A meeting with the CISS (Cooperazione Internazionale Sud Sud – South South International Cooperation) took place in Palermo on 14 November at the Casa della Cooperazione; present, fortunately returning from Gaza, were Jacopo Intini and Amal Khayal, head of the CISS in Gaza, and the Palestinian educator Housam Hamdouna, founder of the REC (Remedial Education Centre), who however was unable to return to Gaza.

Sergio Cipolla, president of CISS, briefly illustrates its history. The NGO aims to promote human rights and has been active for 40 years in 14 countries around the world; it has been located in the West Bank for 35 years and in the Gaza Strip since 1988. It therefore experienced the results of the first intifada, the Oslo agreements and their failure, the second intifada that followed and the countless subsequent armed attacks.

Before the construction of Netanyahu’s wall, Gaza was open and a third of its working population worked, for miserable wages, in Israel, taking a bus at 3 in the morning and returning in the evening after 8pm.

Since 2007, Hamas has governed the Gaza Strip, following regular elections, while Fatah controls the West Bank. Since 2007, Gaza has been under siege and blockade. The Israeli attacks in 2008 and 2014 were particularly ferocious. In 17 years, before 7 October [2023], there was a total of almost 6,000 casualties, compared to 12,000 in the last 40 days, since before, the army warned the population in advance, [but does] not [do it] now. Furthermore, planes and drones are incessantly present over the Palestinian skies, even over the West Bank, where there is no Hamas and where, since 7 October, 260 people have been killed and 2,000 imprisoned, while previously dozens were killed just because they went to pick olives …

The CISS projects in Gaza concerned women’s rights, the construction of a sewerage system in Khan Yunis (a city twinned with Palermo), the protection of cultural heritage (in particular, the restoration of ancient manuscripts from the Gaza mosque), a medical mobile clinic and psychological first aid from North to South of Gaza. Now we have tried to maintain at least an emergency response: psychosocial support in schools for traumatized children, money and flour for women to knead bread for displaced people, a mobile clinic that operates in two clinics for newborns and in a hospital, money to a collaborator who welcomed 100 refugees. The aid comes from an office in Egypt that is still functioning, while the center in Gaza suffered a white phosphorus bombing.

White phosphorus, Cipoalla explains, burns and does not stop burning even if you soak in water, which gives only temporary relief but does not extinguish the fire: the white powder sticks to the body and does not go out until all the flesh is consumed. After World War II its military use was banned and allowed only as an illuminating gas in areas not inhabited by civilians. But Israel continues to use it. Just as it employs bombs, in theory, banned, that explode underground, even [when buried] more than ten meters deep, causing buildings to collapse, which prevents the extraction of bodies from the rubble. For this reason, the calculation of the dead and missing today can only be approximate and limited.

Intini recalls that the army’s stated goal in the Israeli media was “to destroy as much as possible.” He continues his account. “We got out of the Gaza Strip on November 1. It was a defeat that must make us reflect on the role of humanitarian associations. From now on action will happen on scorched earth. The water problem (97 percent non-potable) has now become a lack of water. 154 UN schools are sheltering 700,000 people. 35,000 have only 14 toilets available, devoid of water. Hour-long lines must be made every morning. Obviously, respiratory diseases and diarrhea are spreading. There is no flour and the ovens have been bombed. There is a shortage of canned food. Aid (1,100 trucks) covers only the southern area on the border with Egypt. Al Shifa Hospital, the largest in the area, would need 8,000 liters of fuel a day; so far it has received only 24,000. Seven premature babies in incubators and 30 ICU patients have died due to lack of electricity. They operate on the floor, without antibiotics or anesthesia. 200 women died of cancer from not being able to reach the West Bank: there are no anticancer drugs in Gaza, only hormone treatments. Hospitals have become dehumanized, partly because they house displaced people by the thousands. We operators [of CISS] , along with a million people, had to obey the order to evacuate to the South. Too many have lost their homes and contact with loved ones: phones work intermittently and there is no internet connection (even before this attack the one allowed was only 2G). Fishermen cannot go further than 3 nautical miles from the coast (despite the 12 agreed upon). What will happen next? How will we handle this humanitarian catastrophe? A million people will be left on the streets….”

Husam Hamdouna, who has not been able to return to Gaza, having come in May for a cooperation project here in Palermo, insists on the need to place the events of Oct. 7 in a broader context of siege, in which international inaction is also complicit. “We were surprised by Hamas’ gesture” and seriously concerned about the consequences, “but we knew we were at war” since 1948 or at least 1967; this time, however, Israel’s reaction was disproportionate.

In a voice now indignant and broken with emotion, he lists rapidly a huge number of figures comparing the before and after the watershed of October 7. Here are some. Within 365 sq. km. 2 400 000 people lived, 14 000 per sq. km.; after the forced exodus southward, there are

2 000 000 in 80 sq. km., or 30 000 per sq. km. Of the 850 pre-existing schools, 246 were bombed. 22 hospital centers are out of service and 30,000 wounded cannot be treated, not to mention the chronically ill left without treatment. Post-traumatic symptoms have increased from 31 to 71 percent.

This strange war prohibits the work of international cooperation [agencies] and thus the rights of women and children cease to exist, Hamdouna continued. Governments that until now had funded development projects for Gaza now support its attack: they are destroying all the work they have done. All the work of building hope for a more dignified humanity has been destroyed, he concludes.

Amal Kayal is a beautiful woman, elegant and composed, with long black hair and a melodious voice who, without hiding her tears, speaks about herself and tells us her story in a musical English, in which personal and political are inextricable. “I am 31 years old. I was born in 1992, just before the Oslo Accords, so I lived through the false hope of a Palestinian state; I lived through the second intifada. I wanted to be a belly dancer or an actress, but the reality was harsher. When a child grows up seeing nothing but dead people, or sees her father running because the car explodes… That time I brought him water to put out the fire. I still remember the smell… I saw pieces of flesh on the garden wall–I was ten years old–I still smell the burnt flesh…

We had to leave our house, but Mom and I returned three times to get clothes and grandfather’s dentures, which we had forgotten. We had taken the dog’s bed, but we had forgotten grandfather’s dentures. While we were in the house, they started shooting white phosphorus. Mom and I ran to the car. I couldn’t breathe because of the phosphorus. My mother shouted to the driver ‘come and get us’, but he couldn’t reach us. I actually breathed white phosphorus and I’m so lucky to be able to tell you about it.

I have been working for CISS for 10 years. I believe in cooperation, but in the last forty days I have lost all faith in the international community. The first time I came to Palermo I was with a group of forty women victims of violence, with whom we had carried out three projects. I was so proud… Now I’m ashamed to look for them: I don’t know what’s left of what we did.

My nine colleagues in Gaza lost their homes; I don’t dare ask if mine is still standing. It would be a stupid question when people die.

I feel at home here: we share the same values. But it kills me to know that my grandfather, at 80 years old and with prostate cancer, has to stand in line for hours to go to the bathroom. He was undergoing hormone therapy, but for forty days he has not received any type of treatment.

I’ll tell you about some colleagues, to make you understand the situation.

Mohamed, 50, ran out of the house with his family upon hearing screams outside and after two minutes his house was bombed. They walked in the dark for two hours to reach his brother’s home as buildings collapsed around them. But the brother’s house was also hit and everyone moved with a growing crowd. For six days they ate nothing but dates, without water. And this is still a lucky example.

Another displaced friend, who moved to Al Shifa hospital, found an onion with a little salt as his only meal after three days of fasting.

Ibrahim was in the Jabalya refugee camp (50,000 people per sq. km. for a total of 14 sq. km.). The Israeli occupiers bombed 30 residential buildings under the pretext of having identified a perpetrator of Oct. 7. There were 400 deaths. Colleague Ibrahim was pulled out of the rubble with his head smashed in and immediately started digging with his bare hands in search of his three-year-old granddaughter, who was found with a broken hip and all her bones shattered. I wonder what will become of her and how she will live after the ceasefire. Of her large family only 30 are alive but wounded.

With my husband we would have liked to have children, but now I no longer want it… in this world… I couldn’t help but explain the history of the Palestinian people to my child; I couldn’t bring a child into a world where people see and do nothing.

I love my people and my land. Even under siege we lived a good life, because it is our land and we want it to be beautiful.

Someone needs to stop this massacre and you, who have more power than us at this moment, must do it. Continue to support Palestine, continue to spread correct information, because social media is supportive but newspapers are not.”

Endless applause breaks out.