Getting bombed from the sky is a particular horror: The sense that death hangs quite literally over your head, invisible until it’s too late, and maybe it will hit you. Maybe this moment. Or this. Or this. Every heartbeat hammering through your skull.
I’ve watched US warplanes attack Afghanistan; barely escaped a direct strike from a Russian MiG in Georgia, and lived for weeks under relentless Israeli bombardment in Lebanon.
The images from Gaza bring back memories I usually keep buried. The thunder of the bombs, drifts of broken glass and twisted rebar where houses and shops once stood, dust and the smell of blood mixing in the throat. Very small bodies, and very old bodies. The rage of a funeral under bombs in Lebanon, a hospital truck and a trench for a mass grave, planes still in the sky, women keening, praying for souls and revenge.
As bad as that was, Gaza is incalculably worse. I have never experienced the merciless pace of airstrikes and death now being suffered by the people of Gaza — people who did not travel to a war zone as foreign reporters, but who are getting attacked at home, with their children and grandparents. People who already lived under blockade, and never had any real possibility of escape.
White House officials have said a cease-fire only benefits Hamas; that even to ask for the bombing to stop is “disgraceful” and “repugnant.” I find myself thinking that, had these officials ever experienced even one day under bombardment and shelling, they could not so blithely, so unambiguously, defend this nightmarish attack on Gaza.
Israel has so far killed more than 8,500 people, the Gaza Health Ministry said, more than 40 per cent of them children. The ministry, having no doubt heard President Biden suggesting they could be lying about their casualties, released a registry of the dead — page after page of names, dozens of members of the same family.
It was clear from the start, in the earliest hours after Hamas slaughtered and kidnapped Israeli civilians, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had no mercy in mind for Gaza. “All of the places which Hamas is deployed, hiding and operating in, that wicked city, we will turn them into rubble,” he said.
If the people of Gaza are just a political abstraction, perhaps it’s easier to tell yourself that the killing of their children is sad but unavoidable — an unintended and ultimately forgivable consequence of a nation’s righteous pursuit of self-defence.
But having spent time under bombardment, and having reported in Gaza, I have no time for these explanations. If diplomacy and international relations can acquiesce to this kind of war, then what is the point of diplomacy and international relations? What outcome does this strategy avert that would be worse than the outcome it has already created?
But they say we should not call for a cease-fire.
The atrocities committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians on October 7 were shocking and evil. The vicious attack, which killed more Jews in a single day than any day since the Holocaust, cries out for an answer.
Killing the children of Gaza, however, is not the answer.
If we are to believe the Israeli political and military leadership’s own words — and I think we should — the assault on Gaza was driven, first, by straightforward vengeance.
“You wanted hell, you will get hell,” Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian of the Israeli Defence Forces warned the residents of Gaza, whom he referred to as “human beasts.”
Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Ron Derner, declared that Israel would “do whatever we have to do” to send a message.
“Gaza won’t return to what it was before,” Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said. “We will eliminate everything.”
Mass slaughter is immoral, of course, but — making it even more tragic — it also doesn’t work. Quite the opposite.
Looking at pictures of the ominous lunar landscapes of bomb-crushed Gazan blocks, I see the birth of a new generation of fighters. Or terrorists, if you like — I don’t see why it matters very much. The children who survive this onslaught will grow even more radicalised and traumatised than the generations who came before.
Palestinian violence is rooted in the political grievance of generations of Palestinians, whose lives are defined by open-ended military occupation. They have no state to call their own, their basic rights are systematically curtailed and the world has given them little reason to anticipate better days. Palestinian political violence is older than Hamas, extends beyond Hamas across society, and will surely outlive Hamas in the absence of a political solution.
Israel knows this. Israel has bombed Gaza pitilessly before, but Hamas is still there. Israel turned parts of southern Lebanon to rubble, but Hezbollah is still there.
As Americans, we too should have learned this lesson over and over again. All the military might of the United States could not defeat the ragtag bands of Taliban or force a nation of conquered Iraqis to accept a US occupation. Maybe we don’t want to understand.
But they say we can’t call for a cease-fire.
I have eaten in Gaza, laughed there, slept there, seen the sea there. I can’t match my memories to the strange depictions I see on the news of an irreal and uncivilised place inconveniently built atop a nest of terrorist tunnels.
Gaza is a real place crammed full of real people. Indefatigable people, annoying people, hilarious people, duplicitous people, all the usual types of people. Lots and lots of children, so many kids you sometimes waded through them in the streets, scrambling and touching and hollering, tugging on your clothes, slipping hands into pockets. The children of Gaza, I won’t lie, were often a nuisance. But a beautiful nuisance, an untamed burst of irrepressible life in harsh circumstances.
I imagine Gaza now, how it must be. I know that it must be like hell, like a hallucination, like time itself is stretched and stuck. I know at such times there is only one coherent thought: Stop the bombs. I was in southern Lebanon in 2006, when Israel bombed medical teams and fleeing civilians and villages filled with people too old or disabled to get away, and what I remember now is the pain of knowing that the rest of the world was flowing along as usual. Knowing they could stop the bombs, but chose not to. Not just yet; a little more death first.
I can still feel the rage that surged — in the people who were around me and within my own mind — against a powerful nation that would kill like that, from a distance.
To be honest, I feel that I have now crossed to the wrong side of things. Now I sit clean and safe in America while far away the bombs fall.
Before I went to Israel, an editor tried to convince me it was a bad idea. “You’re a writer, and you like to choose pretty words,” the editor said. “In Jerusalem you can’t use the pretty words. You have to use the careful words.” The editor was right. Writing about Israel is full of careful words and careless killing. We nitpick every last point until no reader can decipher what we’re saying anymore. Now we say the death tolls are not true. How do we know? Things are happening — what things? We could find out with a cease-fire, but they say we can’t ask for a cease-fire.
And here we are, watching the cycle spin around again, pretending to think it might have a different result this time. Like it’s all just a game with improbable but not impossible odds.
We give Israel money to pay for the weapons. Then we give Palestinians money to pay for the damage done by those weapons. We keep doing the same things, repeating the same lines, but the violence just gets worse.
(Megan K. Stack is a contributing New York Times Opinion writer and author. She has been a correspondent in China, Russia, Egypt, Israel, Afghanistan and the U.S.-Mexico border area. Her first book, a narrative account of the post-Sept. 11 wars, was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction)
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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