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Journalist Samer Badawi describes the scene in Gaza as “apocalyptic” as the 72-hour ceasefire comes to an end

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

The 72 hour cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians is entering its final hours. But as of Thursday, there has been no agreement between both sides for continuing indirect talks in Cairo. Palestinian officials say at least 1,875 people have been killed since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8, while the UN says 1,354 of those who died were civilians. Half a million people in Gaza have been displaced by this month-long conflict.

Now joining us from Gaza City is Samer Badawi. He’s a regular contributor to a web magazine, +972, which has been doing on-the-ground reporting and analysis of events in Israel and Palestine.

Thank you for joining us, Samer.

SAMER BADAWI, REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR, +972 MAGAZINE: Thanks for having me, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So, Samer, now that the dust more or less seems to be settling, at least temporarily, what is the damage like in Gaza?

BADAWI: You know, Jessica, everywhere you go, from Gaza’s northern tip to its southern tip, you see basically the same scene, which is a sort of apocalyptic setting of homes that have been leveled to the ground. We’re talking here, just to give your viewers a visual, we’re talking about in some cases five- or six-story buildings that have been leveled to the point of being basically my height, which is to say about six feet tall. These are the places where the half a million displaced Palestinians come from. And these homes in some cases extend up to a kilometer into the Gaza Strip. And this is on a piece of land that is basically, at its widest point, eight miles wide. So what the Israelis have effectively done over the course of the last three and a half weeks is that they’ve extended what they have always called the so-called buffer zone. Officially, prior to this latest assault, the buffer zone was meant to be 300 meters into the Gaza Strip. And now, as you drive along the eastern border of Gaza with Israel from the north to the south, what you note is that that buffer zone, for all intents and purposes, now it stands about a kilometer in.

DESVARIEUX: So now what are the most pressing needs? How would you sort of characterize the efforts of the humanitarian community in meeting those needs?

BADAWI: Well, the reports there were reports that the Red Cross was actually out in some of these areas that have been destroyed and urging families to actually return back to Gaza City and other parts of the Gaza Strip that are more central, because many of these families, although they sought shelter in Gaza City, and including in UN schools, six of which were shelled over the course of the last three and a half weeks, many of them are actually choosing to go back to their homes. And I’ve seen, in the last couple of days, I’ve seen these families basically camped out in tents, literally across the street from the rubble of what used to be their house. And they have no access to water, no access to electricity, no access to essentially any of the basic human services that anyone needs to survive. And it’s bad enough for the humanitarian organizations that are trying to deal with this that they’re having to deal with the constant threat of drones and F-16s (which, by the way, I’m sure we’ll talk about later) many here are anticipating will return in the morning. But when you add to that the fact that the main humanitarian provider here, which is the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, already has upwards of a quarter of a million people residing in its schools and other facilities here, so they’re already struggling to serve those who are within the vicinity of the facilities that they already run, for them to be able to get back to areas that have been leveled to the ground and have absolutely no basic services is [inaud.] struggle. And the scenes on the so-called frontlines, in places like Shuja’iyya and Khuza’a are those of families that basically have nothing to survive on now.

DESVARIEUX: Samer, as I hear you describing what it’s like on the ground, I can’t help but feel a little bit of déjà vu. I actually covered the conflict in 2008-2009, but I was on the Rafah border. And I remember Egypt was then acting as the mediator, as it is now. Both operations have started because of similar objectives. Israel says it wants to stop Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. And there was just a huge death toll on civilian casualties. And at the end, it led to a ceasefire, but no real removal of the blockade or a real improvement for Gazans. Do you think we’re going to see that same type of resolution produced from these meetings that are happening in Cairo?

BADAWI: Well, I have to say, Jessica, the first point to be made here is that everyone who lived through what was known then as Cast Lead, which is the war that you referred to in December 2008 to January 2009, tells me that this is far and away with much worse of a conflict. And the reasons for that have to do primarily with the use of tanks. The Israelis–and, you know, just go back to the first question [incompr.] have positioned entire artillery units on the border with Gaza and have been shelling the entire Gaza Strip for three and a half weeks, essentially. And these are random shots that are falling all over civilian areas and in large part count for the high death toll. So things are far worse than they were in 2008 and 2009. And for that reason, perhaps what I sense here among the civilian population is a sense of determination and, I would have to say, defiance that doesn’t necessarily equate with support for Hamas, or for the Qassam Brigades, who are doing the bulk of the fighting on the front lines. But it’s something that’s driven by a realization that now, eight years into the siege of the Gaza Strip, a total siege by land, air, and sea, no one here wants to see the 1,875 people who were killed in this war and the 2,300 more who were killed in wars in 2008 and 2012 having died for naught, essentially.

Now, no one also wants to see the violence continue, but there is a very strong sense here that any deal that is struck tonight as people are negotiating in Cairo is, in Netanyahu’s mind, meant to be a capitulation of the Palestinians and a return of the status quo. And that very status quo is the thing that Palestinians there do not want.

DESVARIEUX: Samer, you previously mentioned Hamas. And I want to get your take on what you’re hearing there on the ground in Gaza in terms of people’s attitude towards Hamas. Isreali Prime Minister Netanyahu recently said he regretted all civilian casualties, but said Hamas was at fault and that Hamas could have agreed to a ceasefire sooner, and thus avoiding much of the bloodshed. What’s your response? And what are people saying about Hamas’s role in all of this in Gaza?

BADAWI: Well, it’s interesting, Jessica, ’cause, I mean, I’ve been using the word war to describe what’s going on here, and I can tell you as someone who ordinarily resides in the United States and is familiar with the activist community and very much a part of it there, we go out of our way to avoid the use of that word. We try to refer to Israeli assaults, we try to sort of underscore that these are not two equal sides. And of course they are not. But I have to tell you that here in Arabic, Palestinians are referring to this actually as a war. And by consequence, Hamas is known as the resistance. There is a very clear and I would have to say quite universal sense here in Gaza that those who are firing the rockets are doing so in defense of the civilian population here in Gaza. Now, that is something that applies to the current round of violence. I don’t know, because I wasn’t here prior to all this beginning, how people felt about it prior to July 8, but I can tell you now that is I sort of sit in my flat here with the window open, every time you hear a rocket go off, people around us are–no one by any stretch is cheering about it, but they are very aware of what’s happening and they view it very much as resistance.

DESVARIEUX: Samer, just really quickly, how are people feeling about Egypt and their role?

BADAWI: Well, I would have to say that–you know, it’s interesting. I mean, when I was actually in Shuja’iyya yesterday, the neighborhood in eastern Gaza that has been so hard hit and has been shown in videos and photographs all over social media, I met a man there whose home, again, had been completely demolished and asked him what he thought of Sisi. And I said, do you have anything against him? And he said, I don’t have anything against Sisi. Sisi has something against me. And I think the overwhelming sense here is that the Egyptians are by no stretch honest brokers in this process. The Rafah border crossing has been closed with very, very few exceptions throughout this war, and Palestinians here are very resentful of that fact.

DESVARIEUX: Samer, as I mentioned earlier, I did cover this conflict and I can’t help but see the similarities. And it seems so cyclical. And I have to ask you, at the end of the day–let’s turn the corner here–how do we get out of this cycle? What do you propose the international community should be doing?

BADAWI: You know, I think, Jessica, the answer to that question is really one that has been said repeatedly by the international community over the course of the last year, eight years, and that is for the siege of this strip of land to end. It makes no logical or humanitarian sense for 1.8 million people to be imprisoned in what effectively is the largest open-air prison in the world. And when you add to that the fact that over the course of the last five years, hundreds upon hundreds of tons of Israeli munitions have been dropped upon this strip of land, and homes have been demolished, people have been killed, with no way to rebuild, it really defies reason for the siege to continue.

The other piece of this is that the Gaza Strip, few realize that it actually symbolizes what is essentially the core of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And the reason for that is this. Eighty percent of the Palestinian population in Gaza are actually refugees from what is today modern-day Israel. And so these are people who come from towns and villages, some of which have been demolished over the course of the last 65 years by the Jewish state. And acknowledging that on the part of Israel is really the first step toward forging a [long-lasting (?)] peace and reconciliation with the past Palestinian people. Anything short of that will be viewed by everyone here in Gaza, to the extent that I can gather that information, as a capitulation and a return to the status quo and a sure sign that this conflict will continue.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Samer Badawi, joining us from Gaza City.

Thank you so much for being with us.

BADAWI: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Samer Badawi

Samer Badawi is a regular contributor to +972, a web magazine that is jointly owned by a group of journalists, bloggers and photographers whose goal is to provide fresh, original, on-the-ground reporting and analysis of events in Israel and Palestine. Previously, he served as Executive Director of United Palestinian Appeal and a director at the Welfare Association, the largest Palestinian NGO working in the occupied territories.