“We sleep in fear and wake up in horror,” cries Zahrah Salem, her voice shaking and distraught. The 64-year-old mother of four and grandmother of 15 takes comfort that all in her family are still alive. Yet around her home in Deir al-Balah, death enshrouds her neighbours. Israeli warplanes continue to bomb her town and the ground offensive has begun. Despite events around her, she clings to the hope that diplomatic efforts by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will bear fruit and the bombs will stop.
“I have faith in the Frenchman more than Arab leaders,” she tells me in a telephone interview. “I hope he will end this war.”
One of her sons is less optimistic, noting that no one has an interest in stopping the Israeli attacks, not even the Arab countries.
“I never thought voting for Hamas would cause this kind of result,” she tells me. “I wish I hadn’t voted for anyone!”
Zahrah Salem is well off compared to others in Gaza, but that is of little help.
“Shops are closed, we are afraid to walk in the streets, and now we have no running water or electricity,” she tells me. Many houses in her neighbourhood have been the target of missiles. Mourning tents pepper the streets where picket fences should be.
“I am afraid to go to offer condolences,” she says. “Israeli warplanes are hitting everywhere.”
Her eight-year-old grandson Hamid regularly asks for protection, pleading not to sleep alone. The family leaves the windows open at night, even though the smoke from neighbours’ burning homes makes breathing difficult. This is preferable, she explains, to having razor-sharp shards rain down on sleeping heads when the vibrations from bombs shatter glass.
“We all sit in one room,” she continues. “If it’s so that we die, then we want to die together and not to leave the children behind to suffer.”
Abu Ghassan, 42, talks to me from the Bureij refugee camp. I can hear ambulances and bombs in the background. “I find it hard to understand what this war is about,” he says. “Launching rockets on mosques? Schools, universities and civilians’ houses? This is crazy! The majority of people killed are civilians rather than those launching rockets . . . [and they include] a pregnant woman, her four children . . . All this was confirmed by Palestinian medical sources.” Abu Ghassan has to try to figure out how to sneak out to buy bread for his children so they can eat. But the bakeries are closed, and he admits that he weighs the risk of letting his children go hungry against the possibility of returning in a body bag.
At al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, Ahmed Abdelrahman, a staff nurse, explains: “We receive human remains: arms, legs and fingers. It’s hard to identify which body parts belong to whom.” Again in the background I hear ambulance sirens. “We have been shot at as we evacuate the bodies of injured people. Right now we know of eight calls east of Gaza City for people who are bleeding, including two women; but as an ambulance crew, we are targeted by Israeli gunfire [as we attempt to rescue them].”
And, with the critical shortage of medical supplies, those fortunate enough to make it to the hospital have only a slight chance of recovery. Israel continues to restrict entry of medical and food supplies into the Gaza Strip, though the Egyptian government has opened the Rafah border for a few minutes several times in the past few days to allow limited aid to enter.
Muawiya Hassanein, the doctor in charge of the emergency service at al-Shifa Hospital, confirms that at the time of talking to me, at least 11 ambulances have been destroyed and 12 emergency workers killed in the line of duty. A further 32 have been injured.
On Israeli public television, a military spokes man, Avi Benayahu, said: “Our soldiers know all the backstreets where their targets are.”
As the battery on her cellphone beeps a warning, Zahrah makes a final point. She has heard that the White House has been “deeply saddened by the passing” of the family cat India (known as Willie), but not, apparently, by the deaths of children killed in Gaza. Summing up her frus tration, she says in a voice full of incredulity: “At least they can remember the cat died full. It did not die hungry like the children of Gaza.”
Mohammed Omer was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2008