What’s happening in Gaza must stop

6 November 2023 | Danny Sriskandarajah

Buildings struck by Israeli airstrikes. Windows exploding, glass shattering. Screaming voices from under the rubble, pleading for help.

This is just one testimony from an Oxfam colleague trapped inside Gaza. But there are others.

There’s a growing collection of harrowing voice notes, interviews and messages – their poor sound quality doing nothing to conceal the suffering.

Via WhatsApp, our colleague Najla, Oxfam’s Country Relations Manager, describes a terrifying night sheltering in total darkness in a tiny room. Having travelled south with her two young daughters, Najla is sharing a small home with 57 other people.

Under relentless shelling and bombing during the day, and airstrikes at night with no room for mattresses, they are sleeping fitfully in shifts. The nights, she says, are ‘terrifying; horrible’.

The daughter of one of our staff members in Gaza has just turned 12. In the end, on a day she’d looked forward to celebrating for months, her one wish was that her birthday wouldn’t also be her death day.

Hadeel, who works for Oxfam in Ramallah in the West Bank, tells us that her family in Gaza – including her 80-year-old mother – have moved four or five times in the last week to get away from the most intense areas of bombing.

Of her six sisters in Gaza City, three have already seen their homes destroyed. She says hospitals are fast running out of medication and people are almost starving.

Then, over the weekend, the messages stopped.

As ground and air offensives intensified, Gaza was plunged into a total communications blackout. We, like the rest of the world, couldn’t contact anyone. It was a feeling of utter helplessness.

What’s happening in Gaza must stop.

The atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel on 7 October were unspeakable; the fact that they continue to hold more than 200 hostages, appalling. But that cannot, by any measure, justify the collective punishment of more than two million Palestinian civilians, around half of them children.

Oxfam is used to operating in war zones. We’re used to bringing humanitarian relief into some of the most difficult and volatile contexts in the world. But we’ve never seen anything like this before.

I was in Gaza just a few months ago. Even then, the restrictions were some of the most severe I’d ever seen; the humanitarian need, some of the most extreme.

According to the UN, 80% of Gazans were dependent on aid even before hostilities intensified. Surveillance was a constant – the dull buzzing of drones is the soundtrack to my memories – and the risk of violence, ever-present.

A 16-year blockade meant that even the most basic items weren’t allowed into the strip. Our Oxfam team was providing cash to families in desperate need.

We were supporting Palestinian NGOs to provide practical services, like wastewater treatment. And, of course, we were advocating – as we have for years – for a just and peaceful solution to this complex and tragic situation.

On one of my final days there, I visited a strawberry farm. I remember the intense red against the grey, dusty backdrop of arid scrubland. I remember it as an oasis of colour and life – and hope.

I often wonder what it looks like now. Whether it has been abandoned or completely destroyed. And I wonder what all this means for the people of Gaza.

Behind every statistic, behind the relentless uptick of the death toll, behind every image of destruction, there is a world of visceral human pain.

As I write, more than 8,000 Palestinians have died, according to the Gaza Health Ministry – most of them women and children. Thousands more have been injured and the scale of destruction is immense.

In the last week, a small number of aid trucks have been allowed to cross into Gaza.

But it is a drop in an ocean of desperate need. Before the escalation of conflict over three weeks ago, hundreds of truckloads of goods – including aid provided by the UN and international development community – were entering Gaza every day.

International humanitarian law prohibits the killing and targeting of civilians; it says they must be protected and treated humanely. It also prohibits the attack or destruction of civilian infrastructure like hospitals and shelters.

Yet we’re seeing starvation being used as a weapon of war. Just 3% of normal food supplies have been delivered since the total siege was imposed.

Even some of the food that has been allowed in – like rice or lentils – is of little use to people who have no clean water or fuel to prepare it.

People in emergency situations need a bare minimum of 15 litres of water a day. In Gaza, each person has access to about three litres. Children, experiencing severe trauma from relentless bombardment, are drinking polluted, dirty water and cannot be sure how long food supplies will last.

Without working toilets, functioning sewage pumping stations or water treatment plants, waste is building up in the streets and the risk of serious outbreaks of cholera and other diseases rises each day.

On top of that, hospitals are shutting down, either because of sustained damage or because of a lack of power and medical supplies. Patients are being treated on the ground; operations carried out without anaesthesia.

From a population of 2.2million people who live in an area roughly the size of the Isle of Wight, 1.4million are now internally displaced. Like hundreds of thousands of others, our colleagues have – quite literally – nowhere safe to go.

In a place as crowded as Gaza, polite pleas from politicians to minimise civilian fatalities and leaflet drops warning Gazans to evacuate certain areas are utterly futile.

As I write, and as internet connections and phone signals have been restored, at least for now, we’ve managed to account for our whole team. But it has been heartbreaking to hear colleagues from other aid organisations – including Islamic Relief and Christian Aid – describe the loss of colleagues in recent weeks.

The longer the international community drags its heels, the more complicit we become in something utterly heinous. There can be no excuse. We and other aid agencies are asking people to join us to call for a ceasefire. Whatever your politics, surely our shared humanity demands this.

We must see unfettered humanitarian access, the release of all hostages and the restoration of electricity and water supplies. Surely, we can agree that for – the sake of all Israelis and Palestinians – the cycle of violence must end.

Heartbreaking photos pop up from our colleague, Wassem: pictures drawn by hungry children of the food they are dreaming of eating.

When we last spoke to Wassem, he said simply, ‘We’re looking for a ceasefire. We are looking for peace. We are looking to live in dignity’.

Amidst the pain and injustice on all sides, let’s not lose sight of this.

This article was originally published on metro.co.uk on 1 November 2023. You can read it on Metro’s website here.