No Safe Place in Gaza

18 May 2021 22:38:54 - Last updated: 18 May 2021 22:48:31

By David Remnick

Hazem Balousha is a veteran reporter in Gaza City, whose work appears in the Washington Post and other publications. He is forty-two and has lived nearly all of his life in Gaza. For more than a week, he has been covering yet another war there, another “escalation,” more rocket fire, more bombing—and the casualty count keeps climbing. When I first reached him on Sunday and asked how he was doing, he said, “I’m breathing. Alive. We’re alive.” It was late, and his wife and children were asleep. “There are no explosions now,” he said. “I am only hearing the Israeli drone overhead.”

In Monday’s Post, Balousha reported on the fate of a woman in her fifties named Sana’a al-Kulak, whose home had been destroyed in the bombing; she’d been buried alongside her grown son for hours in the rubble. Rescue workers dug them out, and they survived. But at the hospital Kulak learned that many in her family—her husband, two sons, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, and a year-old grandchild—had been killed in the air strikes.

“This is horrible, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s not about my feelings,” Balousha told me hours after the story was posted. “It’s about what they feel. It’s about getting the details right. Of course, I’m a Palestinian, I’m a human being. I feel their pain, I see it in their eyes, but, when it comes to work, journalism is something different.” Balousha compared himself to a doctor who must carry on despite the chaos all around him. “You are dealing with blood and pain, but you hold back your emotions,” he said. The work is “to tell the truth. I’ve written stories that are critical of Hamas, too. . . . I’m not saying I am living in a free country. I’ve been interrogated, two or three times, when they’ve been unhappy with my work.”

According to official Israeli sources quoted in Balousha’s report, which was written along with Loveday Morris, in Tel Aviv, the deaths of civilians such as Sana’a al-Kulak’s loved ones are “unintended”; but the extent of the bombardments are part of an over-all “victory concept” espoused by the Israeli chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, that centers on “a significantly more lethal, networked war machine that can destroy enemy capabilities in record time and with the lowest possible casualties.” At last count, two hundred Palestinians have been killed, including dozens of children. Ten Israelis have died.

Balousha’s wife, Ruba, is from the West Bank. They have two school-age sons, Adam and Karam. The family lives in a four-story building with other family members, including Balousha’s father and mother-in-law. In September, he wrote a first-person dispatch about life in Gaza during the pandemic; in his article, Balousha recalled his thoughts when one of his sons was just a baby:

“Will I be able to shield him and give him a good life in besieged Gaza?” I wondered as I marveled at my tiny boy. In the decade since, the question has never gone away. The constant cycle of escalation between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that governs here, has meant frequent explosive nights and, twice, all-out war. Rockets. More recently, Hamas and other militant groups have launched incendiary balloons that cause fires in nearby Israeli communities and farms. Israel retaliates each night by blowing up Hamas facilities. It is the violent background of our lives.”

When I spoke with Balousha at length on Sunday and Monday, he said he considered himself relatively “privileged.” Unlike so many Gazans, he has travelled abroad, and he earned degrees in journalism and international relations in Turkey. “Can you imagine someone who has never been outside of Gaza?” he said. “They don’t know a world outside this place. They have lost hope. Maybe some have gotten used to it. This is not a normal thing. . . . Of the two million people here, at least half have never been outside of Gaza. There is an Internet. We have satellite dishes. But they don’t have any experience of things of life outside Gaza. They see things, they watch things.”

Balousha said that Gazans have had to learn to live with a constant sense of peril and uncertainty. “Even when things are quiet or seem quiet, they aren’t quiet. There is a shortage of electricity, of clean water. Gaza is coastal, but people can’t swim safely in the sea because there is so much sewage,” he said. “Nothing is stable. No one can make a business. All of a sudden, there is a war or an escalation or the crossings are closed and there is collapse of supplies. Plus, there are the restrictions from Hamas. It restricts personal freedom for women and girls.”

It’s immensely complicated working as a journalist “when you are living under occupation inside a conflict,” Balousha said. His wife had never experienced war before she moved to Gaza with him. “I was single during the war in 2008-09, and my feeling then was more free. I just went to where I needed to go. These days I go out and it’s dangerous. My wife gets crazy when I say, ‘I want to go out and talk to people.’ She is very worried and keeps calling me: ‘Are you O.K.?’ ‘Come back! Don’t be late.’ ”

He went on, “This is one of the most difficult things. To be a father and be responsible not only for yourself. I sometimes think about what would happen if I died and what it would be like for my family. It’s unbelievable to be here. Gazans are good people, and they deserve a better life.”

Balousha’s job is to chronicle loss. “Not long ago, I was talking with a guy who had opened a store. But it was in a building that was completely destroyed. Two days later, the high-rise where he lived was destroyed. It wasn’t his fault. He was just unlucky to be in those two places,” he said. “When I hear kids talking about what’s going on, the war, the missiles, the rockets, talking about politics—I hate this. Or, when I see injured children, sometimes I am just speechless. Today I went to the hospital and I saw an injured infant from an air strike. He’d lost his mother and his brothers and sisters; he was the only survivor. For God’s sake, why? Why? What questions could I ask?”

Before saying goodbye, I asked Balousha how he ordered his days. “It depends on how intense the air strikes are in the night,” he said. “I get up, I catch up on the news, check in with my colleagues in Jerusalem and agree on the story of the day. I go out and talk to people on the streets, do interviews by phone. And then I start writing. The most important time comes at night, when everything is loud, thinking of the kids, how to keep them calm, how to keep them busy so they aren’t thinking always about what’s happening outside. But how to keep them safe? There is no safe place in Gaza.”