The 2009 Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip left the territory devastated; over one thousand Palestinians were killed, the vast majority civilians, and buildings were decimated throughout the Strip. The images which emerged from Gaza were horrifying and the impact of the war remains tangible in the Strip today. While I was jolted to see the suffering caused then, this invasion that we have seen over the past few days has taken on a different meaning for me, specifically because this time I have visited Gaza. The people being bombarded are ones who I know, and buildings destroyed ones that I have sat in. Although my trip to Gaza was brief, it has left a lasting effect on me because the people and scenes are nothing like I have encountered before.
From the moment I entered Gaza, the blockade and destruction were apparent. Barbed wire fences line the territory's land border with Israel, navy ships are visible off the shore, and drones occasionally hover above. Gaza is indeed a prison, with tight controls on entrance and exit. Although nearly four years have passed since the last major incursion into Gaza, buildings were still left destroyed, as prohibitions on construction materials leave rebuilding nearly impossible.
When I arrived at the home of my friend Jeje, a young college student majoring in English, her demeanour made me almost forget where I was. Her friendly greeting and her mother's fish and spicy salads stood in contrast to the scene around us. As I drove up to Jeje's home, I passed by a crater-sized hole, which when prompted she later told me was from a missile that had barely missed her home in the 2009 invasion and shattered her windows, which are yet to be replaced due to restrictions on glass. As we walked through Gaza City, my friend pointed to the destroyed homes of a few of her classmates, no longer alive.
Throughout my time there, I continued to see contradictions. Children played joyously in the rubble of destroyed buildings. Young students, well-informed and outspoken, self-professed "tweeps", refused to surrender to their circumstances. When asked what the "outside world" (that is what Gazans call everything outside of the territory, land that is for many of them beyond reach) should know about Gaza, they insisted that they not be portrayed as humanitarian victims, as people starving in need of aid. Instead, they wanted light to be shed on and action to be taken against the daily violations of basic rights which they endure.
As I look through the images of the death and destruction, memories of Gaza return to me. When I see the picture of the decimated Ministry of Interior, what I remember is a friendly civil servant, who in true Arab fashion insisted that we drink tea, over which he told us about his days as a student activist at the American University of Beirut, his world travels, and asked about the inspiring uprisings in Egypt.
Today my friends in Gaza city are spending sleepless nights; they describe to me the sound of missiles, as they get louder as they approach, and the screams that emerge as they land with a crash. All the meanwhile, they receive news of friends, minutes away, killed by the latest missile. While at this point casualties are in the dozens, there is tremendous fear that this incursion could match that of 2009 in the face of continued world silence.
But these Gazans continue to carry on with the same resistant demeanour that amazed me when I first met them. My friend Sage explains to me his family's decision to gather in his grandparent's house in the Gaza City neighbourhood of Tel al-Hawa to wait out the invasion, a choice made out of pure speculation as to the safest area and one that could mean the difference between life and death. Tel al-Hawa turns out to be one of the hardest hit neighbourhoods.
For the past several days, Sage has been gathering with his family in a single room in the house. As the bombardment intensifies into the night, Sage's family, from his grandparents to his seven year old cousins, sit in the dark, horrified, as the smell of bullets and missiles fills the air.
"We have forgotten the taste of sleep," he says. Sage suggests that Israel is using a new weapon, because the sound of the missiles, one that he is well accustomed with, is unlike that of previous invasions. When Sage did leave his house to find medicine for his grandfather, he was shocked. Amid the destruction, people were on the streets: Taking their children out to play, praying for the dead; despite the planes flying over head, Gazans refused to let fear overcome them. Sage left me with a message of reassurance: "I will tell you more when you return to Gaza. We will be here, God willing."
Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.