Ahmed Asmar is a freelance journalist who lives in Gaza City. I reached him by phone at his home Thursday morning. “Every two minutes, we hear a bombardment,” he told me. As if to complete a prophecy, an Israeli missile landed and detonated 30 meters, he guessed, from his building, in the middle of our conversation. I heard a loud boom, and then sirens, and people shouting. He ended our conversation in order to assist casualties. We picked up later when he was at his parents’ home on a relatively quiet street.
Conditions in Gaza are worsening. On Tuesday, an Israeli airstrike hit Gaza’s only power plant, engulfing it in flames and forcing it to shut down. Accompanying the lack of electricity is a lack of clean water; Gaza’s water is brackish and has to be treated through electrical pumps. Without electricity, the residents of the Gaza Strip are reliant upon UN-distributed bottled water. Footage has begun to emerge of entire neighborhoods razed to the ground. “Families have been deleted from national record,” Asmar said. “The father, the mother, and all the children, they no longer exist.”
I asked Asmar what he thinks started the current conflict. “Israelis think Hamas began launching rockets on Israel, but it is not true,” he said. Rejecting the conventional narrative for the moment the war “began,” Asmar prefers to look further back than the rockets, or even the arrest of 400 Hamas members in the West Bank which directly preceded the rockets, or the kidnap/murders that preceded those. “Palestinians are still under occupation. They are suffering from a lot of Israeli aggression.” He described the military siege of Gaza and the embargo on construction materials, which together contribute to the high unemployment rate in Gaza—over 40 percent in May. He spoke of the limited freedom of movement in the West Bank, where he comes from but is unable to go to.
I asked how he would respond to someone who said that Israel was justified in withholding building materials, in light of the tunnels that had been uncovered. He said that clearly, even with the embargo in place, Hamas was able to get the materials they needed for their tunnels. “I believe the resistance groups have their own ways,” he said. “But they were doing it for the people. The resistance is not like it’s described, that they are going to take over the construction materials, it’s not like that at all. The amount of resistance is not compared with what Israel has! They are just small groups, just trying to move part of the suffering from the Palestinians.” Some might call Asmar naive, disagreeing with his interpretation of Hamas’ role with regards to the civilian population of Gaza. But it is a common refrain among Palestinians in Gaza; Hamas, so unpopular as recently as May, are now Gaza’s freedom fighters.
He said that both Fatah and Hamas are committed to one thing and one thing alone: the establishment of a Palestinian state. “It’s not true that they are committed to the destruction of Israel. Even if they say it, it’s not their goal,” he said. Asmar denied the claims that Hamas uses human shields. “It’s not part of our ethics or part of our religion to put civilians in front to do this. And even if they are committing a mistake in this way, launching rockets from close to civilians, it doesn’t mean Israel has the right to sweep the area with an F16! To land it on an area and destroy it! It’s a collective punishment.”
Asmar recalled a speech he heard from a chief commander of Hamas, after a video was released that showed militants emerging from a tunnel and killing Israeli soldiers. “We could have targeted civilians and we didn’t,” the commander said. “We chose instead to go to a military base.”
The Israeli government has asserted that the Hamas tunnels were created to kidnap civilians, but Asmer is not convinced. “They are just for defending against Israeli aggression that will come against Gaza,” he said. “They were not used before, but they are used now when aggression has been started by Israel.” This morning’s news would seem to indicate otherwise. An Israeli soldier has just been kidnapped by the use of one of the tunnels, during a U.N./U.S.-brokered ceasefire.
But the way Asmar sees it, Israel is killing civilians, and Hamas is killing soldiers. A large number of Gaza’s 1,400 casualties have been civilians, while almost all of Israel’s casualties have been soldiers. And what about the rockets fired into Israel? Thanks to the Iron Dome, “these rockets that have been launched in[to] Israel, they didn’t kill anybody. Everybody goes to shelters. The rockets are not for killing. Just to say to the world that we are under occupation, and we will resist, we will keep resisting, since the international community is not able to pressure Israel to give us our rights.”Asmar doesn’t want Israelis to die. “Of course, no one wants anyone to die. We don’t like war. No one would like any of this. It was imposed on us.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.