Israel did its best to keep me out of the Gaza Strip. Not just me—all international media. For two weeks, we watched from the Egyptian side of Gaza's southern border as plumes of smoke erupted from around Rafah, and the wounded trickled out, one by one, in battered Palestinian ambulances on their way to intensive care units in Cairo. Finally, in the last week of Operation Cast Lead, something gave, and the Egyptian government unexpectedly opened the gates.
I entered Gaza with a few dozen journalists and aid workers on January 16—the day after my twenty-eighth birthday. An armed drone tracked my taxi, plastered with press insignia, through the wasted streets of Rafah, and the ear-splitting sonic booms of strike fighters rattled the windows. The war was no longer a spectacle on the horizon; I was in the kill zone.
As I moved north from the heavily bombed neighborhoods near the Egyptian border, targeted for their proximity to Gaza's illegal tunnel network, toward the epicenter of the Israeli offensive in Gaza City, I was haunted by images of Stalingrad, Dresden, Hué City. Weeks of shelling had left the tiny, teeming enclave a moonscape of flattened homes and ravaged fields.
On January 18, Israel called an end to Operation Cast Lead and withdrew. What, if any, tactical or ideological gains Israel had made, however, remains unclear. Ostensibly the offensive was designed to reduce militant rocket fire against southern Israel and to cripple Hamas—the Islamic Resistance Movement—which has governed in the Gaza Strip since 2007. But Hamas retains the capability to launch rockets; its senior cadre remains intact; its smuggling tunnels are still operating; and Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped in 2006, isn't any closer to freedom—in fact, some Palestinian militants have circulated the rumor that Shalit was injured by the Israeli bombings.
Hamas, for its part, can hardly declare a tactical victory over the Israeli military (Israel lost only thirteen soldiers in the fighting, four to friendly fire), but twenty-two days of air strikes by screaming F-16s and two weeks of ground maneuvers by the Israel Defense Force's (IDF) highly trained riflemen and tankers produced nearly 1,400 martyrs for Hamas to claim. Such casualties have left Hamas stronger than ever as it has sought, in the months since the offensive, to portray Operation Cast Lead as conclusive evidence of the savagery and irrationality of the occupier.
Among young Gazans, raised on a diet of death and disappointment, this message is especially powerful. According to the Ministry of Social Affairs, 437 children under the age of sixteen were among the dead of Operation Cast Lead and nearly 1,900 more were wounded. And those are only the immediate, visible casualties. A joint Japanese and Jordanian team of doctors is treating more than a thousand children for the long-term effects of white phosphorus weapons, and the Gaza Community Mental Health Project estimates that as much as 90 percent of Gaza's youth suffer from some sort of psychological trauma. For hundreds of thousands of children, Operation Cast Lead proved what their forebears have told them all along—Israel thirsts for Palestinian blood and will stop at nothing to punish the Palestinians for the very fact of their existence.