Gaza: living on the edge of despair

Ian Curran
News Editor

As Israel’s bombardment of the strip continued last week TN spoke with Gisela Schmidt-Martin, a human rights worker in Gaza, about the situation in the beleaguered territory.

For the vast majority of people reading this article, it will be hard to conceive of a warzone as being a situation in which they would want to volunteer; but, for a very small minority of readers, it is conceivable that a sense of moral obligation could overcome a desire for safety and one might feel that compulsion to go to one of the war-ravaged corners of the world.

Gisela Schmidt-Martin is such a person. She is originally from Cork, but is now based in Gaza city and is a human rights worker with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). Despite Israel’s latest series of attacks on the Gaza, she has not removed herself from the epicentre of the conflict.

At the time that this article was written, the death toll in Gaza had reached 52, which (according to Palestinian sources) included 15 children, three women and four old men. The aerial assault by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) was underway and it had begun shelling the city from warships.

I spoke to Schmidt-Martin last Friday evening, just after news broken that 75,000 Israeli reserve troops were at the border with Gaza and were ready for a ground assault. I asked her what, in her view, was the sequence of events that lead to this show of force in Gaza: “The current attacks are a result of the ongoing violations which are carried out by the Israeli forces.”

“Schmidt-Martin described the attacks as “persistent”, and said that they have been “specifically targeting civilians”.”

Gisela described the attacks as “persistent”, and said that they have been “specifically targeting civilians”. She told me that there were several incidents which received particular attention from the Gazan people. In one incident, she said, during an Israeli incursion in the east of the Gaza Strip, a 13-year-old boy named Hameed Abu Daqqa was seriously wounded while he was playing football in what she described as “indiscriminate fire from Israeli forces”.

The boy was brought to hospital, where he later died. Another incident involved a group of teenagers who were also playing football in the east of Gaza city when they were hit by a shell from an Israeli tank.

“Two children were instantly killed, a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old.” She said a group of civilians who rushed out of a nearby house to help the children were targeted by the IDF and were fired on by the Israeli tank. Two more people died in that incident.

While there had not as of yet been a surge by Israeli troops into the Gaza strip, I asked Schmidt-Martin how this would complicate things on the ground for her and for ordinary Gazans. She corrected me, saying that while there was no ground movement of troops into Gaza, there had been “incursions” by Israeli troops over the border.

On Friday night there were fears that a large-scale ground offensive was imminent, the impact of which she said would be “dramatic … If there is a ground incursion, there will be many more civilian deaths.” She went on to describe the Israeli attacks as “indiscriminately targeting civilians”.

The issue of safety is also evidently a concern for foreign nationals working in Gaza. Schmidt-Martin told me that a few days previously there was a drone strike just two blocks from her office in the Rimal area of Gaza. She told me she made her way to the site of the attack to see the aftermath, where she saw that an Israeli drone had bombed the street.

“One of the goals is “to terrorize the population of Gaza”, the Israelis think that this will make the population of Gaza “more submissive”.”

“It wasn’t apparent that there was any particular target,” she said. Among targets that had been hit by Israeli forces, she listed a Russian Orthodox church, a water well and the ministry of civil affairs. She said there had been “hundreds of air-strikes” as well as fire from Apache helicopters.

“There is no real guarantee of safety,” she says; “Everywhere is subject to attack.” Schmidt-Martin says that she is afforded a degree of protection because her office is in a UN building. Despite this, a complex of UN offices was fired upon during the last offensive on Gaza in 2009. She noted that there had not as of yet been any injuries to the PCHR field workers.

One very sinister development during this series of attacks has been the IDF’s live-tweeting of the attacks as they happen in Gaza. Many have contended that the flippant tone of the tweets and the connotations of using social media are an attempt to dehumanize the Gazans. One Irish Twitter user tweeted: “Probably more disturbing than the attack on Gaza is the apparent glee with which the IDF carries out its job.”

I asked Schmidt-Martin what she thought of the Israeli use of Twitter in the attacks. She noted that Israel has always engaged in a very strong propaganda campaign. At this point in the conversation, there was a lull and I could hear a humming noise over the phone, followed by what sounded like a pop. She asked if I had just heard the airstrike that had taken place outside the building.

“I must have been talking too loudly,” she joked, and went straight back to answering my question about Israeli public relations. “Israel have a very well-oiled propaganda machine. The live-tweeting is part of the propaganda campaign, because they’re ensuring that only their perspective is being put out; for example, saying that their targets are only military targets.”

She said that this claim is “very obviously false”, considering the large number of homes that they have hit. She told me that there is a “very active, young social-media movement” in Gaza and that the tweets had not gone unnoticed by the youth of Gaza.

Finally, I asked Schmidt-Martin about what she thought the end-goal for Israel is in this particular series of attacks. “We feel like we’re probably facing into something that will last at least another week, if not a few weeks,” she said.

She added that she does not know what the exact objective of the operation is, but one of the goals is certainly “to terrorize the population of Gaza”. She reckons that the Israelis think that this will make the population of Gaza “more submissive”. On the contrary, in her view, “this is just determining the resolve of the Palestinian people”.

In the coming days and weeks there will be many predictions made about if, and when, Israel will stop this latest bout of attacks on the people of Gaza. Some will say that the international community will need to step in before the crisis comes to a real head.

Others will say, as Robert Fisk did in 2009, that the opening of the Egyptian borders to Palestinian refugees will free the Israeli government to do what they have always wanted to do; drive the Palestinians off the land for good.

The Palestinian people will say, as Gisela did: “If there’s anything that I’ve learned from being here in Gaza, it’s that you can’t know if something is going to happen until it’s already happened.”