. “Only fifteen minutes after the bombing we began to hear reports of women and children being killed. My friend and her family live in the same building as the family of the Islamic Jihad commander Tareq Izzeldeen. They were in the apartment when the house was bombed, but luckily they weren’t hurt. Their whole apartment, though, is ruined. It’s completely destroyed. My friend left the apartment and saw dead bodies on the stairs.”
Her words provide a reminder of the unimaginable resilience of the Palestinians. “[We are] reluctant heroes”, my friends in Gaza told me in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2021 and on many occasions in between, during military invasions and attacks that didn’t receive the title “war.” Yet with every war this “reluctant heroism” becomes more difficult.
I was talking with this young friend of mine early in the afternoon on Wednesday, when the rocket launchers of the Islamic Jihad were still silent and the missile alarms had not yet interrupted the Israeli radio broadcasts. “Everyone is expecting the Jihad to react,” she said. “The sight of the children that Israel murdered shocked everyone.”
I asked her, as if she were an expert on the Islamic Jihad or a military strategist, why she thinks they aren’t responding. “Holding the Israelis in fear is also a weapon,” she explained. “The problem is that we’re also afraid. Waiting is sometimes more difficult than the actual moment of the bombing. I also think that the Islamic Jihad must respond. But I don’t long for another war.”
This is first-hand testimony of the internal contradictions in everyone’s hearts. I didn’t notice if she said that Hamas should also respond. As a ruling party, it has different considerations than those of the smaller military organization. Hamas doesn’t like the comparison, but they went through similar stages that their rival, the Fatah movement, had passed during the second intifada. Hamas also feels the contradiction and tension between a liberation movement and a ruling government with officials and a responsibility to pay salaries and maintain schools.
Another friend of the young woman I was talking to survived cancer, making it through after many treatments and an unwavering love for life. An appointment was scheduled for her on Wednesday, at a hospital in Jerusalem. It was coordinated after much effort, and after the costs of the treatment were guaranteed to be covered by the Palestinian Authority. But the points of entry into Israel were closed. “How many other patients who had to travel for a life-saving treatment didn’t get to do so?” my friend wondered.
Israel’s Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who approved the killing of the senior Islamic Jihad and their families, must have thought about such terms as “collateral damage” and “proportionality.” But this collateral and proportional damage is the civilians whose lives were taken, and the many more cycles of pain and suffering. All those injured and traumatized for life; all those who’ll need treatments for stress and anxiety and for diabetes that might develop because of their worry and fear; all those who’ll suffer from depression, apathy, a loss of school days and even months with no education; all the medical treatments that were postponed or canceled. And all this without mentioning the vast material devastation.
Writing is a human act combining logic and learning, experience and creativity to convey a clear and enlightening message. But it’s hard to summon creativity time and again to describe the destruction. It’s a struggle to repeatedly describe the logic behind each round of shelling, bombing, shooting and killing.
Whether this logic is driven by momentary political and organizational considerations, long-term military plans or national and patriotic considerations, when logic is so illogical, words fail.