Middle East conflict

Gaza and Israeli residents struggle through a new reality

Hostilities broke out between Hamas and Israel less than a week ago. But a swift escalation has left civilians on both sides trying to come to terms with the maddening unpredictability. Tania Kraemer reports from Israel

Up until Monday, the mood in Gaza was festive, despite the coronavirus pandemic, as the end of Ramadan drew nearer. "We were cleaning our houses, buying new clothes for the small ones for the Eid. But things have changed," Mariam Sersawi says on the phone from Gaza on the eve of the three-day feast of Eid ul-Fitr.

Sersawi is a 25 year-old content writer living in Shejaieh, a neighbourhood in the east of Gaza City. Neither she nor others predicted what was yet to come later in the day. The beginning of this new conflict and the quick and wide scale destruction reminded her of the devastation her neighbourhood saw during the war of 2014. "I am panicked. The sound of bombing is terrible. It's constant bombing," she says, fighting back tears as she speaks. "I am exhausted."

Days later, people shed their disbelief as they realised that this has turned into a fierce and very serious conflict. As hostilities intensified, ordinary Gazans took to social media to describe how intense Israel's air bombardments were and how dreadful they felt.

No shelters or air raid sirens

According to the Israeli army, 160 fighter jets were in the air on Thursday night to strike the coastal enclave. To Gazans, the three previous wars and several shorter military escalations are deeply engrained in their memory. Now, they quickly had to again adapt their skills to hunker down at home and only venture out to get some basic food items quickly. Gaza has no shelters or air raid sirens. Two million people live in the blockaded territory which is ruled by the militant group Hamas.

Heavy smoke and fire rise from Al-Sharouk tower as it collapses after being hit by an Israeli airstrike (photo: Qusay Dawud/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "I said that we would exact a very heavy price from Hamas and the other terrorist organisations. We are doing so, and we will continue to do so with great force. The last word has not been said and this operation will continue as long as necessary in order to restore quiet and security to the State of Israel"

Abed Shokry, a senior university lecturer, paces from one room to another to find some sense of safety, he says on the phone from Gaza City, saying that the house was shaking from the bombardments.

"I feel helpless"

"The strikes are stronger, more dangerous and more powerful than in 2014. I don't know what to say, I feel powerless, helpless. We can't do anything, there is no safe place. We don't have any safe room or shelter. There is nowhere safe to go," he says. Shokry lived in Germany for over a decade before returning to Gaza in 2007, just as the closure around the small enclave was tightened by Israel and partly by Egypt after Hamas seized power.

On Monday he was working on a lecture in at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, when he realised what was happening. "Just tell me: What do the Israelis want from us?" he asks. By Friday, he was writing from Gaza on Whatsapp that people in a neighbouring high-rise building have been called by the Israeli military to vacate their house. "If they bomb and destroy it, it means we will also be affected. I am just trying to calm down our children."

There was a sense beforehand that the events in Jerusalem in recent weeks might have an impact on developments, Shokry says. But still the outbreak of the fighting surprised most people in Gaza.

Forced evictions and protests

For weeks, there were confrontations in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood between Palestinian residents and Israeli police. Provocative visits by far-right Israeli politicians and demonstrations of Israeli right-wings extremists had further created tensions and violence.

In this Palestinian neighbourhood, four families have been struggling to fight off a pending eviction order in favour of an extremist Israeli settler organisation. Violent confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians on the Harem Al Sharif, or what is known as Temple Mount to Jewish people, and inside the Al Aqsa Mosque prompted Hamas to set an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw their forces from the holy compound and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. At 6 p.m. local time, Hamas launched several rockets towards Jerusalem.

Up until Friday, Israel has reportedly carried out more than 600 air strikes in Gaza. Palestinian militants fired over 1,600 rockets towards southern Israel and into the centre of the country. While the intensive fighting has prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control, prospects of a ceasefire appear to be slim at this point.

"I said that we would exact a very heavy price from Hamas and the other terrorist organisations. We are doing so, and we will continue to do so with great force," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening. "The last word has not been said and this operation will continue as long as necessary in order to restore quiet and security to the State of Israel."

Israel's Iron Dome aerial defence system intercepts a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip (photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty IMages)
Palestinian militants have fired over 1,600 rockets in the direction of Israel: in the southern city of Ashkelon which lies just north of the Gaza Strip, air raid sirens wailed again and people in a neighbourhood shopping centre rushed to the underground parking lot. Once there, several loud booms echo in the basement. It's the Iron Dome, Israel's defence system intercepting rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. A day earlier, one rocket landed in the street in front of the shops, damaging houses and cars

But he also said that Israel was fighting on "two fronts" – referring to recent violent street clashes between Jewish and Arab-Israeli or Palestinian Israeli citizens inside Israel. Many "mixed" Israeli cities have seen an unprecedented outbreak of rioting, destruction of property and violent attacks on individuals – by far-right Israeli and by Arab-Israeli individuals and groups. The violence led to a curfew being imposed in the city of Lod in central Israel.

Ashkelon dependent on the Iron Dome for protection

In the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon which lies just north of the Gaza Strip, air raid sirens wailed again and people in a neighbourhood shopping centre rushed to the underground parking lot. Once there, several loud booms echo in the basement. It's the Iron Dome, Israel's defence system intercepting rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. A day earlier, one rocket landed in the street in front of the shops, damaging houses and cars. "It's very stressful", says Shula Elimelech, "But we follow the regulations, we trust in the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) – and so God willing, it will be ok."

Ashkelon has seen many missile barrages in the past days. Upstairs, baker Shmaayah Sassporta is preparing the traditional Challah bread for Shabbat. "It has been going on for many years now. And I don't expect it to end any time soon," says Sassporta. He shrugs, hardened by the previous, as well as the present constant threat of rockets launched from Gaza towards the coastal town.

Further south in a small moshav, in very close proximity to the border fence that separates Gaza from Israel, Anat Partoush, a yoga teacher, talks to us via video call from a safe room – a fortified room.

She finds herself confined to her home again, just as she has been getting used to going back to work after the coronavirus pandemic. When air-raid sirens go off in the area, there are less than a few seconds left to seek shelter before a possible rocket or mortar impact. "I am not too afraid; I just experience frustration. We have a shelter, and the Iron Dome also gives you some psychological help. It's not nice to hear all the noises of the rockets. But I know it's temporary also."

 

Little prospect of peace

The Likud-supporter is glad that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still at the helm. "There is no magic stick. I see people blaming Netanyahu, and everybody is so clever, it's so complicated and I am happy that Bibi Netanyahu is not going crazy."

Netanyahu had failed to form a coalition government. His rivals Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (Yamina) had been trying to build a broad coalition. However, on Thursday, Israeli media reported that Bennett had signalled that such an alternative government was off the table, and that he would renew talks with Netanyahu's Likud to form a right wing-nationalist-religious government after all.

Partoush hopes that Arab countries, like the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain – with whom Israel has very recently normalised relations – could help restore calm and find a longer-term solution.

But she is also sure that as long as Hamas rules Gaza and no political solution is in sight, there won't be any prospect of quiet, let alone peace.

Tania Kraemer

© Deutsche Welle 2021

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