GAZA CITY — The beach in Gaza City is a flat expanse, where the gray sand melds almost seamlessly into the water. I was sitting at Al-Deira Hotel’s beachside terrace in late May, watching the Mediterranean waves roll in, when there was a sharp bang. I had never heard such a noise in my life, and yet I knew instantly what it was: rocket fire.
“Welcome to our soundtrack,” my tablemate, Omar Shaban, said resignedly. Shaban runs a think tank called Pal-Think for Strategic Studies. He had just finished explaining why Gaza has not yet been reconstructed after last summer’s war between Hamas and Israel that killed more than 2,100 Gazans and 72 Israelis and destroyed tens of thousands of homes in Gaza. One key factor was that donor countries were reluctant to deliver money for investments that would just be demolished in another war. Only 27% of the $5.4 billion promised had come through. And now here we were, in the shadow of what might very well be the next round.
Shaban’s friend was sitting with us. His cell phone lit up; it was his wife, in tears. It sounded to her as though the rocket that had just hit Ashdod in Israel had been fired from next door in Gaza City. Israeli intelligence later said it was launched not by Hamas but by Islamic Jihad. Apparently there was an internal dispute in Islamic Jihad that ended in a show of power against the enemy: Israel. At my table on Al-Deira’s patio, the question on everyone’s mind was whether Israel would return fire, a further escalation that could lead to a deadly exchange.
As I got up to leave, Shaban reassured me that I would be fine if I stayed in the hotel. Al-Deira has the somber distinction of being an Israeli no-hit zone because of the large number of journalists and diplomats who stay there during wartime. Outside the hotel — real Gaza, that is — I had to keep my wits about me.
I went to Gaza on a two and a half day trip in May to find out what was on the minds of everyday Gazans nine months after Operation Protective Edge. On my way to the Erez Crossing from Jerusalem, my taxi driver kept getting lost. Gaza did not show up on Waze, the Israeli traffic application on his smartphone. It seemed like an apt metaphor for what I was about to witness. Since the 51-day war last summer, the world has moved on from Gaza. The Palestinian enclave has all but disappeared from the international agenda. But Gazans have not moved on.
Daily life in Gaza takes place against a wrecked landscape. Some Gazans live in the ruins of their former apartments. Others continue to stay in schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The temporary refuges have turned into crowded homes with zero privacy. One woman I met outside a school in Beit Hanoun had refused aid money that would allow her to rent an apartment for four months, because she had nowhere to go after that. “I would be out on the streets,” she said. Even for those whose homes were untouched by Israeli fire, reminders of the war are everywhere.
The stalled reconstruction has had a paralyzing effect on Gazans, Hasan Zeyada, a leading Gaza City psychologist, told me. They cannot escape memories of the destruction when they see it every day. Nor do they feel safe. During the war, people fleeing their homes were at a loss for where to take shelter, as Israel struck mosques, UNRWA schools and hospitals, claiming they were being used for Hamas operations. Now, Gazans cannot shake the feeling of insecurity as they wait for the next eruption between Israel and Hamas. The trauma is chronic, Zeyada said, which makes it much more difficult to heal.
“In Gaza, where is the line between pre and post?” he said. “It is not post-traumatic stress disorder. It is ongoing. There is no post in Gaza.”
When I woke up the morning after the rocket attack, I read that Israel had hit four Islamic Jihad training camps in southern Gaza in retaliation. I slept through the strikes, but my fixer didn’t. Bleary-eyed, she was an hour late to pick me up.
We drove through Gaza City. Many streets looked normal but for a single destroyed structure, like a row of toddler’s teeth with one tooth missing. On one block, a broken building was full of rebar salvaged from other broken buildings. People were consolidating it in order to sell it.
Yet Gaza City was a more colorful place than I expected. Flower vendors — Gaza is famous for its cut flower industry — set up pallets of yellow and red roses outside their stores for delivery. On one street corner, a giant sign read “Thank you, Turkey,” in gratitude for the mass Gazan wedding sponsored by the Turkish government that would take place a few days after I left. I was surprised to learn that a new, sherbet-hued restaurant named Castillo had opened in Gaza City since the war, serving platters of spiced meat topped with flaming red peppers.
I asked Shaban about the new restaurant. “What you see in Gaza now is not the real one,” he said. I expected him to say that the restaurant was a distraction from the bitter reality on the ground, but he didn’t. Places like Castillo, he said, were a throwback to the more prosperous Gaza of the 1980s and ’90s, That was well before Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, ousting rival Fatah in a violent battle. Israel responded to Hamas rule by severely restricting imports to Gaza, believing that it would curb rocket attacks and prevent Hamas from accumulating weapons. “People dream of the nice days,” he said. “If you open the siege of Gaza, give people a few months and they will go back.” It was difficult to picture.
Meanwhile, my fixer and I continued to our destination of Shejaiya, close to the Israeli border. On the way, I asked her whether last night’s incidents portended an escalation. She was dismissive. “One from us, one from them, that’s it,” she said.
When we got to Shejaiya, however, it was a different story. The previous night, families living in the neighborhood had evacuated to Al Shifa Hospital, some told us, afraid that their homes would be bombed by Israel in retaliation for the Islamic Jihad strike. The hospital had also served as a safe haven for fleeing families during Operation Protective Edge.
Except this time, Gazans were evacuating from rubble. The neighborhood was the site of last summer’s most ferocious fighting between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces. According to news reports from the time, between 65 and 120 Palestinians and 13 IDF soldiers were killed there in a July battle. The IDF said that more than 100 rockets had been shot from Shejaiya, and that Hamas had built tunnels and command centers there. Though Israel told civilians to leave the neighborhood, reports indicate that people in Shejaiya had complicated reactions, some staying because Hamas told them to, others not trusting the Israeli directives.
We went deeper into the neighborhood, and the frequency of the ruined buildings increased. Finally we came to a street of almost total rubble, piles of concrete slabs with wild strands of tangled rebar. A detached metal bucket from a backhoe lay next to one heap, as if to underline the futility of clearing the area when there was no prospect of rebuilding it.
I began photographing the street when a young man poked his head out of the window of one of the few standing buildings. I waved and he came down. Soon he was joined by two men. We followed them out of the afternoon glare and into a concrete shelter nearby. An elderly woman peered around the corner and then returned with a platter of sweet, hot tea. Muhammad Ejla, 25, said that his six-story building had been completely flattened in an Israeli strike. He is now living with his relatives, selling his wife’s jewelry in order to make a bit of cash. He said he kept hearing that aid and materials were on their way, but so far not much had materialized. “When journalists come, we try to send messages,” he said.
I asked him who was to blame for his current situation. “Israel, Hamas and Abu Mazen,” he said, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in control in the West Bank. “Everyone is responsible in their own way.”
Another one of the men had a different answer. “I blame Hamas,” he said. “They engaged in a fight they weren’t prepared to fight in.” He had previously given his name, but then he asked me to remove it from my notebook, watching me to make sure I scribbled over it.
When I asked Shaban why neighborhoods like Shejaiya remain in tatters, his answer surprised me: the United Nations. When the Palestinian Authority and Hamas failed to work together to distribute donor money and to guide reconstruction, the U.N. stepped in and implemented its own system. The U.N. worked with Israel to appease its security concerns, creating a complex procedure to import cement and supervise its usage.
After the U.N. took over, it was weeks before the first Gazans received their allotment of building materials. According to Shaban, those Gazans whose homes were damaged the least received their ration of cement first. Faced with fixing their homes or feeding their families, many Gazans immediately sold their ration on the black market, sometimes for 10 times the price. Shaban estimated that just 20% of the cement has been used for its intended purpose. Despite the U.N.’s surveillance, much of it is probably back in the hands of Hamas and other militant groups.
Whereas the U.N. thought it was helping, Shaban said, it prevented the reconstruction from becoming a national project to unify the two rival Palestinian factions. It may have also inadvertently given Hamas a supply of what it needed to prepare for the next fight.
Meanwhile, Hamas is being squeezed on its southern border by Egypt, which has all but closed the tunnels connecting it to Gaza, once a major source of revenue for the Gazan economy. Hamas is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, which ruled Egypt after the Egyptian revolution until the 2013 military takeover. Now the Egyptian government has cut off Hamas, and Hamas is charging an import tax in an effort to pay its civil servants. Meanwhile, a new Amnesty International report has put Hamas under intense scrutiny for its repressive behavior during the 2014 war, a campaign of torturing, killing and abducting Palestinians it accused of “collaborating” with Israel.
As far as Israel and Hamas are concerned, it appears though both are banking on quiet, at least in the short term. In fact, Hamas arrested members of Islamic Jihad responsible for the May rocket into Ashdod. But the threat of another war in the not-too-distant future is very real.
“The U.N. mechanism is a recipe for a fourth war,” Shaban said, referencing the 2008 and 2012 conflicts that preceded Operation Protective Edge. “If things are not changing in Gaza, why do you expect Hamas to keep silent?”
The night after the rocket, I had a meeting with Zeyada, the psychologist. His young son met me outside his building in Gaza City, and we rode the elevator together to the family’s sixth-floor apartment, decorated with classic Palestinian embroidery and wooden bookshelves. A TV was set to a cartoon program. As soon as I walked in, Zeyada, a soft-spoken 51-year-old in frameless glasses, asked me how I had fared the evening before. All night, he said, his son had been awake, checking the Internet for news of an Israeli counterattack.
I told Zeyada that the rocket was a wakeup call for me. In truth, I had been more worried about reports of rising tension between Hamas and pro-Islamic State Salafists ahead of my trip. I also wondered how I would be received as a reporter from a Jewish newspaper. Like all journalists who visit Gaza, I had to get Hamas’s permission to enter. It was obtained by my fixer, a 27-year-old Palestinian journalist from Gaza City. She told me that my identifiably Jewish first name had raised eyebrows among some of the Hamas media coordinators. “She’s Jewish, not Israeli,” she told them. Finally, the night before I was due to arrive, my permit came through.
Not once during my preparations had I entertained the possibility that Israel and Gaza would trade fire during my visit, less than a year after the last war. Now I felt embarrassingly naive. How could I not have considered it?
“I’m imagining this is your first experience,” Zeyada said. “How can you deal with it if it will be an escalation?”
Sitting on his couch drinking a glass of pineapple juice, I felt calmer than I had in days. It was easy to understand how Zeyada had helped destigmatize mental illness in Gaza over the last few decades, transforming it from a source of shame to a central health concern. One could not help but open up to him. Zeyada said that his Gaza City mental health clinic tripled its caseload in the past nine months. Just after the war, he believed that all Gazans were exhibiting signs of PTSD. Now, he estimates that around 40 percent are still living with symptoms.
Zeyada himself is part of those figures. During Operation Protective Edge, six of his family members died in an Israeli attack, including his mother and three of his brothers. Now the eldest surviving brother, he is responsible for the welfare of his nieces and nephews.
“With the pain and the loss that we have, it is our right to think and feel sad, to grieve,” he said. “But we have to move forward.”
Zeyada told me that it was impossible to understand Gazan psychology out of the context of the past 15 years, a continuum of war that began with the second intifada and continued with Israel’s last three military operations against Hamas in Gaza. This has led to a pervasive sense of vulnerability among Gazans, a feeling that peacetime is actually just a lull in violence. These feelings are particularly pronounced in children over age 9 who can fully remember all three wars.
“Within six years you are exposed to three wars, to threats to your life, to your family members, to your home, to your school, to your neighborhood,” he said. “And you can imagine that all the time, you are experiencing the feeling of insecurity.”
After the most recent war, said Zeyada, parents reported classic PTSD symptoms in their children: they were clinging to them day and night, they suffered from nightmares, hyperactivity and “regressive behavior” such as bedwetting. Children also had somatic complaints like stomachaches and headaches. In schools, teachers observed that students had problems concentrating and that parents needed to spend more time on homework to help their children achieve the same results as before.
But some typical ways of looking at PTSD do not apply in Gaza. For instance, one mode in which people cope with trauma is to avoid people or places that will trigger memories of the incident. Therapists usually help patients overcome this avoidant behavior as part of treatment. But avoidance isn’t much of an issue in Gaza, with its arrested landscape of ruin.
“How do we do avoidance in Gaza?” Zeyada asked me. “You were in Shejaiya. How can the children be avoidant of a demolished home?”
The prospect of renewed warfare presents ethical questions for Zeyada. On the one hand, he feels he has no choice but to treat PTSD. But on the other hand, he wonders about the value of rehabilitating people to withstand more violence. Without a long-term political solution between Israel and Gaza, it’s easy to feel helpless.
“What are we doing as mental health professionals?” he said he asks himself. “Is it ethical that I am preparing them for a new escalation or new violations by the perpetrator? Without protection? So what are we doing?”
Zeyada invited me to meet him the following day at his clinic at the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, a two-story office with walls painted light blue, the color of the sea. He showed me around. The office has a 12-hour-a-day hotline service, a pharmacy with psychotropic drugs, and a counseling room where four wicker chairs surround a low table with a box of tissues on top. There is a children’s room for art and play therapy. Zeyada pointed out a pile of toy guns and a plastic ambulance. The children use the toys to communicate to their therapists what had happened to their families during the war, or to act out their anger or desire for revenge, he said.
Upstairs is an exhibit with children’s therapy artwork. On one wall are posters made with toys salvaged from the rubble: a stuffed teddy bear, dismembered dolls streaked with red paint and a SpongeBob SquarePants Pillow with stuffing popping out the top. Zeyada tapped it, and a small cloud of dust appeared.
He walked me past framed crayon drawings of Israeli tanks and rockets, dying and injured children, and Palestinian flags. Just one depicted a yellow sun beaming down on a house and a tree. “Some of the children are more optimistic,” he said.
After my tour, I went back to Shejaiya, for a site visit with two of the health center’s psychologists, Amany Wafi and Suzan Fayyad. Our destination was a young family of four whose 5-year-old daughter was suffering from PTSD and could not stop clinging to her mother.
They were living in a corrugated metal caravan provided by Hamas across the street from their old apartment building, now just a concrete frame without walls. A young man with a beard and a beige sweater invited us in. His wife was sitting on a foam mattress, rocking her newborn daughter in a wrought iron bassinet cushioned by a blanket. Pasted on a wall behind them was a plastic poster of a baby and two young men: the woman’s cousin, brother and infant son, all killed in the same Israeli strike.
It turned out that the 5-year-old was out when we visited, so Wafi and Fayyad caught up with her parents. They sat on another mattress and wrote in their notebooks. When we got up to leave, the mother disappeared into a side room and came back out with stickers with photographs of her deceased son, one for each of us.
Afterward, Wafi told me that the mother said her 5-year-old was improving. The parents were no longer having nightmares, either. But there was a limit to the family’s ability to move on.
“You see the area, it’s not safe,” she said. “Every day you see the same conditions, the same view.”
On the way out of Shejaiya, we passed by piles of rubble that had been painted black and white with pictures of people and keys, the Palestinian symbol of the right of return. On one piece of concrete was a painting of a giant open eye. The slab was tilted slightly upward so that the eye appeared to be watching the sky over Gaza, perhaps looking for salvation, or perhaps the violence to come.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.