“We want to live”
Six years on, Palestinian youth in Gaza reflect on surviving Operation Protective Edge
PART 1 Symphony of bombardment
Ramallah, August 26, 2020—“Almost everyone in our neighborhood fled, except us. My father insisted that we remain in our home.” Zahra Shaikha, now 23 years old, still recalls the nights she and her family spent sleeping in their living room six years ago with the radio on, steeling themselves against Israeli forces’ relentless bombing of the surrounding homes during Israel’s 2014 military offensive on the Gaza Strip.
During Operation Protective Edge, between July 8 and August 26, 2014, Israeli forces killed at least 2,220 Palestinians in Gaza, of whom at least 1,492 were civilians, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).
Like many others, Zahra and her family sheltered in their own home in al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza. But nowhere in the Gaza Strip was safe during the military offensive as Israeli forces indiscriminately targeted densely populated residential areas. Defense for Children International - Palestine found overwhelming and repeated evidence that Israeli forces committed grave violations of international humanitarian law, some of which amounted to war crimes, including attacks on places in which civilians were known to be sheltering, such as their homes and schools and the direct targeting of children by Israeli drone-fired missiles.
“I don’t know how to explain the bombing,” said Zahra. “It was like a symphony. It was our good morning and good evening signal.” Describing the chaos of the prolonged bombardment from which her family was sheltering, Zahra said, “even if you felt the danger and you were aware that you may die, the adrenaline would kick in, and that’s it, it’s action time.”
At other times, Zahra said the family had no option but to acclimate. She laughed as she told DCIP about the night that her father woke to the sound of explosions nearby. “My father opened his eyes and asked, ‘did they bomb?’ I told him, ‘yes’. There was nothing he could do. He couldn’t stop the war. So he tried to go back to sleep.”
One evening while Zahra slept, she woke to the sensation that her house was shaking. “I woke up thinking we were bombed and we are dying. I jumped from the bed and found that our house wasn’t bombed, but from the window, I saw that my friend’s house was.”
Zahra’s friend, Malak Ziada, lost her mother, father, brother, and uncle that evening, all were killed in the attack on their home. “This was very sorrowful...I couldn’t grasp it until I saw the black smoke from the window and the rubble and ambulances. It was a difficult moment, and an image I cannot ever forget.”
Israeli forces killed children at a rate of one every hour during the height of the violence. DCIP independently verified the deaths of 547 Palestinian children among the killed in Gaza, 535 of them as a direct result of Israeli attacks. Almost 68 percent of children killed by Israeli forces were 12 or younger. At the time of the operation, during which Israeli forces killed 164 children in drone strikes, Israel was the world’s largest exporter of aerial drones.
“The 2014 war came at a time when high school students just finished their exams,” said Zahra. “It was catastrophic. You heard the results during the war, only to find out that the person had been killed.”
On August 26, 2014, Egypt brokered an indefinite truce between the Israeli government and Palestinian factions. However, the human cost of the war did not end with the ceasefire agreement. Several children died in the months following OPE, including three infants who died of hypothermia the following January. All three were from homes that had been damaged or destroyed during the operation. A fourth child, four-year-old Mohammad Sami Abu Jarad, died after picking up an unexploded hand grenade left behind by Israeli soldiers who had occupied his home in Beit Hanoun, North Gaza.
Six years on, the children who survived continue to pay the price for the indiscriminate violence meted out by Israeli forces during Operation Protective Edge. At least 3,374 children were injured and over 1,000 were left permanently disabled, according to UN OCHA. For many children, the psychological toll is, likewise, unremitting. Post-traumatic stress and mental illnesses resulting from the 2014 military offensive are further compounded by the frequent obliteration of Gaza’s infrastructure, including its healthcare system, and a protracted military-enforced closure which has devastated its economy. Simply put, Gaza’s healthcare system cannot meet patient needs and provide uninterrupted care.
At only 26 miles long and seven miles wide, and with a population of 1.99 million people, Gaza has one of the highest population densities in the world. Around 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, many of whom live in Gaza’s eight refugee camps. Israel’s unlawful closure of the tiny coastal enclave, now in its 13th year, has created a human-made, acute humanitarian crisis that has left the Gaza Strip almost uninhabitable.
On the eve of Operation Protective Edge, unemployment in the Gaza Strip stood at 34.5 percent. At least 57 percent of households were food insecure and some 80 percent of the population was dependent on international assistance and humanitarian aid, according to UNRWA.
During Operation Protective Edge, nearly 18,000 housing units were either destroyed or severely damaged, according to UN OCHA. An Israeli airstrike on July 29 left Gaza’s sole power plant inoperable, causing electricity outages of 18 hours a day across the Gaza Strip. Extensive damage to the water and sewer system affected municipal water access for 20–30 percent of households. Three of the 32 hospitals and 24 of the 97 primary healthcare centers were forced to close. The total cost of the damage was estimated at US$7.8 billion, according to Palestinian officials.
The impact of the assault on Gaza’s infrastructure and economy can be read in the numbers. Today, unemployment stands at 46 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). As of 2018, 62 percent of households were food insecure and 80 percent of the population were reliant on aid, according to UN OCHA.
Zahra reflected on the impact of Israel’s closure policy on her ability to move on from the devastation of war. “I want life to continue,” she said. “I am afraid of reaching a point where I can’t achieve what I want because of our circumstances.”
PART 2 Nowhere to hide
“By intuition, as kids, we are afraid of the sound of ammunition and bombing, but in Gaza, you have to learn to accept it,” 23-year-old Salah Alyyan told DCIP. “In 2014, we had already been through 2008 and 2012, so at this point, we had developed a thought process of having to adapt to our reality.”
By 2014, Salah, who now works with children at an educational center, had already lived through five Israeli military offensives on the Gaza Strip in the 8 years prior, two of which were particularly devastating: Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008. However, the sheer scale of the violence deployed against Palestinians in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge far exceeded that of previous military operations.
“The bombings started as some friends and I were walking to school,” remembered Salah. “The glass from the shop on our side shattered, everyone was running...My little brother was still in school, and I saw that the bombing was near the school. I was in a struggle with myself. I wanted to go near my brother, but at the same time the bombing was close and just kept getting closer.”
Evidence and documentation collected by DCIP found that, on numerous occasions, Israeli forces unlawfully targeted individual civilians and civilian structures resulting in the killing of children. In one such case, 40-year-old Rawia Joudeh and four of her five children were killed by an Israeli drone-fired missile on the afternoon of August 24 as they played together in the family’s yard in Tal al-Zatar, a neighborhood in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. The children were aged between 6 and 14.
Carrying out an attack that is not directed at a specific military objective constitutes an indiscriminate attack and amounts to a war crime. Civilians, including children, must never be targets, and civilian structures and infrastructure are presumed not to be legitimate targets. Despite this, Israeli forces fired more than 36,000 artillery shells into densely populated residential areas in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge, the effects of which cannot be limited as required by international law. The firing of artillery shells in close proximity to civilians or civilian structures constitutes an indiscriminate attack.
No day more clearly demonstrated the indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks that characterized the Israeli offensive than July 20, when Israeli air and ground forces killed at least 27 children in Gaza City’s Shuja’iyya neighborhood. An Israeli fighter jet also destroyed the Abu Jami family home in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis on the same day, killing 18 children. In total, 59 children across the Gaza Strip lost their lives in one of the deadliest days of Operation Protective Edge.
“It is a horror story,” Salah told DCIP. “Each of us, me and my siblings, have our own horror story. As a child, you don’t understand what is happening...To be a child in Gaza, especially during the wars, makes you ask yourself, ‘why you?’ Why must the bombings always happen in your place? Why were you born on this spot and are forced to stay in it?”
Israeli authorities removed Israeli soldiers and settlers from permanent locations inside the Gaza Strip in 2005, but Israel continues to occupy Gaza through its effective control of Gaza’s borders, coastline, airspace, economy, telecommunications, energy, water, and sewage systems. Import restrictions imposed by Israel on construction materials and other goods have significantly impeded the recovery of Gaza’s infrastructure following repeated Israeli military assaults. Israel’s now 13-year closure of the Gaza Strip prevents Palestinians from leaving Gaza, even for urgent medical purposes.
“I tried to leave, got scholarships, but was rejected [by Israeli authorities to exit Gaza],” said Salah. “You want the nightmare to end. You want to pursue your dreams.”
Salah recently graduated from the Islamic University of Gaza, where he studied physics. Since childhood, Salah had been dedicated to pursuing a career as a physicist. He told DCIP about the times he saw children visiting science museums on television programs. “I would ask myself if I’ll ever be able to go see a science museum? I would think about how I could be better than all these children in science, to be creative and innovative and unique, if I only had that chance.”
PART 3 Too many wars to recall
“Is the 2014 war the one where we were locked down for more than 50 days?,” asked 22-year-old Lama Ghazali, giving a shy laugh. “Our biographies now include being someone who has survived three wars. Imagine that being part of your CV?”
After the 2012 Israeli military offensive on Gaza, where Israeli forces killed 167 Palestinians, including 33 children, Lama’s family worried that civilians would be targeted by Israeli forces. So, believing it would be a safer place to shelter, in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, the family left their home in the southern Gaza City neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa for a rented house in central Gaza City.
“I used to sit alone, like someone that is simply waiting their turn,” Lama told DCIP. “I didn’t have hope that tomorrow will come...This is how it’s like to live through a war. No one is better than anyone, you can die if you’re a civilian.”
Lama typically slept during the day, since the bombing was most intense at night, and frequently called her friends to share updates. She told DCIP that the children told each other, “if you hear the sound of bombing, then don’t worry. It means the bombing is not on you. If it was you, you wouldn’t hear it. You’d be dead.”
When occasionally running errands, such as fetching bread with her father, Lama feared her family would be killed while she was out. “Everyone was just wishing that they’d at least die together,” she said. “At the time, we would pity those who survived alone.”
Undoubtedly, the psychological effect of the perpetual threat of death or injury inflicted a significant and lasting trauma on children who lived through Operation Protective Edge. According to evidence collected by DCIP, after the offensive, many children exhibited signs of psychological trauma, including bed-wetting, difficulty sleeping, and separation anxiety from parents or other caregivers.
“We have a history of depression,” explained Lama. “Everything has become a joke. We just joke about it all. We have turned it into a comedy, laughing about the times we don’t have electricity or the fears we had about dying when we wanted to go get bread.”
United Nations estimates suggest that 370,000 Palestinian children required immediate psychosocial support following Operation Protective Edge. A 2018 study found that 95 percent of children in Gaza reported feelings of depression, hyperactivity, a preference for being alone or aggression. 54 percent of children in areas heavily bombarded during Operation Protective Edge were recorded as suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The World Health Organization estimated that more than 20 percent of the population of Gaza had subsequently developed mental health conditions requiring psychosocial care. The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme reported an 18 percent rise in depression within the first five years of Israel’s unlawful closure of the Gaza Strip.
“This has become our normal life,” said Lama. “We have tried to come to terms because we also want to try and live. So we tell ourselves, everyone will die. We try to make sense of it all. What else can we do?”
Such is the tedious iniquity of Israel’s closure policy that Lama is more than willing to endure the punishing process of crossing the border to Egypt. “The siege is that difficult,” she told DCIP. “You’re willing to go through torture if it means getting out. It reaches the point where you say, anything other than this prison we live under.”
PART 4 Killing children with impunity
Despite overwhelming evidence of war crimes committed by Israeli forces during Operation Protective Edge, justice and accountability remain elusive for Palestinian children.
As the “occupying power” under international humanitarian law, Israel has clear obligations to protect the civilian population in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, children enjoy special protections, as does civilian infrastructure that provides shelter and services to children amidst armed conflict. At all times, Israel must protect the rights of Palestinian children, including the right to life, as recognized by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Yet, Israeli forces are rarely held accountable for grave violations against Palestinian children, including unlawful killings and excessive use of force. Since 2000, Israeli forces or settlers have killed at least 2,117 Palestinian children in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, according to documentation collected by DCIP.
An independent United Nations commission presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2015, detailing international law violations during the 2014 military offensive. The report, presented by Mary McGowan Davis, commissioner of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, painstakingly detailed the degree to which Palestinian children were “savagely affected” by Israel’s military assault on Gaza. The report highlighted numerous violations by Israeli forces, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians and unlawful airstrikes on residential buildings, as well as violations by Palestinian armed groups.
Since 2015, the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor has been examining whether there was a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. In December 2019, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced the preliminary examination had concluded with the determination that a reasonable basis did exist and that an investigation be opened into war crimes.
However, the Prosecutor also requested a jurisdictional ruling from the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber I on the scope of the territorial jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court under article 12(2)(a) of the Rome Statute in Palestine.
On January 28, 2020, the Pre-Trial Chamber I issued an order setting the procedure and schedule for the submission of observations on the Prosecutor's request under article 19(3) of the Rome Statute related to the scope of the Court's territorial jurisdiction in the Situation in the State of Palestine.
This past March, DCIP submitted written observations to the International Criminal Court (ICC) urging that Israeli forces be held accountable for war crimes committed against Palestinian children since 2014.
Acting as the legal representative of Palestinian children unlawfully killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, and their immediate family members, DCIP submitted legal observations to the International Criminal Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber I on March 16. The three-judge Chamber is tasked with determining whether the Court has jurisdiction over alleged crimes occurring in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. DCIP urged the Chamber to find that the Court has territorial jurisdiction over all territory occupied by Israel in 1967. The Pre-Trial Chamber I is expected to make a decision in the coming months.
The international community has failed to hold Israeli forces or officials accountable for grave human rights violations against Palestinian children during the 2014 military offensive. Without accountability, Palestinian children have and will continue to bear the brunt of Israeli military offensives and prolonged military occupation.