World / January 3, 2024

A Palestinian Whose Childhood Was Destroyed by War Pleads for Peace

Never letting children endure war again is the “never again” that might actually heal our wounded humanity.

Ibtisam Barakat
A child eats amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following Israeli bombardment in Rafah on the southern Gaza Strip on December 29, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.(AFP / Getty Images)

The violence in Gaza may have started on October 7, 2023 for Israel and for the world. But for Palestinians it started 75 years ago, and never stopped.

My Palestinian mother is 79 years old. She grew up in Jerusalem. Seventy-five years ago, she was 4 years old, and Israel drove her, her family, and all of her village out of their homes, which they would never see again. They became part of the Palestinian diaspora.

During the attack on Kharrouba, my mother’s village, she was asleep and when everyone fled, she was left behind. My grandfather walked for 16 hours, risking his life, to find her. That trauma still marks every day of my mother’s life.

Kharruba, her town of origin, was one of more than 400 Palestinian towns and villages that were either depopulated violently or destroyed after Palestine was torn up and Israel came into being on May 14, 1948.

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Palestinian lands and homes, with all their contents, from books to furniture, clothes to food and art, were given freely to Jewish people who came from Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust, or from other nations to settle in Palestine that was renamed Israel.

Consequently, a large segment of the displaced Palestinians had to live in refugee camps. The conditions in these camps were harsh. Deprived of lands or businesses, lacking self-determination, or any basic necessities, millions of Palestinians were forced to rely on the United Nations for basic sustenance.

Nineteen years after the war of 1948—which Palestinians call Al Nakba, “the Catastrophe,” and Israelis call the War of Independence—the second major war between Israel and Arab countries, the Six-Day War, took place in 1967. It resulted in complete Israeli military occupation of all Palestinian lands. I was 3-and-a-half years old in 1967. The story of my mother was repeated in my own life: I was left behind when warplanes started bombing our neighborhood, and my family fled.

I experienced the harshest side of humanity: a child facing war, seeing dead bodies, hearing primal screams, feeling an overwhelming fear, and thinking that my life did not matter. I also almost lost one of my feet to wounds and infections. I lived in many shelters and then in an orphanage with my family members after we were reunited.

As I was growing up, Israeli soldiers trained near our home. The sounds and feeling of war became the norm of a Palestinian childhood under military occupation. A sense of safety was something I could only read about in stories.

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But Ramallah, where I lived, was not as devastating as Gaza, where many Palestinians, mostly refugees from cities and homes taken by Israelis in 1948 and 1967, gathered to form the most densely populated area on earth. Before this latest war began 2.3 million people in Gaza lived in 75 square kilometers. Half of the population were children under age 17. Depression among the children of Gaza reached 80 percent—in 2022.

For at least 15 years, between 2008 and 2023, Israeli policies were geared to put all Gazans—children and adults alike—on a diet. But the nutritional conditions of all Palestinians living under occupation had already been deadly. Twenty years ago, in 2003, the UN reported that because they were living under military occupation restrictions, 22 percent of Palestinian children under 5 were suffering from grave malnutrition, and 9.3 percent of children under the age of 5 were suffering from acute malnutrition, which meant that they had brain damage or were damaged for life from chronic malnutrition.

Water supplies were compromised too. In 2016 the World Health Organization reported that Gaza under siege experiences life-threatening water problems.

The prolonged absence of a political solution; the world’s indifference to Palestinian suffering; ongoing Israeli settlers raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the extreme hardship endured by the people of Gaza and all Palestinians for decades, all led to the events of October 7. Those events, organized by Hamas, resulted in breaking the siege of Gaza—and also the deaths of young and old Israelis, taking hostages, including children (all children are innocent), civilian adults or elderly, amid an outbreak of overwhelming violence. Hamas announced that it took hostages to force a prisoner exchange with Israel—which held more than 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners—at least 200 of whom are children.

On the Israeli side, October 7 was described as an unmatched terrorist attack. Israel refused to conduct the prisoner-hostage exchange instead announcing a war with the goal of destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages.

On the Palestinian side, the October 7 events were described as a response to the unmatched state terrorism the Israeli illegal occupation forced upon Gaza and the West Bank for years.

As the war in Gaza raged, many countries said Israel has the right to defend itself. Palestinians’ right to defend themselves remains the biggest elephant that ever existed in a room full of world politicians.

Meanwhile since October 7, while saying that it is only attempting to destroy Hamas, Israel has engaged in unceasing collective punishment on the civilian population of Gaza with a clear intention of ethnic cleansing, according to Holocaust historian Omer Bartov. Israel deprived Gazans of any food at all, deprived them of water, and cut off electricity, fuel, and damaged or destroyed more than 70 percent of Gaza’s homes—often while residents were inside them. In eleven weeks of war, more than 21000 Palestinians have been killed, and 56000 wounded.The number of Palestinian prisoners doubled from 5,000 to 10,000 in just two weeks.

The majority of hospitals in Gaza stopped functioning due to lack of necessities, especially water, cleaning materials, oxygen for patients, and electricity for medical devices. Doctors and medical personnel operated on people on the floors or in corridors, and did amputations without anesthetics. More than 300 medical personnel, including doctors, lost their lives. More than 55 ambulances have been damaged by Israeli air strikes.

With no electricity for morgues in hospitals, and thousands of refugees gathering inside hospitals for shelter, the dead bodies and the living people have to be in the same crowded space. The rotting corpses afflict the sensibilities of the living. Children breathe multiple traumas and dangerous microbes every minute.

More than 10000 Palestinian children have been killed in less than 3 months, with additional unknown numbers under the rubble. So many children have been orphaned that a new term is now used at Gaza hospitals: WCNSF: wounded child, no surviving family.

Living in the United States, a country with a government that supports this devastation in spite of the overwhelming public preference for a cease-fire, I stand 6,000 miles away from Gaza. I see the distance between the US and Gaza marked with a dead child on every mile across the Atlantic Ocean. That I voted for President Biden now feels like the biggest mistake of my life.

Because many news outlets in the US focus on politically motivated opinions, rather than on facts, since October 7, I have been going through the war with my people via the live coverage of Gaza on Al Jazeera Arabic and English channels.

The cost of telling the truth is proving enormous: 105 journalists working for various news agencies, at least 100 of them Palestinian, have been killed in Gaza during the last 3 months. And collective punishment extends to their families. I listened to journalist Moamen Al Sharafi report live that an Israeli plane had dropped an explosive barrel on his family’s home, killing 22 of his family members instantly. He named them: his father, mother, three brothers, their spouses, his aunt and others. Now they cannot be reached to be buried. The only one found was a child who had been blown away by the force of the explosion toward the roof of anther building. Moamen’s voice broke on camera. But he continued reporting.

Via live coverage in a language that is my first language, I see and feel the war unfolding. To turn away feels like betrayal. When I was living in war and under occupation my biggest dream was that someone—anyone, anywhere—would care to know and witness so that I wouldn’t be alone in what happens.

So I see Gazans writing their names on their arms and the arms of their children to have the dignity of being identified when they die in the bombings that take place without warning. I take screenshots of children who speak because the likelihood that they will die in the bombing is extremely high.

I hear and see direct testimonies such as that of Dr. Muhammad Abu Salmiya, director of Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest hospital, saying that children are dying of thirst. The elderly are dying of heart attacks and strokes. No medical help is possible. Wounds of the injured are left untreated for weeks and worms are now forming on them. Outside the hospital, he reports that at least a hundred corpses have been left unburied because Israeli snipers don’t let anyone get close to them. Stray dogs eat them. The thick smell of death is everywhere. And it’s not symbolic.

If language had words for exactly what I feel as a Palestinian at this time, language would be medicine. But it does not have words. Instead, it feels like another medicine denied. It has become hard for me to drink water, eat well, or sleep well, knowing that more than 2 million people don’t have water, food, medicine or an ounce of respect for their lives or needs.

As a Palestinian-American, this deadly conflict affects every day and every area of my life. So it has always been necessary for me to understand it from a global context. I see that what Palestine and Israel endure is a new chapter of the Holocaust that never ended.

The Jewish people, who were victims of terrible state violence, now have a state that is victimizing the Palestinians. The wounds of the Holocaust never healed, and the sentiments of persecution persist. Antisemitism continues and multiplies. Middle Eastern Jews—who make up the largest group of Israel’s citizens—and Palestinians are both Semites. They are biblical cousins too.

Yet when Israel built a separation wall from Palestinian areas, it was twice the height of the Berlin Wall. The symbolism was clear. How could Israeli and Palestinian children meet, see one another’s humanity, and form caring connections, with such a wall separating them?

All the people fighting in Gaza now, Palestinians and Israelis, were innocent children just a decade ago, or a few decades ago. Humans who manage to become adults are united by the foundational experience of childhood.

Many Israeli children, Palestinian children, or other children who live with historically accumulated violence similar to that in Palestine and Israel are likely to grow up to become exactly what we have now on both sides: fierce fighters willing to die for the cause they believe in, for the freedom they dream of. Or for revenge, or to have a death they choose if a life of freedom and choice is not possible.

Without global intervention for a healing process from the influences of genocide on the human psyche, this war will spread from heart to heart, across generations of unhealed traumas. My mother struggles daily with the trauma of war on her childhood. And not a day of my life goes by without my struggling greatly from war’s effects on my own life even after decades.

This very moment now is the childhood of tomorrow. To prolong war now is to wound tomorrow. To end injustice and wars now is to give tomorrow room to arrive bringing more peaceful possibilities and experiences for children: children of Gaza, children of Palestine, children of Israel, children of humanity everywhere. Never letting children endure war again is the “never again” that might actually heal our 21st-century wounded humanity.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ibtisam Barakat

Ibtisam Barakat is the author of Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood (2007) and Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine (2016).

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