Harriet Sherwood
The Guardian (Opinion)
December 11, 2012 - 1:00am

The morning ritual goes like this: three-year-old Ali Misharawi wakes up and reaches for his father's mobile phone. He kisses and strokes the face of his baby brother, Omar, on its small screen. Then he starts asking questions. Why is Omar in paradise? Why did you put my brother into the ground? Why can't I play with him any more?

"He asks a lot of questions. Every day he asks if Omar is alive or dead. He knows what happened, he was there, but he needs to make sense of it," says his father, Jihad Misharawi, whose family was devastated in an inferno on the first full day of last month's war. Misharawi's 11-month-old son Omar and 19-year-old sister-in-law Heba were killed instantly; his brother Ahmed, 18, died after 12 days in intensive care with burns to 85% of his body.

A photograph of Misharawi, a video editor employed by the BBC, with eyes closed and head tilted up in agonised grief while clutching the shrouded body of his baby, was one of the searing images of the eight-day war between Israel and Gaza. Standing amid blackened wreckage the day after Omar's death, Misharawi showed me other haunting photographs on a mobile phone: his infant's scorched, rigid corpse; the child's mouth stretched in a charred rictus.

Three weeks on, Gaza City has almost returned to what passes for normal in this densely overcrowded, impoverished and war-ravaged strip of land whose borders – apart from one exit to Egypt – are tightly controlled by Israel. In sharp contrast to the deserted streets and shuttered shops during the conflict, cars, trucks, tuk-tuks and donkey-drawn carts clog the roads; traders are open for business; boys play football on open patches of scrubby land; teenage girls, wearing white hijabs and floor-length jilbabs to cover their skinny jeans, amble home from school.

But the city also bears the ugly physical scars of eight days of intensive bombardment by Israel: mounds of crushed masonry, twisted metal and shattered glass that were previously homes, offices or public buildings. The Israeli military said it struck 1,500 targets during the offensive, an average of 187 a day. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), 167 people were killed, a majority of whom were civilians, including 35 children. Six Israelis were also killed.

Ahead of a massive triumphalist rally, marking both the Islamist organisation's 25th anniversary and what Hamas leaders claimed was its victory over Israel in the war, the streets of Gaza City are festooned with green Hamas bunting. An enormous model of a rocket, emblazoned "Made in Gaza", illustrates Hamas's exultation.

"We believe Israel lost this war, and victory is ours," Hamas official Taher al-Nounou told me a few days before the rally. "Not a military victory, but a victory for our will."

Despite the scale of devastation and casualties, he insisted: "They tried to destroy our government and failed. They tried to stop Hamas rockets and failed. After six years of isolation, we are more powerful than ever before."

The night the ceasefire was announced, Hamas supporters poured on to the streets, firing guns in the air, blasting horns, letting off fireworks and whooping over their "victory". There were no celebrations in Misharawi's family, who watched the gunmen with dismay and bitterness. "I think Hamas is fooling itself when it says there was a victory," says Misharawi, 27. "How can you have a victory when all these people were killed and injured? What was achieved? Only sorrow, frustration and death for ordinary people." He tells me he is "OK now" compared to our first meeting, but anger and grief bubble close to the surface.

Hamdi Shaqqura of PCHR accuses Israel of "an offensive against civilians and civilian targets". Victory or defeat is, he says, "a political interpretation. I'm concerned with the loss of human life and civilian property. This has been horrific for the civilian population of Gaza." More than 1,000 people had been injured, 96% of whom were civilians, and some of whom suffered "permanent injury" such as loss of limbs, he explains.

Hamas political officials and military commanders were believed to have spent the war sheltering in a network of underground bunkers and tunnels, although al-Nounou claimed that "all the Hamas leadership were working regularly in their offices". Above ground, in a city with no public bomb shelters and no air-raid warning system, the civilian population huddled in their homes, awaiting the next shuddering blast.

Some desperately tried to move their families to more secure locations, only to realise there were no safe places. One family I met on a roadside during the offensive were waiting for a taxi to take them and a few belongings stuffed into plastic bags to the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood, which they believed would not be targeted. The next day, it was the scene of a massive airstrike, which destroyed the home of the Dalou family, killing 12 people including four children.

Israel insisted its airstrikes were precision-targeted at legitimate sites: weapons stores, Hamas-run government buildings, training and rocket-launching grounds. But it also targeted what it claimed were the homes of militants. In the dense residential streets of Gaza City and other towns, relatives and neighbours were killed or injured and adjacent homes suffered extensive damage.

At the site of the Dalou family home, the detritus of family life – odd shoes, half-buried rugs, plastic toys – was visible amid the rubble last week. Houses on three sides were badly damaged by the explosion; two neighbours were among the dead. Tribute banners showing the four Dalou children – smiling portraits alongside a harrowing picture of their corpses squashed together on a morgue tray – hung from the wreckage.

 Palestinians release balloons at the site of the Dalou family home in Gaza. Twelve members of the family were killed in an IDF airstrike. Photograph: Ahmed Zakot/Reuters

In a statement emailed to the Guardian in response to a request for explanation for the bombing, the Israeli Defence Forces said: "The IDF targets only terror-related sites based on carefully collected intelligence. Every possible precautions were taken as the civilians in Gaza were not targets in this operation.

"The Dalou residence was known to the IDF intelligence as a hideout of a senior militant operative in Hamas's rocket-launching infrastructure. While the IDF regrets the loss of life on both sides, the responsibility ultimately lies with terror operatives who use the civil population as human shield when using civilian buildings as hideouts or to store weaponry."

This came as news to Bodour al-Dalou, 25, who lost her mother, brother, two sisters, a sister-in-law, an aunt and four nephews and nieces in the airstrike. "There were no fighters in the house," she says. "I have no idea why the Israelis targeted us. I have heard they said it was a mistake, but what difference does that make?"

An investigation by Human Rights Watch into the bombing of the Dalou family home concluded it was "a clear violation of the laws of war". Mohamed al-Dalou, the only man in the house at the time, whose body was dug out of the rubble five days later, was a low-ranking civilian police officer, HRW said. "Even if [he] was a legitimate target under the laws of war, the likelihood that the attack on a civilian home would have killed large numbers of civilians made it unlawfully disproportionate." Nine of the 10 Dalou family victims were women and children.

Bodour says her three sons, aged six, four and one, were now "always crying because of what happened. Every loud voice, every knock on the door affects them. They say: 'Mummy, I don't want to die.'" But, in a profoundly depressing illustration of how Gaza's perpetual cycle of violence can shape each generation, she adds: "I tell my sons: 'You will be the ones to take revenge for your cousins.' I wish we could live in peace, but the situation forces this on me."

Unicef, the UN agency for children, conducted research a few days after the conflict ended, interviewing 545 children in Gaza's most heavily affected areas on their feelings during the eight days of bombing. "During this time, children were constantly hearing extremely loud noises, both coming in and going out," explains Frank Roni of Unicef. "It was a nightmare for them and their parents. When danger comes so close, it has a big psychological impact. Children of all ages didn't feel safe in their own homes, they wanted to sleep with their parents, a lot were afraid to go to the bathroom so you see bedwetting."

Among a long list of statistics Roni reels off are the following: 91% of children reported sleeping disturbances during the conflict; 94% said they slept with their parents; 85% reported appetite changes; 82% felt angry; 97% felt insecure; 38% felt guilty; 47% were biting their nails; 76% reported itching or feeling ill; 82% were either continuously or usually in fear of imminent death.

 A militant of the future? A Palestinian baby wearing an al-Qassam Brigade headband at a Hamas rally in Gaza. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

There may also be a "long-term effect on family dynamics," says Roni. "Children see their parents frightened, hopeless, helpless, angry, frustrated and unable to protect their family members. These intensive emotions in front of children can have a negative impact."

Some of these children would have permanent psychological scars from the conflict, particularly those still exhibiting signs of stress from the last war, Operation Cast Lead, which ended in January 2009 after 22 days of intensive onslaught by Israel, he said. "A second war within a four-year period brings a lot of flashbacks and re-opens trauma."

Just as in the aftermath of that previous conflict, many Gazans were last week trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild their shattered homes in the resigned belief that this year's conflict will not be the last.

Senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil acknowledges the "devastation and damage" caused in the eight-day war. "But sometimes, for your dignity and independence, you have to pay a high price," he says. "People in Gaza have the right to be sad, and we are sad for them, but we are angry as well. Anger should be directed against the aggressor." Popular support for Hamas has increased, he adds. "Israel is used to causing pain to Palestinians, but this time it was on the receiving end of pain. The deal is different now."

Jihad Misharawi disagrees. "Hamas think they were heroes, with a great victory. I don't know how they can talk about victory. There will be another escalation for sure. Like everyone here, I'm not expecting a long period of quiet. My child was killed, and nothing on the ground has changed. No one achieved anything. Families lost children and loved ones. How can this be a victory?"


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