In July 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge - the third major assault on the Gaza Strip in six years, and the most deadly. One year later, Shell-Shocked, by Palestinian journalist and Gaza resident Mohammed Omer, tells the story of this brutal, one-sided war - as he experienced it on the ground. Order it today with a donation to Truthout!
When I complimented independent journalist Mohammed Omer on his fearless, incisive reporting on the Israeli decimation of Gazans and the destruction of the infrastructure of the besieged, occupied territory in 2014, he responded via email: "I take the power to write from the screams of those children being hit by the tank shells during the past war." He sent answers to my interview questions when sporadic electricity in Gaza allowed him to do so.
Mark Karlin: Your book is an extraordinary account of a Gazan journalist with a family enduring the 51-day Israeli killing spree both personally and as a journalist reporting on the assault. How did you overcome the fear of possible death - and limitations such as the infrequent availability of electricity - to file such informative and vivid accounts, something akin to a written version of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica"?
Mohammed Omer: I have known this fear all my life, so far, personally and nationally. If you let the fear of death paralyze you, then you can achieve nothing for yourself, your family, homeland or dignity. You grab whatever chance, whatever time, light and energy to carry on and get the message out to the world. We love our homeland and are proud of our identity; that is always worth defending with my pen or camera.
Can you provide a sense of the psychological torture of being in an open-air prison as one of the most high-tech and advanced armies in the world conducts a military assault without any possibility of citizens escaping into a safe area?
It is a terrifying feeling of being holistically tortured by a relentless bully, with relatively powerful weapons, and an unfathomable, irrational hatred and desire to cause pain. Like the bully with a magnifying mirror standing over an ant and enjoying watching its pain. Why, you ask? This is the question?
John Pilger calls your collection of reports "eyewitness dispatches of clarity and brilliance." It's a year since more than 2,000 Gazans died and countless more were injured. What is your eyewitness account of the state of Gaza today? Has there been any relief from Israel's treatment of Gaza as a literal concentration camp, which is to say a militarily enforced confinement of nearly 2 million people without the right to leave or travel?
I sense that Israel is under international pressure to lay low on Gaza for a while and refrain, for now, from such disproportionate killing of trapped human beings who just happen to live on land that Israel still covets. Israel has its eyes on other borders and with Cairo endorsing Israel's blockade of Gaza still, essentially the situation on the ground in Gaza remains the same i.e. collective punishment, albeit to a lesser degree than bombs falling on our heads in the day or night.
You write how the ongoing Israeli incarceration of Gaza has led to desperate efforts to escape through Rafah tunnels (most of which appear to have been destroyed since the pro-Israeli military coup in Egypt) and then take rickety ships to Europe. This too is another tragic impact of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, isn't it?
Isn't this to be expected of a whole nation/people under constant punishment just for being there? What are they expected to do, lay down and die?
The people of Gaza have the human right to be free and at peace. Under the laws of war, every POW [prisoner of war] has the right to attempt escape from incarceration and torture.
Interviewing you from the comfort of the United States, it is difficult to imagine an onslaught that caused so much carnage that the "dead [were] kept in vegetable refrigerators," as you write. Did the Israelis hamper emergency medical assistance to the wounded? Were hospitals and other medical facilities targeted during the 51-day military siege?
The facts speak for themselves; clearly marked hospitals and ambulances were targeted by Israel weapons. Churches, UN shelters and mosques were destroyed. Ask the international doctors, paramedics, UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] staff, NGOs etc. Much needed medical supplies are jammed at Israeli crossings while people die of their injuries. All the evidence and facts are there, if people want to really see and know.
Little is written about the impact of the violence and degradation visited upon Gazans - periodic military attacks and since 2007, an ongoing forced embargo - in terms of mental health. Given your vivid descriptions of the horrifying death and injury that occurred a year ago, are there many children, youth and adults who are psychologically wounded by post-traumatic stress disorder?
Half the 1.8 million population of Gaza are under 18 years old. Gaza has been under attack since Israel moved all its settlers to the West Bank and closed off Gaza from the rest of Palestine. It's not too hard to imagine what any humans go through when trapped inside a concentration/ethnic camp, surrounded by electric/barbed wire fences, sniper towers, guns, tanks and cruel guards who have no conscience. Holistic, collective punishment is inhuman. PTSD is only one of many illnesses inflicted upon the young people of Gaza who are constantly under some degree of punishment and attrition.
You have a chapter on Israel targeting the water, sewage and electrical infrastructure of Gaza City. What do you believe Israel's goal is in destroying the vital facilities and systems necessary for survival in Gaza?
Israel knows that in order to cripple or drive away a whole people it considers as undesirable inhabitants, it must destroy even their most basic, human rights facilities, water, heat, light, sanitation, education, adequate quantities of medicine/care, mobility and freedom to speak. I feel that Israel wants to make life unbearable for us, so we will "voluntarily" leave. But, here we are, still!
How important are the dreams of reopening a Gaza airport and establishing an international seaport to Gazans?
How important is it, for you as a human, with dignity, to walk and breathe? It's vital. It's our portal to the world.
You note the importance of social media in breaking through Western mass media support of the Israeli occupation and assaults on Gaza. Can you elaborate?
Most Western mass media have a political bias or agenda. Israel's sponsors control much mass media and have a bias toward Israel, hence Israel's war crimes are ignored, while other international war crimes are recognized. It's very seldom the real voice of the grassroots people is heard uncensored. But social media is that popular voice, straight from the heart and conscience.
Israel claims that the Hamas governance in Gaza is the basis for deadly military assaults and the collective punishment of Gazans through the embargo and mass incarceration. However, you document that support for Hamas grows when Israel brutalizes Gaza. So what do you think the real goal of the Israeli government is in relation to Gaza?
I feel that Israel's goal is to continue dividing and fragmenting the Palestinian people and dissolving all possible hope of the right to return accorded to Palestine by international law. Israel is afraid of any possibility of Palestinian unity and nationalism. Israel's actions are not conducive to any scenario of mutual, equitable peace, which would take away Israel's excuse to expand further for matters of "security."
If Hamas were not in Gaza, Israel would still blame/attack the body in charge, if it refused to comply with Israel's hegemonic demands. Unity is strength and I feel that Israel fears strength in its Arab neighbors, when it hasn't exactly been a mutual, good neighbor itself, since 1948. But, we can always hope that Israel's young generation will be more open-minded and desirous of peace. I never lose hope.