Witness to a Catastrophe

Two new on-the-ground accounts of the Gaza war.

By Sandy TolanSeptember 14, 2015

Night in Gaza by Mads Gilbert. Skyscraper Publications. 190 pages.

The 51 Day War by Max Blumenthal. Nation Books. 272 pages.


ONE EVENING in July of 2014, near the beginning of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, several dozen Israelis pulled up couches and plastic chairs to a nearby hilltop to watch the spectacle. Some munched popcorn. Suddenly, there on the outskirts of the Israeli town of Sderot, a flash lit up the night sky, followed by a column of fire and an earth-shaking roar. As the missiles from Israeli fighter jets rained down on Gaza, the crowd broke into cheers and applause.

One of those missiles, from an American-made F-16 fighter, crashed through the Fun Time Beach Café in Gaza, killing nine young men, also in plastic chairs, gathered to watch the World Cup on television. They would be among the early victims of a 51-day war that claimed the lives of nearly 1,500 civilians, including 521 children, and badly damaged or destroyed 18,000 buildings, including schools, hospitals, the Gaza Power Plant, water and waste water infrastructure, and more than 400 businesses. One hundred eight thousand Gazans were made homeless by the war. It may take decades for them to recover, if they ever do. 

Israeli, American, and some European officials justified the massive military onslaught with the mantra “Israel has the right to defend itself.” (Rarely did anyone ask whether Palestinians had the same right.) Hamas, after all, had launched dozens of rockets over Gaza’s border just prior to Israel’s furious response.

Yet the fuse for the 2014 Gaza war was lit a few weeks earlier, in the West Bank, shortly after three Israeli teenagers — Naftali Frenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah — were abducted by Palestinian militants. Israel claimed that Hamas leadership was behind the kidnappings, charges that turned out to be almost certainly false; this was a rogue operation. But in the outpouring of Israeli rage over the abductions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had carte blanche to destroy Hamas’s West Bank infrastructure.

For 18 days, during Operation Brother’s Keeper, more than 2,000 Israeli soldiers conducted dozens of raids, searching 2,200 homes and arresting 400 Palestinians, more than a third of them without charge or due process. Most were Hamas members, and few were interviewed about the kidnappings, despite the operation’s stated purpose: the search for the teenagers. Strong evidence then emerged that Israelis officials knew all along that the teenagerss had been killed shortly after their kidnapping, but kept the news quiet for 18 days to carry out the operation against Hamas.

Why? Netanyahu was motivated to crush Hamas in the wake of an agreement between the two rival Palestinian factions. A few weeks earlier, Hamas, ruling Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority, in charge of the West Bank, had inked a unity pact that Netanyahu strongly denounced. He threatened Mahmoud Abbas, head of the PA, warning him “to choose” between “peace with Hamas or peace with Israel […] You can have one but not the other,” he said. Yet the pact, which could have avoided war, appeared to be in Israel’s interest. Hamas, weakened by shifting regional alliances in Iran, Egypt, and Syria, agreed to every key US and Israeli demand to cease hostilities and accept the Western terms of peace. Israel and the US nevertheless flatly rejected Hamas’s overture. Using the abduction of the teenagers as a pretext, Netanyahu chose to shatter Hamas’s West Bank operations, thus paving the path for war

Indeed, for Hamas leaders in Gaza, as Max Blumenthal points out in The 51 Day War, “Operation Brother’s Keeper was an act of war.” They began preparing their response. 

After 18 days, the bodies of the three teenagers were discovered in shallow graves near Hebron. A wave of grief and fury swept over Israel. Tens of thousands attended the funeral, where Netanyahu, ever the statesman, declared, “May God avenge their blood.” An Israeli Facebook page, “The People of Israel Demand Revenge,” quickly garnered 35,000 “likes.” A member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), Ayalet Shaked, approvingly posted an article by Netanyahu’s late chief of staff, calling for the killing of “the mothers of [Palestinian] martyrs” and the demolition of their homes: “Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.” Shaked is now Israel’s justice minister. 

Shaked’s posting came amid a torrent of other posts and comments calling on Israel’s armed forces to “exterminate” Palestinians. A Bar Ilan University lecturer in Arabic literature wrote, “The only thing that can deter terrorists like those who kidnapped the children and killed them is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.”  

Joel Beinin, the esteemed Middle Eastern scholar at Stanford, in Israel at the outbreak of the 2014 Gaza war, wrote of an Israeli atmosphere where “[r]acism has become a legitimate, indeed an integral, component of Israeli public culture […] The public devaluation of Arab life enables a society that sees itself as ‘enlightened’ and ‘democratic’ to repeatedly send its army to slaughter the largely defenseless population of the Gaza Strip.” Fear — rooted partly in the Holocaust vow of “never again,” partly in years of suicide and rocket attacks on civilians from Palestinian militants, and partly in a relentless rightward drift in which genocidal calls have become normalized — had morphed into a hard hatred and dehumanization of the Other.

And so, on a mid-July evening in 2014, on an Israeli hilltop overlooking Gaza, residents took their seats for what one reporter called the “Sderot Cinema.” “You can feel the thunder and see the excitement,” said one young man, watching the bombs fall. “It’s also just good fun.”


Of course, real human beings — 1.8 million Palestinians of Gaza, 80 percent of whom were from refugee families dispossessed by the creation of Israel in 1948 — were living and dying beneath those bombs. Bearing witness to their experience, in all its terror, loss, trauma, disfigurement, and even hopeful resilience, is at the heart of two searing new on-the-ground accounts of the Gaza war. Journalist Blumenthal, in The 51 Day War, and Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert, in Night in Gaza, take readers on disturbing, sometimes shocking odysseys. Both books convey what it felt like to live under a barrage so powerful — more than 1,500 times more explosive than all the 4,900 crude rockets Hamas launched toward Israel, put together — that even US military officials expressed shock. Just 12 of the several hundred one-ton bombs launched from Israeli F-16s were equal to the entire explosive power of all the rockets Hamas fired during the Gaza war. It is no coincidence that Palestinian civilian casualties outnumbered those of Israel by a ratio of nearly 400:1 

Blumenthal entered Gaza on day 38 of the war, and much of his account describes his visits to families whose homes had already been devastated and lives torn apart. During a ceasefire in August, he traveled to Shujaiya, a neighborhood near Gaza City, which Israel called a Hamas “fortress for its weapons, rockets, tunnels and command centers.” It was a key target of the Israeli ground invasion, due in part to what it called “terror tunnels” dug into its territory. After dropping warning leaflets and making phone calls, Israel’s military unleashed a devastating barrage, firing some 7,000 shells, flattening much of the neighborhood in less than an hour. The attack stunned even some Pentagon officials, including one who said, “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible.” 

Holy bejeezus,” added a retired American general. “That rate of fire over that period of time is astonishing. If the figures are even half right, Israel’s response was absolutely disproportionate.” Secretary of State John Kerry, caught on an open microphone before going on Fox News, remarked sarcastically, “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation." 

But it is the impact of just three bullets — of the estimated three million that Israel fired in Gaza last summer — that forms one of the most heartbreaking passages in The 51 Day War

In a lull in the fighting, 23-year-old Salem Shamaly, clearly unarmed, went searching for missing family members, surrounded by orange-vested rescue volunteers of the International Solidarity Movement:

As Salem waded into a pile of rubble wearing jeans and a green T-shirt […] a single shot rang out from a nearby sniper, causing his body to crumple to the ground. As Salem attempted to get up, another shot struck him in the chest. A third shot left his body completely limp.

The sniper killing — or, if you prefer, assassination — was captured on video, and on Blumenthal’s visit to Shujaiya a few weeks later, he writes:

Salem’s cousin, Hind Al Qattawi, whipped out a laptop and played for me a clip of a report on the killing […] Al Qattawi had wanted to demonstrate for me the international impact the incident had made, but instead, by playing the video, she summoned barely submerged emotions back to the surface. As soon as the clip of Salem’s killing began to play, his mother, Amina, sobbed openly.

“The real problem is not just losing your home in the bombardment,” Mohammad Al Qattawi, Hind’s brother, told me as Amina Shamaly brought a wad of tissues to her eyes. “The problem is you have lost your future, you lose our hope, and you can even lose your mind. Two million people here are on the verge of losing their minds.”

Later, Blumenthal travels to a neighborhood in Rafah, in northeast Gaza, “arriving via a dusty lane littered with the shards of spent Israeli munitions […] US-made Mark-82 dumb bombs, drone missiles, and spent bullet casings” that were the “calling cards” of Israel’s Givati Brigade. The elite brigade was under the command of Col. Ofer Winter, a religious nationalist officer who, in an attempt to inspire his troops to war, wrote, “History has chosen us to be the sharp edge of the bayonet of fighting the terrorist enemy ‘from Gaza’ which curses, defames, and abuses the God of Israel’s battles.” Blumenthal, asserting that Winter’s “apocalyptic messianism” was representative of “the new generation of the Israeli military’s officer corps,” goes on to quote Winter in a passage worthy of the most ardent Islamic warrior:

I turn my eyes to the sky and call with you, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” God, the Lord of Israel, make our path successful, as we are about to fight for Your People, Israel, against an enemy who defames your name.

Later, Col. Winter would tell an Israeli ultra-Orthodox weekly of “clouds of glory” that enshrouded his troops in a protective mist during an offensive in Gaza: a gift from God.

In his analysis of the increasing power of Israeli religious nationalism and the nation’s politically rightward march, Blumenthal taps into his earlier reporting and analysis in Goliath, his sharp-edged, polarizing 2013 book. Some reviewers seemed shocked that a child of Washington’s power elite — his father is Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton — would write something so unforgivingly critical of Israel. Eric Alterman, writing in The Nation, called Goliath the “I Hate Israel Handbook.” James Kirchik, in The Daily Beast, who in a shameful move of guilt-by-association linked Max Blumenthal to a white supremacist murderer, suggested that Sidney disown his wayward son. While undeserving of such bombastic attacks, in Goliath, Blumenthal the younger often undermined his own message. At times it comes across as an angry polemic, with strident language where simple description would have served him better. But the critics, I suspect, were mostly discomfited by what Blumenthal quite usefully revealed: an alarming sharp right turn in Israel, where extremism increasingly passes as mainstream. 

In The 51 Day War, Blumenthal wisely tones it down, for the most part letting the story tell itself, most powerfully through the voices of Gazans. In Rafah, Blumenthal meets Suleiman Israibi, whose son, Saleh, had been shot dead by snipers after “attempt[ing] to flee under the intensifying Israeli shelling.” The elder Israibi, who also lost “virtually everything” he owned in “a combined [Israeli] salvo of missiles and artillery shells,” summed up more than half a century of Gaza’s anguish in these 43 words:

We’ve been suffering for more than sixty years, so this didn’t start yesterday. When I build a house, the Israelis bomb it. When I try to make a living, they destroy my business. When I try to raise a child, they kill him.

Passages like these counter the facelessness and dehumanization that architects and supporters of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza prefer. During the war, Israeli media rarely printed the names of the hundreds of children killed in Gaza. The Israel Broadcasting Authority even refused to allow their names to be read on its air, prompting B’tselem, Israel’s respected human rights group, to print the names on its website.


Like Blumenthal, Mads Gilbert is at his best when describing the human cost of the rain of bombs, shells, and missiles onto Gaza in the summer of 2014. Gilbert, a Norwegian anesthesiologist, has been traveling to Gaza for “medical solidarity work” for 15 years, often at al-Shifa hospital during several recent Gaza wars. Unlike Blumenthal, who mostly chronicled a family’s devastation days or weeks after an attack, Gilbert often witnessed it within an hour. With the full consent of his medical colleagues, he carried a small black camera in his green scrubs, snapping occasional photographs of the chaos and trauma.

Al-Shifa Hospital, Gilbert writes, was frequently besieged with “a tidal wave of blood and screams” and a “ never-ending wail of sirens,” burned and disfigured children, and an “incomprehensible chaos of bodies … limbs, [people] walking, not walking, breathing, not breathing, bleeding...”

As Gilbert and his colleagues, mostly skilled and battle-forged Palestinian doctors, tried to cope with each oncoming wave of maimed and traumatized patients, the doctor from Norway became increasingly agitated. Ambulance drivers were now being killed, and other hospitals shelled, and he began to suspect that they had become deliberate targets of the Israeli attacks. In his Gaza hotel room at 4 a.m., where he retreated for a few hours of sleep, he sat on the edge of his bed, wondering, 

Do people in the world out there really know what is happening? Can they see the damage, the pain and the scale of loss, a story that cannot be conveyed by the cold statistics? Can people around the world, not least people in power, see the impact these heavy attacks are having, with the bombs, the missiles launched from drones, and now artillery fire? Does anybody out there feel outraged? Anybody with influence? 

Hours later he was back at the hospital, encountering “a little boy covered with small lacerations, shrapnel wounds to his head and both eyes sealed shut. He is inconsolable, screaming unstoppably. As he cannot open his eyes, he is blinded. He tries to feel his way with his delicate hands. ‘Where’s my mummy?’” Gilbert feels “desperate” — because of Israel’s ongoing embargo, there is no proper anesthetic.

There are times when Gilbert, by now a war-weary physician, must nevertheless summon himself to bear witness when he would prefer to look away. On July 20, after the assault on Shujaiya, Al-Shifa hospital was overwhelmed with injured, dead, and dying civilians, many of them children. In the “disaster reception area,” Gilbert recounts, beneath a green cover lay two small, motionless figures. “A nurse pulls off the cover. I force myself to look.” One of the children is a seven-year-old boy, “in briefs and a jumper … his head completely severed from his body.” Lying beside him is a nine-year-old girl, “missing half of her head and face ... She is barefoot, wearing a plain T-shirt and knee-length tights, lying with her feet alongside her brother.”

“I feel numb,” Gilbert writes, “and cannot stand to look. Reality is worse than our imagination.”

In a rare moment of relative quiet, Gilbert describes treating a girl, perhaps three years old, with a deep shrapnel wound in her thigh. After a time, she sleeps. “It calms me to see how peaceful she is,” he writes, musing about his youngest grandchild, Maria, “playing back home in Norway, carefree in the summer sun.” He took her picture. It adorns the cover of Night in Gaza.


But the reverie never lasted. 

On July 16, two Israeli shells sped downward toward a group of children playing soccer on the beach, near a cluster of metal fishermen’s shacks. After the first shell hit, the children, each about four feet tall and wearing beach clothes, began frantically running toward safety, waving and shouting to journalists who watched in horror from a nearby hotel. “They are only children,” some of the journalists shouted. Eyewitness accounts from The Guardian and The New York Times indicated it was obvious they were kids. A moment later, the second shell landed. Four boys, all from the extended Bakr family, lay dead.

The four children, and three surviving boys, soon arrived al-Shifa hospital a few blocks away. Nothing could be done for Ahed, Zakaria, Mohammed and Mohammed Bakr. The cousins were dead.

Mads Gilbert took their picture, lying still on blue ambulance stretchers. For many, the death of the four Bakr boys evoked the memory of the four little black girls killed in the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama some 51 years earlier. 

The Israeli military would later exonerate itself, declaring the death of the boys, ages nine, 10, and 11, a “tragic accident.” The intended target, according to the statement, was a Hamas operative. The fishermen’s shacks, the military spokesman said, in fact were part of a “military compound.” Yet none of the eyewitness journalists would be interviewed for the military’s investigation. One, photographer Tyler Hicks of The New York Times, appeared to speak for many on the Gaza beach when he wrote, on the day of the killings:

A small metal shack with no electricity or running water on a jetty in the blazing seaside sun does not seem like the kind of place frequented by Hamas militants... Children, maybe four feet tall, dressed in summer clothes, running from an explosion, don’t fit the description of Hamas fighters, either.

The day after the beach attack, Gilbert recounts, the Palestinian Minister of Public Works and Housing came to the hospital to console the surviving cousins. Suddenly he began shouting and gesticulating to the crowd of assembled journalists. “This isn’t civilized,” he declared. “We’re people, not animals. We don’t want to live confined like animals with no rights. Look at what they’re doing to our children, our women, to everybody. They’re killing us. What kind of world is it we live in? What kind? I ask you journalists and I ask the world. What kind of world?”

Afterward, Gilbert chatted with the surviving Bakr cousins, handing them drawing paper, some sweets, and stickers, before saying good night and leaving the hospital. “What would have been the reaction,” he asked himself on his way down the stairs, “if Palestinian soldiers had killed four young Israeli boys playing football on a beach in Tel Aviv?”


During the war, Israel repeatedly blamed Hamas for the high Palestinian casualties, charging it with hiding weapons in schools and deliberately firing from urban areas. In July, the UN found weapons caches in three of its schools. Hundreds of Gazans also found shelter at UN schools, where dozens died and hundreds were injured in Israeli attacks.

Of the claims that Hamas deliberately launched rockets from civilian areas, Blumenthal writes that Gaza “is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, packed with refugees and devoid of open space, leaving guerilla groups with little choice but to operate within an urban maze.” He adds, “Few civilians I interviewed in Gaza had seen any fighters operating openly in their neighborhoods during the war.”


After the war, the United Nations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch attempted to enter Gaza in an effort to investigate possible war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas during the 2014 war. Israel denied them entry, so the investigations were conducted remotely. In June of 2015, a UN commission, after taking some 780 testimonies in writing or via Skype, cited “substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups. In some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes.” 

Among these were the indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas, which killed five civilians in Israel and intensified a sense of terror among an already-traumatized Israeli population. As for Israel, the UN commission found possible war crimes in its attacks on ambulances and medical personnel. More importantly for Israeli officials, the commission found that, “despite considerable information regarding the massive degree of death and destruction in Gaza,” the failure of those officials to change their war policies “raises questions about potential violations of international humanitarian law by these officials, which may amount to war crimes.”

Amnesty’s report on the Gaza war directly accused Israel of war crimes, citing “disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks on Gaza’s densely populated civilian areas as well as targeted attacks on schools sheltering civilians and other civilian buildings that the Israeli forces claimed were used by Hamas as command centres or to store or fire rockets.” The report cited the killing of 20 civilians who had taken refuge in an elementary school, and the destruction of two residential towers and a modern commercial center, “amid vague assertions that the residential buildings housed a Hamas command centre and ‘facilities linked to Palestinian militants,’” but without providing any compelling evidence or explanation why, if there were legitimate military reasons to justify the attacks, less destructive means were not selected.

“Israeli forces,” the Amnesty report concluded, “committed war crimes.” 

In a separate report, Amnesty, like the UN, also blamed Hamas, accusing it of war crimes for its “flagrant disregard for the lives of civilians by repeatedly launching indiscriminate rockets and mortars towards civilian areas in Israel.”   

Despite the shared blame, given the massive imbalance in casualties and firepower, the war crimes charges carry far greater implications for Israel. In the battle for international hearts and minds after the war, Palestinians were scoring some victories. Then, in late June 2015 in The Hague, the Palestinian Authority, which had recently joined the International Criminal Court over the protests of the US and Israel, presented a Gaza dossier to the ICC prosecutor. If the prosecutor finds sufficient evidence to move forward, a war crimes tribunal could follow. 

Whatever the outcome of these deliberations, they will not likely change the reality on the ground in Gaza any time soon.


Twenty-two years after the signing of the Oslo peace accords on the White House lawn, Israel has essentially discarded any notion of a two-state solution, regardless of official lip service to the contrary. In The 51 Day War, Blumenthal describes the current Israeli strategy as one of “perpetual occupation maintenance.” Gaza is thus under the indefinite control of Israel by air, land, and sea, existing as “a prison camp,” in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron. (Blumenthal mistakenly quotes Cameron describing Gaza as a “concentration camp,” a phrase used instead by a pro-Israeli blogger, in the same article Blumenthal apparently sourced, as an example of “deeply hostile rhetoric against Israel.”) 

Regular Israeli offensives on Gaza are part of the same “perpetual occupation” strategy. Thus when Hamas begins to build up its military capabilities, Israel makes plans for a new war — “mowing the lawn,” in the lexicon of Israeli strategic thinkers, who see no end to an intractable conflict and no chance at a peaceful resolution.

The cost of this thinking, as Blumenthal and Gilbert point out so forcefully, is in the lives of millions of Palestinians, many of whom maintain their right to freedom and to resist the conditions imposed on them — even if it means another war. “I’ll die and give [up] all my sons if that’s what we have to do to liberate Palestine,” a middle-aged woman told Blumenthal at a “victory” celebration after a ceasefire was announced on August 26th. “This is my youngest son and I’m prepared to give him up, too, if that’s what it takes.” Both books cite Palestinian sumud — steadfastness — as an unbroken trait of Gazans, however war-weary they are.

The central value in The 51 Day War and Night in Gaza lies in their honest witness to the lives of ordinary Gazans — lives most of the West considers disposable. Blumenthal and Gilbert, by getting on the ground and forcing themselves not to look away, tapped into the aspirations of ordinary Gazans who were, in the words of Blumenthal, “taking heavy losses against a nuclearized army equipped and financed by the superpowers of the West.”

The two books therefore form a powerful rejoinder to those who seek only to defend Israel, or who believe that the status quo is the best we can do. And they serve as a warning of more unknowable levels of grief and violence in the generations to come, some of which, inevitably, will reach Israel.

On his journey to visit the family of Salem Shamaly, the unarmed 23-year-old shot dead in the rubble at Shujaiya, Blumenthal met Shamaly’s younger brother, Waseem. “Tears suddenly came streaming from Waseem’s eyes,” Blumenthal writes: 

He covered his face with his hands and shook with sorrow. While his mother, Amina, and grandmother cried, the rest of the family sat in uncomfortable silence. After our interview, I approached Waseem again and asked him what he wanted to be when he came of age. He replied without pause that he planned to join the resistance. A look of intent had replaced his desolation. Waseem told me he had not considered becoming a fighter until the war came down on Shujaiya.


Sandy Tolan, author of the international best-seller The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

LARB Contributor

Sandy Tolan, author of the international best-seller, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  His new book is Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land, about one Palestinian’s dream to build a music school in the midst of Israel’s military occupation.  He is a founder of Homelands Productions, which has produced hundreds of documentaries and reports for NPR, Marketplace, and other public radio outlets. 



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