When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to Washington to address Congress about the threat from a nuclearized Iran, last summer’s military offensive on Gaza will be conspicuously absent from his speech. The real threat to Israel is an unceasing cycle of violence much closer to its borders than the Iranian nuclear program.
It was just past 1:45 in the morning in Tel Aviv when the event at New America NYC, entitled “No Safe Place,” began last week, on the evening of Feb. 19, discussing that overshadowed war, the third between Israel and Gaza in the last five years. Objectively speaking, it was not a war between Israel and Gaza but a war on Gaza, although there was armed resistance from Hamas, which launched thousands of rockets into Israel. Yet attempting such even-handedness would betray the basic fact that it was a one-sided slaughter. The new report by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel meticulously documents the civilian toll, and PHR-IL executive director Ran Goldstein and one of the authors of the report, Karen Kelly, were there to talk about their findings. The reality on the ground is even worse than the pictures that flooded world news media.
Gaza is the geographical size of Detroit and has one of the highest population densities on Earth. Since 2007, its 1.8 million people have been put under “closure” by Israel, meaning that there is no movement of people or goods in the territory, eighty percent of whose inhabitants are refugees. “Israel controls the sea and border,” Goldman added. She is the director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative at New America NYC, which hosted the event Thursday evening under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation, peppered Goldstein and Kelly with myriad questions about what they saw there and about their methodology, an area that is frequently subjected to withering scrutiny if not outright dismissal by officials in the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli government. One of the most fantastic claims, Goldstein said, made by the Israeli authorities was that they had not even read the PHR-IL report but had rejected the methods by which the report was created.
The case of Khuza’a, a village in the southeast of the territory near Khan Younis, merited an especially close look. It was bombed on July 20, 2014. There was no road to escape, no safe place indeed. Goldstein related the testimony of a doctor there who did not get a permit to leave from the IDF, so he along with his patients marched waving white flags to another clinic, which was bombed soon afterward. “The IDF came with bulldozers and took out the women and children,” Goldstein said. “Soldiers told the women and children and the old people to go out.” For the remaining men inside, “they took off their clothes and used them as human shields for eight hours.” This was at least one instance of Israelis using human shields, a charge that was often attributed to the Palestinians, for the crime of living in an open-air prison where it is impossible to eliminate militants in “pinpoint” airstrikes.
Entire extended clans of families, huddled 20 to 50 to a house, were obliterated. Kelly was deeply shaken by this. For the report, Kelly and her team visited 68 people. One young man, she said, was burned in over 90 percent of his body. “Nearly everyone had at least one limb amputated,” she said, recalling that the level of amputations was unbelievably immense. “It was devastation,” Kelly told me in an interview after the event ended, agreeing that what took place was “a massacre.” (Goldstein quickly mentioned that it is not the position of PHR-IL that a massacre befell Gaza.) This was Karen Kelly’s first time not only in the Gaza Strip, where she spent four days talking with anyone who would talk to her and her team, but her first experience in working with people abroad in a wartime situation.
It is not in dispute that a humanitarian crisis exists in Gaza, whose inhabitants were subjected to a campaign of aerial bombardment that leveled entire neighborhoods and killed more than 2,000 people. The overwhelming majority of them were not combatants or participants in the fighting or firing of rockets which killed 70 Israelis. The situation there is not, however, what it appears to be in the media: it is far worse. Shifa Hospital has only one X-ray machine, Kelly, the forensic expert, and associate professor of forensic pathology at Eastern Carolina University, said, adding, “A lot of evidence was lost and couldn’t be collected.”
Children comprise the majority of Gazans, who have grown up with three wars in the last six years. Yes, the children of Sderot and other border towns within Israel are shell-shocked; the youth of Gaza are all the more traumatized. 350,000 children in Gaza have post-traumatic stress disorder, Goldman pointed out. “The Palestinians and the Israelis need to know what’s going on in their own environment,” Goldstein said. “It’s a circle of violence.” Someone affiliated with J Street asked a question afterward on how Israel can avoid this level of civilian deaths in the next war. “We should prevent the next war,” Goldstein shot back afterward, “not how to make it better.”
All were agreed that another round of fighting appears to be inevitable. “The next war is really close,” Goldstein said.