Six months ago, Israel initiated a brutal bombardment followed by a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip for the third time in six years. The war killed more than 2,000 people, the majority civilians, including 500 children, and left nearly 100,000 homeless.
Now, six months later, as winter storms sweep the area, we can't stop thinking about the people we met, the images we witnessed, and experiences we shared when, for a remarkable nine days in November, we were part of the Washington State Physicians for Social Responsibility Health Delegation to Gaza. To be in Gaza so soon after last summer's brutally devastating war was to catch a glimpse — through the heart-wrenching stories we heard, and the massive destruction we saw — of the grotesque horror of those 51 days. The demolition was everywhere, the grief universal, the trauma intense.
Amidst the rubble and destruction were people living in bombed-out shells that had been their homes, and many mosques, hospitals, clinics, schools and factories were mere piles of crushed concrete. A busted-up concrete slab with names spray painted on it of family members buried under the mounds of debris and a woman squatting on rubble staring vacantly off in the distance took our breath away.
On top of three assaults in the past six years, Israel has slapped a nearly eight-year siege on Gaza that has devastated the economy, wrecked the environment and ripped apart people's hopes that there is a future.
Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei, a psychiatrist, a gentle soul, and the executive director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, our host agency, lost 28 members of his extended family in last summer's bombings. No one in Gaza was spared from knowing someone who was killed or injured.
A nurse who works full time and hasn't been paid for a year, Imad, invited us to meet his 10-person family in their modest but comfortable apartment. When asked how they survive with no income and so many mouths to feed, Imad explained that everyone in Gaza does what they can to help others since they're all really in the same boat. He then shrugged his shoulders and posed the question we heard often:
"What can we do?"
But through all the trauma, there is also resistance, resilience and a remarkable amount of love and generosity. It's difficult to make sense of how the occupation and siege of Gaza that is slowly but steadily crushing the life of 1.85 million people can be happening as world powers look away.
Now, six months after the start of the summer assault, there is little rebuilding in Gaza because materials are restricted by the Israeli siege. The cold, wet weather has settled in with only three to six hours of electricity per day. Recently, two young children died in a house fire ignited by lit candles – used because there was no electricity. Over 100,000 people are still displaced — living in shelters or with relatives or friends. The lack of potable water, ever-present sewage backups, lack of garbage collection and broken essential infrastructure are exacerbating the conditions of an environmental health disaster.
Imad's question — "What can we do?" — echoes with us.
We were struck by the humanity of the people in Gaza who share our aspirations to just be allowed to live, to fulfill dreams, to raise healthy and well-educated children, to have a home and enough food, to know peace and justice. Our Jewish tradition of "Justice, justice, thou shall pursue" requires us to answer Imad's question in both words and deeds.
What we can do is clear: 1) Call upon our congressional representatives to pressure Israel to lift the deadly siege of Gaza; 2) Support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), a non-violent civil society movement against Israel, similar to the one that helped to end apartheid in South Africa; and 3) Speak out in support of one of the foremost moral issues of our time — the Palestinian struggle for justice.
Maxine Fookson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, and Ned Rosch has served as executive director of a number of Portland community-based nonprofits and co-hosts KBOO's One Land Many Voices. They are both active in Jewish Voice for Peace — Portland.