Opinion | In Gaza, We Can’t Justify This Much Suffering

Opinion | In Gaza, We Can’t Justify This Much Suffering

There’s a whip-smart 10-year-old girl in Gaza who speaks good English, displays a radiant smile and seemed to have a bright future. The daughter of an X-ray technician, she had been accepted to an international exchange program and was supposed to be leaving soon.

Instead, she’s lying in a hospital bed with a badly infected wound in her thigh from a bomb blast. A photo shows a football-size open wound, with a chunk of her femur missing.

“She was supposed to be in Japan,” said Dr. Samer Attar, an orthopedic surgeon who cared for the girl and told me about her. “Now she’s lying in bed deciding whether to have her leg removed.” I’ve known Dr. Attar for a decade, ever since he volunteered to work in secret hospitals in Aleppo, Syria, to save victims of Russian bombings. A professor at Northwestern University School of Medicine, he has worked in war zones and crisis areas around the world, including Ukraine and Iraq — and recently, at hospitals in Gaza, through the medical volunteer organizations Rahma Worldwide and IDEALS.

Dr. Attar said the girl needed an amputation at the hip to save her life. Her dad, struggling to come to terms with how his and his daughter’s lives have collapsed, is resisting for now.

Over the years, I’ve covered many bloody wars and written scathingly about how governments in Russia, Sudan and Syria recklessly bombed civilians. This time, it’s different: My government is on the side engaged in what President Biden has referred to as “indiscriminate bombing.” This is not the same as deliberately targeting civilians, as those other countries did — but this time, as a taxpayer, I’m helping to pay for the bombs.

Gaza is also different from Syria and Ukraine, of course, in that Israel did not start this war. Instead, Israel was brutally attacked by Hamas in a rampage of murder, torture and rape. Any government would have struck back, and Hamas maximized the suffering of civilians by using them as human shields.

Yet military response is not a binary choice; it exists on a continuum. Israel, traumatized by the attack it suffered, elected to retaliate with 2,000-pound bombs, destroy entire neighborhoods and allow only a trickle of aid into the territory, which is now teetering on the brink of famine. The upshot is that this does not feel like a war on Hamas but rather a war on Gazans.

In November, I wrote about Mohammed Alshannat, a doctoral student in Gaza who was desperately trying to keep his children alive. I offer a sad update: One of his sons has been gravely injured.

“He is 13 years old and was injured while we were running for our lives,” Alshannat wrote in a WhatsApp message. “I had to carry him bleeding under heavy artillery shelling for two hours. I found a doctor who was sheltering in a school, and he took a risk and saved my son’s life.”

“He went through a complicated surgery later and still unable to walk. He is very sick and suffers from malnutrition,” Alshannat wrote.

How can Alshannat’s American friends face him and his son after the war?

Many Americans are conflicted about the war. They may keep quiet rather than enter a debate that is bitter and polarizing and may cost friendships, or they may avert their eyes. But the great Elie Wiesel described indifference as “the most insidious danger of all” and observed, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”

The suffering of children — and half of Gazans are children — should particularly concern us. UNICEF estimates that in the chaos of war and displacement, at least 17,000 children in Gaza are unaccompanied or separated from their parents.

Two teenage brothers with mangled bodies haunt Dr. Attar. One boy had his leg amputated at the hip; he died on the operating table as the anesthesiologist wept. The other, who had lost much of the skin on his body, survived overnight but died in the morning.

The hospitals were short of nearly everything, Dr. Attar said, and patients spent weeks on the floor waiting in great pain for care. A woman’s screaming lingers in his ears: She was pleading for help for her husband, whose wounds had been untreated for a week in the chaos of the hospital, and maggots were crawling in the flesh.

Some will blame all this on Hamas: If it had not attacked Israeli civilians, there would be no Israeli bombing. That’s true, but to me it seems an evasion of moral responsibility. Israel and America have agency, and the atrocities suffered by Israeli civilians do not justify the leveling of Palestinian neighborhoods.

President Biden should search his soul: He excoriates Russia for bombing civilians and undermining the rules-based international order, even as we supply bombs that can wipe out neighborhoods in Gaza, even as we give diplomatic cover to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while Gazans face looming starvation.

Biden has suspended funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, which is responsible for delivering assistance to Gazans — without outlining any viable alternative plan to distribute aid. He is right to be outraged that a dozen UNRWA staff members (out of 13,000 employees) allegedly participated in the Oct. 7 attacks, and it’s good that the U.N. promptly fired those workers.

Still, if UNRWA is unable to function because of the suspended funding, Gazan children will die.

It would be unconscionable if Hamas terrorists sheltered in the ranks of a U.N. agency. And it would be unconscionable if children end up starving as a result of our actions — even as we tell ourselves we’re taking the moral high ground.

Decisions about waging war are wrenching because, invariably, innocent civilians suffer. This requires a calculus of strategic gain versus human cost. People will weigh the trade-offs differently, but let’s resist the tendency to otherize those of different races, faiths and ethnicities. When we are caught in a conflict, we tend to dehumanize the other side; we can fight that impulse by asserting our shared humanity and recognizing that all lives have equal value.

One life, as precious as that of any American or Israeli child, belongs to a bright 10-year-old girl in Gaza who should be excitedly planning a trip to Japan. Instead, she smiles bravely through excruciating pain and must endure an amputation if her life is to be saved — and we Americans should face our complicity in her tragedy and all Gaza’s.

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